Conall named Ulster Youth Player of Year

CITY of Derry’s Ireland Under-18 centre, Conall Doherty, capped a memorable season for both himself and his club when he was named “Youth Player of the Year” at Ulster Rugby’s Gala Awards Dinner in Belfast on Monday - less than five years after he took up the sport!

MICHAEL WILSON reports

The 17-year-old Culmore student received his award alongside South African International, Ruan Pienaar, who was named senior ‘Player of the Year’ and he admitted it was quite an unusual experience to mix with Ulster and Irish stars such as Stephen Ferris and Rory Best.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I travelled to the event but I’m delighted with the award,” admitted Conall.

“The whole thing was a bit surreal considering the sort of names that were there. It was a great evening. I went to get a picture taken with Stephen Ferris but when I went over to ask him, he already knew who I was and was asking how I was getting on. That was crazy.

“Rory Best was another player I was talking to and (Ulster coach) Brian McLaughlin was also congratulating me and asking how I was getting on. It’s nice to know people like that know what you’re doing.”

The plush surroundings of Belfast’s five-star Culloden Hotel were lifetime away from Conall’s modest beginning in the game at Lumen Christi College where some friends talked the then Steelstown Under-14 Gaelic footballer into trying his hand at rugby.

“I only started playing at the end of Second Year, when I was about 13. Some friends had been playing with the school and enjoyed going out to train at Judges Road, so I decided to give it a try. I owe a lot to City of Derry who have been great to me and especially to Malcolm Burns. He has coached me through the under 16s, 17s and 19s. I have learned a lot from him.”

Even with Conall’s obvious ability, he admits his meteoric rise to an Irish debut against Germany at the end of March surprised even him.

Vice-captain of City of Derry Under 17s, Conall was selected for the Ulster Regional Development Squad at 16 from where he joined the Ulster Under 18 Youth side, winning four caps in the 2009/10 season.

The Derry teenager graduated to the Under 18 set-up this season, being named Ulster captain at the Campbell College Rugby Festival last summer. He completed this year’s inter-provincials as vice-captain and won a further 4 caps. With his reputation enhanced, Conall was invited to Ireland trials which, as he explained, were far from plain sailing.

“I was with the Ulster-18 squad when I was selected to attend the Ireland trials. I came through the initial selections but was cut when the squad was trimmed to 30. That was devastating, but the coaches told me to stay positive, they were still keeping an eye on me and things could change quickly. Thankfully they did because I was called back into the squad a few weeks later.

“Even when the squad was at 30, every player knew the match squad for the three internationals would be 23 so there were no guarantees. To complicate matters I discovered my passport was outdated which meant I had to travel to Dublin three times in one week in a desperate attempt to make sure I had it ready in case I was picked. Ironically the day I finally sorted out my passport was the day I learned I was in the 23 which was a great relief.”

With games against Germany, England and France now on the horizon, Conall faced the step up to the international scene, something he will not forget.

“I was delighted to be selected but the step up from Provincial to International rugby was ridiculously big and a huge challenge for me. I think it was a mental challenge as much as a physical one because I suddenly had to get my head round playing with these international players and the standards are so high.”

Despite suddenly being thrust onto the international scene, the progression seemed a natural one with Conall actually getting among the try scorers on his debut against Germany in a 54-0 victory.

“The Germany game was a fantastic experience. The year before the Germans, who have an excellent youth set-up, had won 22-10 and our coaches warned us not to take them lightly. The fact we went out with the right attitude really helped us and it was nice to get amongst the scorers.”

A draw with England and an historic victory in France in front of 4,500 spectators followed as Conall, who is hoping to study at UCD next year, cemented his place at No. 13.

“The England game was frustrating. They were a huge team but we came out and really took it to them, destroyed them up front and led 17-0 at half-time.

“I came off at that point as the coaches wanted to shift things about, but England came back at us. It was very frustrating to watch from the sidelines and I think the fact we had had such a good result against Germany and then were leading 17-0 meant we thought we had it in the bag and relaxed which you can’t afford at that level.

“We improved again against France though which was a great result in front of so many people, the first time we had defeated France away at the age group. It was a great experience.”

Despite being the only Ulster representative on the Irish panel Conall claimed he was not expecting Monday’s accolade but agreed that it was a nice way to end the season.

“I never imagined all this would happen as quickly as it has, but I’m enjoying playing and the award was a great way to end a great season,” he concluded.