Ulster Academy lock Joe Hopes is eager to step up and become a leader with the Ireland Under-20 Men (sponsored by PwC) this season, having earned his first two caps during the successful 2022/23 campaign.
He came off the bench to make his Ireland U-20 debut during last March’s Grand Slam-clinching win over England, and played the full 80 minutes against Fiji at the summer’s World Rugby U-20 Championship in South Africa.
The 19-year-old, who made his Ulster senior bow away to Connacht in November, is a versatile, athletic forward who can also line out in the back row. He featured at blindside flanker in the Ireland U-20s’ recent warm-up win over Italy.
Understandably given their physical profile and playing style, he spoke of his admiration for current Ireland international Ryan Baird and Munster’s towering Tom Ahern, who was called into Andy Farrell’s senior squad as a training panellist before an untimely injury.
The 6ft 6in Hopes explained how he wants to emulate their performances in the future, saying: “Tom Ahern, I remember when he was with the Under-20s, someone told me that he moved from full-back to second row and I was playing fullback at the time.
“Someone told me to watch him, that he transferred to second row. I remember him scoring a try, he was really fast for how big he is.
“I do look up to him and he has been playing six recently and doing well. And then Ryan Baird as well, both players that I aspire to be like.”
The 2022 Ulster Schools Player of the Year, who helped Campbell College to reach the senior final two years ago, is one of seven players from the province that made the cut for Richie Murphy’s 31-strong squad for the U-20 Six Nations.
He is joined by fellow Ulster prospects, prop Jacob Boyd, hooker Henry Walker, back rowers Josh Stevens and Bryn Ward, centre Rory Ellerby, and winger/full-back Ethan Graham.
Hopes is one of only three players in the current Ireland U-20 squad that have senior provincial experience, alongside Munster duo Brian Gleeson and Ben O’Connor. Indeed, both Gleeson and O’Connor have played Champions Cup rugby in recent weeks.
Being involved and getting high level game-time alongside seasoned provincial campaigners can really help to develop a young player in the early stages of their career.
Recalling the excitement of that match week when he won his first Ulster cap in Galway, Hopes explained: “Came off the back of the (U-20) World Cup and I played against Fiji, maybe didn’t get as many minutes as I wanted but it was good to be a part of the group.
“I came back to Ulster and was just getting back up to the speed of things. There were a few injuries, and I was training well with the seniors.
“I had a pre-season game, got 20 minutes, did okay and then Dan (McFarland) basically came up and told me that I would be on the bench (for the Connacht match).
“I was very excited, it was a great experience in an interprovincial derby, a big test physically. But I hope to get more and take it into the Under-20s (as the season goes on).”
When any promising youngsters gain exposure to elite, high performance programmes, their progression often accelerates. In the last six months, Hopes agrees that even things like your pre-match preparation goes up another level in these environments.
Since coming out of school it is a big jump physically and the game changes a lot, especially in the front five, so just playing club rugby is harder. It is more physical, you are playing against older boys and I have had to adapt to that.
“I have put on more size and then coming into Under-20s I have learned a lot through lineout and just prepping for really big games. The amount of detail that goes into it is different to a school or club game.
“The Ulster-Connacht game I played, the amount of detail (was huge), but it feels better on match day once you get there. You have done all this and you are ready to go.”
The Ireland Under-20s had a mixed bag of results during the festive period. Their first and only win came against Six Nations rivals Italy, while they were beaten by a Munster Development selection, and then a strong second half comeback earned them a draw with the Leinster Development XV.
The trio of challenge matches presented the U-20 coaching team, which now includes Ian Keatley as the new backs coach, with the opportunity to run the rule over plenty of players, test out combinations, and work on building team and squad depth.
“We did well against Italy, last year we would have lost that (warm-up) fixture. We won this year, our attack was very good, and we are just working on our defence.
“A few things to fix up in lineout and scrum but I think it will come over time. We are getting there, getting to a good place,” acknowledged Hopes, speaking at the recent Ireland U-20 squad announcement at PwC headquarters in Dublin.
Ireland’s first challenge in the defence of their U-20 Six Nations crown could not be more difficult. They make the trip to face reigning World champions France at Stade Maurice David in Aix-en-Provence this Saturday (kick-off 9.10pm local time/8.10pm Irish time).
They were the only team to beat Murphy’s young guns last season, which came in July’s World Rugby U-20 Championship final. Hopes takes encouragement from Ireland’s 2022 U-20 Grand Slam-winning team that triumphed at the same venue two years ago.
“Obviously it’s a big test, but I am really excited for it. I hear it will be a good atmosphere. Reuben Crothers played there (two years ago) and they won away,” he added.
Tickets for the Ireland U-20s’ home matches at Virgin Media Park in Cork are available to purchase now via Ticketmaster.ie. They have three Friday Night Lights clashes with Italy (February 9), Wales (February 23), and Scotland in the final round on March 15.