Rory O'Loughlin: 'I haven't stopped smiling since I got the news'
Milestone after milestone has followed Leinster debut for centre and the best is yet to come with Irish summer tour
Tuesday, May 16, 2017 will forever be a special date for eight young men of Leinster, as they had their formal graduation from the Leinster Rugby Academy. Adam Byrne, Peadar Timmins, Tom Daly, Peter Dooley, Nick McCarthy, Ross Molony, Ross Byrne and Rory O'Loughlin were the eight in question. The class of 2017.
They had all travelled different roads, had taken different options but ultimately all arrived at the same destination thanks to the love and support of family and friends and the tutelage and guidance of coaches and teachers along the way.
As they stepped up to receive specially commissioned pieces of glass from Leinster Rugby President Frank Doherty in Milltown Golf Club, each smile was as wide as the next.
Matched only by the smiles of the proud mums and dads watching on from the tables below. But there was one smile that was arguably that bit wider than the rest.
Rory O'Loughlin has had to be patient for a moment like this. For others around the table they had had their moments already. For example, Adam Byrne is the youngest player to have ever played for Leinster, nearly five seasons ago now. McCarthy made his debut in the Champions Cup in December 2015 in the Aviva against Toulon. Dooley and Molony made first European starts against Bath last season in what now feels like a seminal moment for this Leinster team.
O'Loughlin watched on in support of course but also in frustration. Injuries mostly had hampered his progress but he knew that time was not on his side. This was his final year in the Academy. It was now or never to show the world what he was made of. In fact, all he had to do was show Leo Cullen. And thankfully this season he has done just that.
"You come in on day one in the Leinster Academy hoping for one cap for the Leinster senior team so to be graduating here today three years later and to be rewarded with a senior contract… I don't know, it's hard to describe really. It's the goal ultimately when you line out with any underage Leinster team so to be here today and be able to celebrate with family is pretty special to be honest.
"My mum in particular has been brilliant. She's been the one that has kept me going during the dark times when you don't get picked for teams or injury cuts across your progress.
"Family are what keep you going so as I said it's just lovely to be able to celebrate that with them here today. I wouldn't be here today achieving what I have achieved to date without them."
And yet the dark days were very real for O'Loughlin. But he just needed that chance. "It's tough not to be feel relief actually to be graduating and with that contract secured because coming into my third year in the Academy, for me anyway, there was a lot of uncertainty going into it.
"Even looking at the other lads here graduating with me today most of them had all made their debuts last season or even before that so of course you have doubts or what have you."
Very quickly though this season those doubts were cast to one side.
Promising cameos in the pre-season friendlies turned into so much more in the Guinness PRO12 and ultimately the Champions Cup.
"Going into pre-season as I said the goal was to get one cap so to make my debut against Treviso was a massive highlight for me but then a few weeks later I got my first start and then a week later I was lining up against Munster in the Aviva.
"Things just spiralled quickly from there, there was no chance to take stock or to comprehend what was happening I just went with it and tried my best every day. My Champions Cup debut was another milestone. Like every young lad growing up you watch the Heineken Cup every weekend when it's on and then to top it all off I scored my first Leinster try in that game against Northampton in the Aviva.
"It all happened so fast in the space of a few weeks really. I really haven't had a chance to reflect on it at all but hopefully during the summer I'll get that chance."
But back to the widest smile in the room. Not only was Tuesday graduation day for the 23-year-old it was also the day O'Loughlin was named in Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad for the summer tour ahead.
A season of so many highs and so many positives could yet present the Old Belvedere club man with an Ireland debut.
"I found out yesterday and I've been absolutely delighted. It hasn't sunk in at all. It's hard to believe. Again at the start of the season my goals were Leinster-orientated so to play over ten times for Leinster I would have been delighted with so now to get the chance to represent Ireland it's the goal you have from the first time you see Ireland play so for me I have those memories from when I was four or five. So to have the chance to possibly pull on one of those green jerseys and get a game for Ireland this summer is incredible and I'm really excited for it. I haven't stopped smiling since I got the news."
With 21 Leinster caps and 10 tries to his name already - one of which against Ulster was a Leinster, Guinness PRO12 and a Rugby Players Ireland contender for try of the season - it is easy to see why Schmidt and Co have decided to take a closer look but before that he hopes to give them and Cullen more food for thought.
"We've a massive week ahead of us with Scarlets in the RDS. They've been going really well this season after starting off poorly in the PRO12.
"But since then they have refocused and have come back fighting and have picked up some really good results on the road against Munster, Glasgow and Connacht. They've also drawn with Saracens in the Champions Cup and not many teams have been that close to Saracens so we know the size of the task that's ahead of us but I know that everyone is excited by it and the thought of running out at the RDS is something that we have worked hard all year for. We just want to make sure we take that chance now."
As he heads away, O'Loughlin then reminds you of that other element of the Leinster Rugby Academy system that hasn't come to an end just yet. UCD exams. And with that the smile is gone as the study looms large. But it won't be gone for long and deservedly so.