There can be no two ways about it; it’s been a tough year in Tiger town. But one highlight in a topsy-turvy campaign has been the development of Joe Heyes, understudy to England tighthead prop Dan Cole.
The Nottingham-born front-rower, recently named in the England Under-20s squad for this summer’s World Junior Championships in Argentina, only made his first-team debut away to Wasps in Round 3 of the Gallagher Premiership in September and has gone on to feature more than 20 times in Leicester colours this season.
“I’m excited to be part of it.”Joe Heyes
Each of those appearances has helped the 20-year-old to develop into a regular member of the matchday squad, where Heyes says he has learned ‘resilience’ above all else.
“For me, it hasn’t really been an easy first season in first-team rugby,” he admits. “It’s been difficult for the team and I think I’ve learned a bit of resilience really. You learn a lot about how to handle yourself.
“This season has been helpful – even though it hasn’t been helpful for the club – for my personal development.”
With international tightheads Gaston Cortes and David Feao out of action with injury for parts of the campaign, Heyes has been thrust into Premiership and European rugby in what has been a breakthrough season.
“I set targets at the start of the season - one of them was just to play in a Prem game,” he says with a smile.
“Last Saturday was my 22nd appearance for the club, and I’ve been very lucky to get opportunities to play.
“I’ve just turned 20, so it’s all been a bit of a rollercoaster.”
Indeed it has, considering Heyes only started playing rugby less than six years ago after converting from football, in which he was good enough to make it into the Nottingham Forest academy.
“My mum got me into rugby,” he explains. “When I left the Forest academy there was a rugby club across the road and I thought I’d give it a go. She would drive me to training every day.
“Ever since I started playing, I always thought Dan Cole was the player to look up to and it’s exciting to watch him and train against him, to try to copy some of the stuff he does.
“I’ve worked on my scrummaging a lot – it’s obviously a big thing for a young tighthead – and that’s one thing that I’ve been focusing on.
“I’ve been trying to get little bits from all the props around the club to make myself as good a player as I can be.”
Heyes’ progress, under the watchful eye of scrum coach Boris Stankovich, has won the prop a step up from the development squad into the senior side for next season.
An ever-modest Heyes, though, is just taking life one step at a time.
He concludes: “Obviously we’ve got to get through pre-season first, which is always the hardest part of everything, but I’m excited to see what next season holds not only for me but for the team as well.
“We’ve got some good players coming in and Geordie’s building a great environment, so it’s going to be a very positive place next year. I’m excited to be part of it.”