Making his Ireland Under-20 debut against France on Saturday night is just the latest in a list of milestone achievements in the sporting career of electric full-back/winger Ben O’Connor.
When most young players leave school they make a gradual transition into the senior rugby ranks, but for O’Connor, who won a Munster Schools Senior Cup with PBC Cork last March, he has been thrown right in at the deep end.
Since joining the Munster Academy last summer, the 19-year-old has made four appearances off the bench for the province. He made his BKT United Rugby Championship debut against the Dragons in November, followed by a 14-minute cameo the following week at Ulster.
He has also played in his first two Investec Champions Cup games, getting over an hour under his belt at full-back against Bayonne, before being sent on as a late replacement during the second round defeat to Exeter Chiefs.
This weekend he dons the number 15 jersey for the Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC) as they get their U-20 Six Nations campaign under way against World champions France. He was asked if he can put into words how much it means to get his first cap at this level.
“Not really to be honest. It’s an honour,” admitted O’Connor. “During the week I was up with my grandparents and talking to them about it, it was amazing to see how much it means to them that I’m playing for Ireland.
“Representing them on the pitch means a lot to me. The dream is to start and hopefully kick on with it. It’s very exciting.”
Richie Murphy’s young guns have been preparing for their eagerly-anticipated opener with France for a couple of months now. O’Connor played in all three warm-up games over the festive period, and is itching for kick-off in Aix-en-Provence.
“I’m buzzing for it now. The last few weeks have been building up massively towards it. Around the group there’s a lot of energy. It will be a tough battle on Saturday night.”
O’Connor has always been a gifted sportsman. He won two All-Ireland Hurling Championship medals with his native Cork, captaining the minor team to the title in 2021, and featuring at centre-back in the Under-20s’ successful run last year.
He knows the feelings you get on a big match day very well. He has dealt with those nerves before and is hoping his Cork hurling experience, together with his recent involvement with the Munster senior side, will stand him in good stead for what is to come over the next six weeks.
“It all comes back to just experience in those games, just having lived the moment before. It could be completely different now on Saturday, but I’ll always go back to how I acted in those games,” explained the UCC clubman.
“If I could improve on them after the game, I would have tried to improve on the next big occasion and just try and show that then.”
It is not often that players get the opportunity to play Champions Cup rugby for their province being getting capped at Under-20 international level. It speaks volumes about how highly regarded O’Connor is.
Another exciting Munster back who progressed down a similar path to him was 2022 U-20 Grand Slam winner Patrick Campbell, who played twice for Munster in the Champions Cup, against Wasps and Castres Olympique, before making his Ireland U-20 bow a couple of months later.
The 6ft 2in O’Connor felt the physicality that French teams can bring during his 62-minute run-out against Bayonne in December. He believes getting exposed to that level of competition and intensity so early on with Munster will only benefit him heading into the U-20 Six Nations.
It’s massive. The experience was unbelievable for me to learn more. The lads in Munster are so good for helping you out and teaching you. The players, the coaching staff.
“Just playing against players at that level would give me a lot of confidence going into the game on Saturday.”
Schools rugby is more often than not the breeding ground for these young talents to not only flourish as athletes, but also to fall in love with the sport itself during their time at second level. Pres head coach Ger Burke has been one of the biggest influences on O’Connor’s rugby development.
He is keeping a close eye as they defend their Munster crown this season, and said: “I absolutely loved playing schools rugby for Pres under Ger Burke. The system we had and the freedom we had in the system, it just let us come into our own as rugby players.
“I was at their game against Crescent the other day as well, and they’re flying it this season.”
It has certainly been a whirlwind three months for the former Ireland Under-18 and Under-19 international, and that is just the start of it. O’Connor is not taking anything for granted, as he looks to fulfil his ambitions with this hungry U-20 squad.
“It has been a dream. I just need to keep kicking on really. I’ve loved every single minute of it and I’m just trying to take in everything that is going on and live the moment,” 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.