O’Sul­li­van takes long route to ap­pear on Sch­midt’s map

Ul­ster prop is a prime ex­am­ple of the IRFU’s ‘leave no player be­hind’ pol­icy

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY HEINEKEN CHAMPIONS CUP - Gavin Cum­miskey Le­in­ster’s young guns on the move

Joe Sch­midt loves an elon­gated name-checking ex­er­cise, so when Des Cahill over Christ­mas asked about the many “young play­ers com­ing through” we braced for the for­mer school prin­ci­pal to rat­tle off each and ev­ery teenager he has wit­nessed since land­ing on this isle in 2010.

The Ire­land coach went an­other way, set­tling for just two in Connacht cen­tre Tom Far­rell and a largely un­known 23-year-old Ul­ster prop.

“There’s a few who haven’t been on the stage yet that are start­ing to push up through,” said Sch­midt. “Young guys, like Eric O’Sul­li­van, who played very well at the week­end . . .”

The ul­te­rior mo­tive was clear. You are mapped, kid. We see you.

“I al­ways re­mem­ber watch­ing Cian Healy, he was so ex­plo­sive and dy­namic,” O’Sul­li­van told the Belfast Tele­graph. “He was al­ways some­one I looked up to big time, es­pe­cially be­ing in Le­in­ster. I re­mem­ber watch­ing him run­ning round Maxime Mé­dard. That’s the kind of thing that sticks in the mem­ory when you’re talk­ing about a loose­head prop. He was the first of those mod­ern props. He set the tone go­ing for­ward.”

Eric O’Sul­li­van is a prime ex­am­ple of the IRFU’s “leave no player be­hind” pol­icy where unused Le­in­ster seeds are gath­ered and re­planted in Lim­er­ick, Gal­way and Belfast fields.

The cur­rent gold rush of loose­head props be­gan with Healy. Jack Mc­Grath’s ca­reer over­laps, so while he is heir to the num­ber one jer­sey, and even wore it for two sea­sons (2015-17), Ed Byrne is cur­rently se­lected ahead of him at Le­in­ster, while Peter Doo­ley looks ev­ery inch the part when­ever the dust clears at the RDS.

Dave Kil­coyne re­mains a gen­uine con­tender for Ire­land se­lec­tion in 2019. James Cronin was keep­ing Kil­coyne out of the Mun­ster team un­til his lat­est in­jury lay off. Jeremy Lough­man, a prodi­gious tight­head who found his way to Black­rock Col­lege in 2014, a team that also took in fel­low Mun­ster de­fec­tors Joey Car­bery and Conor Oliver for their Leav­ing Cert, ap­peared to come of age at the Sports­ground last Saturday. That same in­ter­pro gath­er­ing should have been De­nis Buck­ley’s 150th game in Connacht green. A stom­ach bug tem­po­rar­ily slows the 28-year-old Roscom­mon man’s search for na­tional recog­ni­tion.

What of Ul­ster? With lit­tle to re­port on the home-grown prop­ping land­scape, O’Sul­li­van swam to the sur­face via the cir­cuitous route of Tem­pleogue Col­lege, Trin­ity and Ban­bridge.

“I played back­row for a few years. Le­in­ster sort of said there’d be bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties go­ing for­ward in the fron­trow and that’s the sort of ad­vice you take on board,” he says.

Nec­es­sary po­si­tion

O’Sul­li­van’s story is thus: he turned up for un­der-18 tri­als as a prop but on re­turn to Tem­pleogue, a mi­nor rugby nurs­ery in terms of pro­duc­tion with Mal O’Kelly their guid­ing light, num­ber eight was his nec­es­sary po­si­tion.

“When he first came to us we played Lans­downe and he was bol­lixed, ab­so­lutely wrecked after­wards,” re­mem­bers Trin­ity direc­tor of rugby Tony Smeeth. “Je­sus, Eric, what is wrong with you?”

“That’s the first time I’ve ever played a full game at prop,” he replied.

He had only re­ally done 20 min­utes here and there for Le­in­ster [un­der­age sides] so his progress has been phe­nom­e­nal.”

The im­mov­able obstacle used to be An­drew Porter. For­tune briefly shone upon O’Sul­li­van when the en­dur­ing Healy/Mc­Grath com­bi­na­tion prompted Porter’s shift to tight­head in 2017, but in the same pe­riod Lough­man be­came a loose­head.

The Le­in­ster Academy passed on O’Sul­li­van but other routes ex­ist.

“We try to re­cruit ev­ery­one who makes un­der­age pro­vin­cial tri­als,” says Smeeth. “We send let­ters to all of them. Eric ticked all the boxes; good player, a true blue and I am not just say­ing that, he’s a special guy. He works so hard.

Well man­nered

Smart as well, 500-plus in the Leav­ing, real unas­sum­ing and maybe that’s why he didn’t make it at Le­in­ster. He would be po­lite, “no, you go first” type of guy. In­cred­i­bly well man­nered. Like, old school well man­nered.

“He played [Trin­ity] 20s and two years se­nior so we are de­lighted he has landed on his feet up in Ul­ster.”

