Sunday 20 October 2019

O'Sullivan's route to professional ranks shows the value of allowing for late developers

Eric OSullivan during the Ulster Rugby Captain's Run at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo: Sportsfile
Eric OSullivan during the Ulster Rugby Captain's Run at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Eric O'Sullivan is used to proving himself against the odds, so perhaps it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the loosehead is thriving since being given a consistent run of games.

The 23-year-old's route to professional rugby has certainly not been straightforward, yet his previous couple of years spent plugging away in the All-Ireland League with Trinity College and more recently, Banbridge, has stood to him.

Attending Templeogue College, O'Sullivan was always up against it in his quest to earn a place in the Leinster Academy and when he was subsequently overlooked, he could easily have given up on his dream.

During his school days, O'Sullivan often played as a No 8, and given that he was already bigger than most other young players on the pitch, it made sense. That slowly changed when he went to Trinity to study business, where he thrived under Tony Smeeth as a prop, before a twist of fate diverted his route north.

With Ulster 'A' in need of a prop, Academy manager Kieran Campbell came calling and when O'Sullivan impressed in the British and Irish Cup, he secured an Academy deal by the end of the 2016/'17 season.

Ulster are now reaping the rewards as O'Sullivan looks like he has the potential to fill the sizeable void at loosehead that has been a constant issue for the northern province.

Last week's confirmation that Schalk van der Merwe was released early meant that he followed Rodney Ah You out the exit door.

It's far to say that neither player made any lasting impression at Ulster and it is encouraging to see that Dan McFarland is not hesitating in his bid to clear out those who he deems surplus to requirements.

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In today's era, it is rare to see a prop being left on for the full game, yet such was O'Sullivan's outstanding display during Ulster's crucial win over the Scarlets, the Dubliner was left on and in fact, was still making tackles in the 83rd minute. Not bad for someone making his first Champions Cup start.

The Dubliner finished with 18 tackles in a hugely efficient display that also saw him announce himself as a scrummaging force on the European stage.

In a similar manner as Josh van der Flier, O'Sullivan's red scrum cap makes him difficult to miss when around the park and his big engine is such that he is hugely efficient around the breakdown.

Working under McFarland will be huge for O'Sullivan's development and we are already beginning to see him add more strings to his bow.

He is not afraid to step into the line and get his hands on the ball, which is increasingly becoming a basic skill for all Irish props.

Ulster are crying out for a loosehead to make the position his own and while it is still early days for O'Sullivan, he has all the attributes to carve out a successful career.

McFarland will also be encouraged by Marty Moore edging closer back to something like his best form and with Rory Best in the middle of both props, he too was instrumental in the win that has kept alive Ulster's hopes of making it to the knockout stages of Europe.

The Scarlets will be gunning for revenge on Friday night, and with O'Sullivan set to get a second crack at Wales' tighthead Samson Lee, he has another chance to lay down a marker.

Not every youngster takes the conventional route from the 'big' rugby school to the professional ranks and O'Sullivan is the latest example that proves why there is always a need to allow time for a late developer.

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