When you are a young Munster lock, the long shadows of former greats are always towering over you but Tom Ahern appears to be embracing the knowledge of heroes past and present in his efforts to make a mark in the Reds’ second row.
Whether it is the advice offered by Paul O’Connell during a week in Ireland’s Six Nations training camp earlier this year, to the technical lineout detail imparted by Billy Holland or the current set-piece think tank populated by Tadhg Beirne and Fineen Wycherley, the 22-year-old from Waterford is welcoming the opportunity to enhance his game and contribute to the Munster cause.
Ahern looks set to continue his impressive run of form that repeated selection has helped him achieve following a series of niggling injuries over the previous season when Munster travel back to Dublin’s Aviva Stadium this Saturday evening to face arch rivals Leinster in the final game of the United Rugby Championship league season.
Victory is crucial to Munster’s ambition of a home quarter-final at Thomond Park on June 4 and the avoidance of an away tie that has so often halted the title ambitions of Johann van Graan’s squad in recent seasons.
Given Ahern’s contribution to the province’s upturn in form over the last six weeks, Munster look well placed to finally give a good account of themselves in what has been a troublesome and demoralising derby fixture. The 6ft 9ins second row emerged from the academy last summer with the pace of a back and the experience of a successful Ireland U20 campaign that was prematurely halted by the Covid shutdown in 2020. He is now a more rounded player, comfortable with ball in hand and passing out of contact and developing his lineout calling, something he took to the next level in the latter stages of the heart-breaking European quarter-final defeat to Toulouse last time out 13 days ago.
“I was lucky enough last year, I had Billy Holland who’s a good man to help me out with lineouts and a couple of lads this year now, Tadhg Beirne and Fineen Wycherley,” Ahern said this week. “We’re always bouncing ideas off each other and helping each other with that aspect of the game. It’s definitely a big work on for me at the moment. Graham Rowntree has been a massive help with that as regards my game, that kind of tight work around my scrum, my mauling, my rucking and stuff like that. It’s been a big focus.”
An invitation from Ireland head coach Andy Farrell to a week with the Six Nations squad training at the IRFU High Performance Centre in Dublin earlier this year also brought Ahern into O’Connell’s orbit.
“Paul O’Connell is an iconic figure and it was class to get a bit of experience with him and have a bit of a chat.
“It was an unbelievable experience. All the lads were very good and very good to pass on detail and stuff. It was kind of seamless to help me acclimatise for the week and it was class, to be honest.”
Ahern is no different in wanting another taste of life in the most elite of company but he is keeping any thoughts of a possible call-up for Ireland’s summer tour to New Zealand private. "I’m not concentrating on anything other than Munster at the moment.”
There is plenty in that to occupy his time right now of course. A place in the URC last eight is in the bag but a home quarter-final draw is vital to hopes in the province of a first trophy since 2011. That means defeating Leinster in Dublin tomorrow night and claiming second place behind them in the final standings.
"We can only control what we can control. We've got to turn up, put our best foot forward and put in a performance.
"I'm not going to say we can change much. The last time in Thomond Park (on April 2), we did give up a lot of mistakes and gave them some easy access into the game. But if we just look after our own performance this week I think we'll nail them.”