“The best experience of my life,” gushed a beaming Joe Dunleavy after making his senior Ulster debut in a special fixture against Uruguay at Kingspan Stadium, Belfast, on Friday night.
The Letterkenny native and former City of Derry star was one of several of the Abbey Insurance Ulster Academy who were getting their first run outs with the senior side in the uncapped game. It was a winning start, Ulster taking the honours 21-5 against the touring South Americans who are building towards next year’s World Cup finals in Japan.
Heavy rain had left its mark with the underfoot conditions difficult and while it remained dry for the match, the opportunity to play expansive rugby was limited.
Tries from captain and hooker, Adam McBurney, with two conversions from out-half, Johnny McPhillips, gave Ulster a 14-0 lead at the break.
That was stretched to 21-0 by back-row forward Marcus Rea, who crossed for another good forward’s try, McPhillips again converting.
Just as they had in the first half, Uruguay edged their way into the encounter as the clock wore on, and eventually broke their duck on 70 minutes with the quick mind – and hands – of replacement Manuel Ardao to thank, as the hooker scooped the ball backwards for his wing Gaston Mieres to score just as he was dragged into touch.
One of the stand-out features from the game was the way the Ulster pack had, on the whole, dominated the physical Uruguayans and the Co. Donegal man Dunleavy played his part in that.
The blindside loose forward had initially been named on the bench but received an extra lift 24 hours before the game when the withdrawal of both Matt Dalton and Jonah Man’u saw him promoted to the starting team.
“I was happy with that, of course,” said the former Ireland Under-20 international, but I felt bad for Matty too.
“I was buzzing to get onto the pitch, I just could not wait for it to start.
“I was waiting all day, I didn’t know what to do with myself.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life. I really enjoyed it.
“Even if I only got 40 minutes, it was a big learning experience for me, especially when you are playing against an international team that is going to the World Cup. It probably went beyond my expectations of how tough it really was. It was a big eye opener, but it was good,” added Dunleavy who now plays his club rugby with Malone in AIL Division 1B.
Dunleavy had been a prominent member of the Ulster ‘A’ squad which competed in the inaugural Celtic Cup, but he admitted this was another step up.
“The speed of the game, and then the conditions, really made it difficult.
“I think we coped well and obviously having Johnny McPhillips and Johnny Stewart on the pitch really helped, organising the team and getting boys working on the pitch.
“It was a really good performance and it was enjoyable.”
Going toe-to-toe with an international pack and coming out on top was pleasing for the youngster.
“They had a massive pack. They probably backed themselves on their mauls and scrum.
“To hold them out and not let them into many mauls or give away penalties was big.
“We had 100 per cent line-out success and to maul them really well in the way we did, was a really big step for us.
“Our pack’s average age was 20 or 21, I think that is huge. It gives a lot of guys confidence.
“To take a team on at what they are good at, physicality wise, that is massive for us.”
For all intents and purposes, taking in the Celtic Cup and this fixture, it is five wins out of five for the Ulster side and there is the feeling something special is building amongst the group .
“Definitely,” agreed Dunleavy, “If you look at our squad, the average age group is around 19 or 20.
“We can take a lot of confidence from it. There were guys who stepped up to that level.
“Some of the guys, it was their first year out of school, like David McCann, it was massive to see him get on and put in a really good shift. I think this is a special group but it has been building for the last four or five years.
“A lot of people don’t see what the coaches do behind the scenes, the regional sessions that build these guys up and then filter them into the squad. There is a lot of work being done but it has paid off and you are going to see a lot more of the squad coming through.”
While the attendance may not have been close to a normal crowd for an Ulster home game, there was still a strong support and Dunleavy reckoned all of Donegal were there.
“I think I had all of Donegal here watching,” he laughed, “I am surprised they made it in the weather.
“It was nice to see them after the game and they had the chance to see me on the pitch. It was very special seeing my mum after the game, someone who put a lot of work in, taking me up to training every day, doing all that stuff with me. Getting to see her after the game really makes it worthwhile. It means you want to go even further and keep pushing on.
“Once you get a taste of the first game you just want to get back to hearing the crowd, even if it was not the biggest tonight, it was probably one of the biggest I have played in front of and you just want to do it again. It was a really enjoyable experience.”