Exposure to the Energia All-Ireland League’s top flight has helped Alex Usanov to break into the Ireland Under-20 Men’s squad at the age of 18. Tonight he makes his second successive U-20 Six Nations start against Italy.
Just a few short months after completing his Leaving Cert exams and turning 18 in the summer, Usanov made his Division 1A bow for Clontarf against Dublin University in October. He added six more appearances, and his first senior try, before Christmas.
The up-and-coming loosehead prop started playing rugby in Malahide RFC before lining out for Belvedere College in the Leinster Schools Junior and Senior Cups. His first Ireland involvement was with the Under-18 Clubs & Schools squad last season.
Notably, Usanov, Henry Walker, and Billy Corrigan, who all featured for the U-18 Clubs & Schools side against Italy last April, are in the U-20 matchday squad to play the Azzurrini at Virgin Media Park tonight (kick-off 7.15pm – live on Virgin Media Two). Tickets are available here.
With this his first of potentially two years at U-20 international level, Usanov said that the five returning players from last year, including newly-appointed captain Evan O’Connell, have really helped this mostly new group to settle in.
They have shared their experiences from the successful 2023 campaign, which has proved invaluable and ensured that the debutants were able to stay calm and focused and quickly find their rhythm in a hostile atmosphere against France.
“All the five lads have been great with advice, helping out wherever they can,” explained Usanov. “‘Gleese’ (Brian Gleeson) obviously came in late because he was with Munster, but as soon as he came in he was offering a hand, bringing some of that senior experience that he has.
“Same with Evan O’Connell, the captain. He just helps out, especially with the lineouts which would be his forte. If you need something, he’s there to chat with you.
“Hugh Gavin, you saw how well he played (against France). He’s always giving advice. I had a chat with him before the game because I was a bit nervous going out. He was just talking to me and talking to the group about what to expect, that stuff is really valuable.”
Last season Usanov was part of the Level 2 pathway of the IRFU’s National Talent Squad (NTS) programme (supported by PwC), like many of his current U-20 team-mates. Two of them start alongside him this evening in the front row, Jacob Boyd and U-20 debutant Stephen Smyth.
The Ireland and Italy Under-20s played a warm-up match against each other at the UCD Bowl before Christmas, with Richie Murphy’s charges emerging as 35-29 winners thanks to first half tries from Finn Treacy, Bryn Ward, Wilhelm de Klerk, Gavin, and Ethan Graham.
One of the Italians’ biggest strengths during that Belfield clash was their scrum. They won a number of penalties at the set-piece in the second half, and Usanov admits that Ireland have put an emphasis on that area of the game in the last few weeks.
Italy are known for having an unbelievable scrum, we knew that going in. I thought we built the pressure well, they just did it a bit better especially in that second half. They went through us a bit better, maybe we kind of switched off.
“To be honest, we’ve worked so much on our scrum over these past few months. We’ve been doing loads with Aaron Dundon (pictured below), who is an unbelievable coach. We’re ready and we’re looking forward to it.”
Meanwhile, as a recent addition to the Ireland U-20 coaching ticket, Ian Keatley is enjoying being involved in the set-up. He retired from playing in 2021, finishing his career with Glasgow Warriors after stints with Benetton Treviso and London Irish, having left Munster in 2019.
“Absolutely loving it,” admitted Keatley, who has replaced Mark Sexton as the Ireland U-20s’ attack coach. “It’s great to work with so many young, aspiring lads who just want to learn and get better.
“They’ve seen the success of the 20s in the past and they just want their own success and to go on their own journey.
“It’s a great environment to be in and then also working with Richie and all the other coaches, like Willie Faloon, Aaron Dundon, and the backroom staff behind that. It’s a class set-up.
“People think that because we won the U-20 Grand Slam last year, it’s a formality. But there’s around 25 new players to the group, with five or so returning from last year. It’s a good mix, and we have five or six U-19 guys there.
“There’s a good blend, and hopefully those U-19s play U-20s next year, and then you have a knock-on effect, the experienced lads. We saw how the five experienced lads contributed last weekend in France.”
The Dublin-born former out-half was an U-20 Six Nations Grand Slam winner as a player himself back in 2007, before going on to win seven senior caps for Ireland between 2009 and 2017.
He was a playmaker on the pitch, versatile too with the ability to also operate as a centre or full-back, and is keen to continue his development as a coach. He has been the Munster Men’s Provincial Talent Coach since last summer, based at their High Performance Centre in Limerick.
Responsible for the delivery of the National Talent Development programme (U-16 to U-20) within the province, Keatley has previous experience coaching Munster underage teams, Glenstal Abbey at schools level, and UL Bohemians in Division 2A of the Men’s All-Ireland League.
Coaching was always a side of the game he wanted to get involved in, with the 36-year-old noting: “I always thought I wanted to be a good coach. Even as a player or even as a number 10, you’re kind of a coach on the pitch anyway.
“I always thought I had a good way about myself. I was always trying to help other players. Firstly, to get them better, but probably to make me look better as well! I always found it interesting.
Coaching, it’s a tough gig. There’s long hours, a lot of unseen work. It’s not just the stuff that you do on the pitch. There’s a lot of analysis, preparation, team sessions. There’s a lot of trying to reduce the thinking for the player.
“To try and make it as simple as possible for a player, but to do that you have to go deep and you have to take out what’s really needed for the player. If you give the player too much information, their mind is going to get clogged.
“It’s actually a skill in itself, how to present to a player and try to show him the three or four key bits that are going to make the difference for each match or each week, or each training session.”