Tom Ahern is making the leaps and bounds you might expect from a long-striding 6ft 9ins lock but the Munster second row’s progress through Ireland’s age-grade ranks is just as impressive as his performance levels.
For a player who watched last year’s run to Ireland’s U20s Grand Slam from afar, the 19-year-old has wasted little time earning a place in this season’s leadership group as Noel McNamara’s class of 2020 prepare for the Six Nations campaign.
A call-up to last summer’s U20 World Cup in Argentina gave Ahern his first taste of life at this level and the Munster academy man — who made his senior debut in pre-season — is now counting down to the opening Six Nations fixture against Scotland in Musgrave Park on Friday night.
“I got a late call-up for the World Cup last year, so I got four caps for the 20s,” Ahern said.“So I got a bit of a taste for it last year.”
This may be Ahern’s first U20 Six Nations but as one of only seven players from last year’s group, the Waterford forward has taken on a more senior role in a squad with plenty of fresh faces.
“I’ve been named in the leadership group along with six other fellas, so it is a bigger role and I’ll be leading from the front. It starts with us and hopefully trickles down to the rest of the squad. I noticed it’s all the other big fellas, like Dave (McCann) is there, the captain, TC (vice-captain Thomas Clarkson) is there, so it means a lot to me.”
Ahern describes his leadership qualities as coming from an instinctive, actions rather than words, approach. “I like to lead from the front on the pitch and off the pitch I’d save my words.”
Ahern’s playing career started out across the Blackwater estuary with Youghal Rugby Club’s minis before returning to his native Waterford to come up through the ranks at Waterpark RFC.
He now looks forward to further experience in the Energia All-Ireland League with Shannon but his roots are a source of pride as he follows a route carved out by fellow Waterpark man Jack O’Donoghue.
I do take a bit of pride in that because obviously it’s not very common, but Jack, I aspire to, seeing him come up through the different age-grades and stuff like that, it gave me a little kick and I wanted to take after him.
“As soon as I got into the first year of the academy, straight away, he brought me for a chat, we went for a coffee. He gave me his phone number and any time I have anything to say about rugby, I just give him a call.”
O’Donoghue is not the only influence within the Munster senior ranks on Ahern’s academy career, which he combines with a Food Science and Health degree at the University of Limerick.
“I’m into my second year now. This year was a bit different, I was with the seniors for the full pre-season during the World Cup. It was unbelievable. Just learning off the likes of Billy Holland, Darren O’Shea — people like that.
When the internationals are off, it gives us opportunities to be around those fellas and it’s superb because you learn so much.