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New Ireland U-20 Captain O’Connell Took A Lot From ‘Playing Up An Age’ Last Year

New Ireland U-20 Captain O’Connell Took A Lot From ‘Playing Up An Age’ Last Year

Second row Evan O'Connell will captain the Ireland Under-20 Men for the first time against France in Aix-en-Provence this weekend ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Within the space of 24 hours earlier this month, two Munster players were unveiled as the new captains of the Ireland senior and Under-20 Men’s teams ahead of their respective Guinness Six Nations Championships.

Evan O’Connell was announced as the new Ireland Under-20 captain at the launch in PwC headquarters in Dublin, while the 101 times-capped Peter O’Mahony was confirmed as Andy Farrell’s new skipper when the 34-player senior squad was released the following day.

Leadership is a trait that comes hand in hand with the O’Connell name in Irish Rugby. The 19-year-old Evan is the son of Justin, a former UL Bohemian RFC player, and a nephew of Paul, the ex-Munster, Ireland and British & Irish Lions captain who is busy preparing for the Ireland senior side’s own Six Nations title defence as their forwards coach.

While his uncle was undoubtedly one of Evan’s inspirations growing up, he also looked up to O’Mahony whose success he hopes to emulate in both the red of Munster and the green of Ireland.

“My favourite player growing up was probably Peter O’Mahony, to be honest. A great leader, a great player, and I’m extremely lucky I get a chance to train with him (at Munster) at the moment,” he said.

“It’s incredible to learn off a fella like that, who has experienced it all and is one of the best players in the world. He is very kind and actually wants people to come to him (for advice). He’s very good in that regard.”

The Munster Academy lock, who is 6ft 7in and weighs over 17 stone, has captained a number of teams through the years. From the Junior and Senior Cup teams in Castletroy College to the Ireland Under-19s for two matches against France last April.

When he got the call from head coach Richie Murphy to step up as captain of this season’s Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC), it was a proud day for both himself and his family.

“They were ecstatic. My dad was actually in America with work and I couldn’t get through to him. He eventually rang me back and didn’t know what was going on! I told him and he was over the moon for me,” he explained.

When his father saw the missed calls, he worried there might be an emergency, but he got a pleasant surprise with news of Evan’s captaincy appointment.

Asked what sort of captain he is, he replied: “I’d like to think I’d be very approachable as a captain and a fella who you can lean on. I wouldn’t have learned that without those experiences before.

“I’m able to express myself if I am happy or not happy with something. Just being able to manage and deal with players. I feel like I can motivate my players and motivate them by playing well as well.”

O’Connell is one of five returning players who were involved in last season’s terrific U-20 Six Grand Slam-winning campaign. Murphy’s youngsters went on to reach the final of the World Rugby U-20 Championship in South Africa in July.

The Limerick native made his Ireland U-20 debut off the bench against Wales twelve months ago, and chalked up a total of four appearances during the U-20 Six Nations – including a first start against Scotland – before only turning 19 in May.

He picked up five more caps at the World Rugby U-20 Championship, starting the pool clashes with England and Fiji. Also coming back for their second stint with Ireland at this age-grade are Brian Gleeson and Joe Hopes, who have been capped at senior level by Munster and Ulster respectively.

Cork Constitution hooker Danny Sheahan and Connacht prospect Hugh Gavin are on board too for a second season with the Ireland U-20s. O’Connell knows they will be able to share the lessons learned from last season to help this largely new U-20 group to settle in.

“There are a lot of experiences from last year. A lot of game management stuff, driving standards in training on and off the pitch, I can take a lot from that.

“For me playing up an age last year I wouldn’t have known the lads much, but by the end we became very close. I feel like with this group, I have played with this group from Under-18s and Under-19s so we know each other very well.

“I feel like that bond is almost already formed. I feel like we’re in quite a good spot at the moment,” he admitted, speaking ahead of Saturday night’s U-20 Six Nations opener against France in Aix-en-Provence (kick-off 9.10pm local time/8.10pm Irish time – live on Virgin Media Two).

His own club, UL Bohs, have produced some improved performances and results so far in 2023/24. They currently sit fourth in Energia All-Ireland League Men’s Division 2A.

O’Connell, who started playing rugby at Bohs from the age of four, has got some consistent game-time in UL colours over the last number of months. He clearly enjoys playing for a club which means so much to his family.

“My dad is a UL Bohs man so I would have played there with the minis. My dad coached me all the way up to Under-18s. He is still involved in the club and is a massive Bohs man so I think he’s proud I’m still playing for Bohs and contributing as much as I can for them.

“It’s great. I grew up in Bohs and watching AIL games, watching the likes of Ian Condell growing up. He coached me in Senior Cup and now playing with him is pretty special. Every game in the AIL is another learning for me, they are all great experiences that help me,” 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.