It nearly went the other way. The net gets casts wide nowadays, but it still re­quires pa­tience to grow props (Porter and Healy be­ing freak­ish ex­cep­tions to the ob­vi­ous rule about boys be­com­ing men).

“I re­mem­ber [UCD direc­tor of rugby] Bobby Byrne com­ing up to me at the Colours din­ner,” Smeeth con­tin­ues. “Now, Porter had just moved over to tight­head and Eric de­stroyed him – it was Porter’s se­cond game – but Bobby was won­der­ing, ‘why hasn’t any­one picked him up?’ That’s the op­pos­ing coach say­ing that. His work rate has al­ways been off the charts. He still plays like a num­ber eight.

“In fair­ness we all knew about Porter – he was this man child – but the best thing he

IRFU Per­for­mance Direc­tor David Nu­ci­fora re­cently spoke about Le­in­ster born and raised tal­ent – passed over by the Academy – flood­ing into other provinces: “You take your hat off to the young play­ers that moved. If you’re go­ing to be a high per­form­ing ath­lete you have to be am­bi­tious. You have to take chances, put your­self out on a limb, and that’s what they are do­ing be­cause they want to be the best they can be. They’re choos­ing to chase their dreams by do­ing that.”

ever did was move to tight­head. Look at his body type, he’s in­cred­i­bly strong. Lough­man is now cut­ting it for Mun­ster. I know Jeremy, coached him in Black­rock, and I al­ways thought Eric was as good.

“The prob­lem was after each trial Eric was play­ing back­row in Tem­pleogue whereas Jeremy was re­turn­ing to Black­rock for al­most daily scrum ses­sions with Sea­mus Toomey, who is prob­a­bly the best scrum coach in Ire­land. Eric even played cen­tre for St Mary’s un­der-18s.”

Thank­fully for Ul­ster, Smeeth still has the soft eyes needed to iden­tify real po­ten­tial in its in­fancy.

“I bumped into Bryan Young, the scrum coach up in Ul­ster, and he was say­ing they don’t have any good young props com­ing through. ‘We got some­one for you.’ We sent up some tapes and the rest is history.

“To be hon­est, in the first year they messed him around. He nearly didn’t go up to their academy as they ini­tially told me he could keep play­ing for Trin­ity in Di­vi­sion 1A but when they got him they said he has to play for Ban­bridge in 1B. There is a big, big dif­fer­ence be­tween 1A and 1B as we found that out when we came up. That was nearly a stum­bling point but he had to go up.”

The road opened up for O’Sul­li­van when Schalk van der Merwe fol­lowed Rod­ney Ah You out of Belfast in De­cem­ber. Sch­midt doesn’t name-check play­ers mired in club rugby or for Le­in­ster A.

This re­mains far from a suc­cess story. The po­ten­tial for hor­ren­dous ex­po­sure comes when lock­ing necks to­day with gold stan­dard tight­heads Ben Tamei­funa/Cen­sus John­ston and Ce­date Gomes Sa.

“He’ll still get his ass kicked,” Smeeth agrees. “Even Tadhg Fur­long strug­gled re­cently after com­ing back from a lay-off. It’s a po­si­tion where you can get hum­bled very quickly.”

Rory Best’s pres­ence has helped dur­ing some heavy ex­am­i­na­tions over these win­ter months.

‘Whirl­wind’

“It’s been a bit of a whirl­wind,” O’Sul­li­van admitted. “Rory is in­cred­i­ble, al­ways in your ear be­fore ev­ery scrum with lit­tle tips, lit­tle nuggets, just to keep you fo­cused and keep your head in the game. Com­ing up against some­one like [Scar­lets and Wales tight­head] Sam­son Lee, it def­i­nitely helps hav­ing Rory be­side you.”

Trin­ity can take a lit­tle credit too.

“I give Hugh Maguire eight lads at the start of ev­ery sea­son and by the end he has moulded them into men. Not just rugby wise but for life as well. Ev­ery Tues­day we put down 40 min­utes of live scrum­mag­ing. You have to with stu­dents or we’d get de­stroyed by the Lans­downes of this world, who are ac­tual men. “Eric came through that. He was never big into the weights when he came to us. Al­ways in good run­ning shape – I know he was a minute ahead of the next Ul­ster prop this pre-sea­son over 1,000m – but after the first year he got a lit­tle dis­il­lu­sioned that the chances weren’t com­ing. He’s a lovely guy, you see, a sensitive guy, so I said, ‘you got to con­di­tion. Porter would eat you in the gym.’ His num­bers weren’t great but over the last 18 months he has been get­ting stronger and stronger.

“I sent him a text last week, ‘The ul­ti­mate com­pli­ment is get­ting rested the week be­fore Eu­ro­pean Cup!’ That’s where you want to be.”

And that’s where he seems to be­long.

Le­in­ster sort of said there’d be bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties go­ing for­ward in the fron­trow and that’s the sort of ad­vice you take on board

PHO­TO­GRAPH: ELENA BARBINI/INPHO

Ul­ster prop Eric O’Sul­li­van in ac­tion against Benet­ton at the Sta­dio Monigo in Tre­viso, Italy: the 23-year-old’s met­tle will be tested to­day.

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