Rory O'Loughlin: 'We need to be patient and wait for the right moments'
Rory O’Loughlin’s midfield understanding with Garry Ringrose goes back to their UCD days, writes Marcus Ó Buachalla
It's hard to define 'the next level' or even when you reach it. Rory O'Loughlin is still young and is still developing but he has been very open in the past about what he needs to do to get to that 'next' level as a player.
At 24 and with an Irish cap to add to his 52 appearances in blue, he knows 'next' means more weekends like this. Sold-out stadia. European competition. Against arguably the form team in Europe.
"In rugby, these chances will always come. You have to have a bit of patience at times but with the squads needed these days chances will come and you have to be ready to go. These are the games you want to be involved in. The reason you play rugby. Playing at home in front of a full house in a game that really matters and that will largely define the end-of-the-season run-in."
That European level has proved elusive for O'Loughlin over the last 12 months or so. Frustratingly, injuries last season meant that he couldn't really kick on from the form that saw him play in four Champions Cup games the season before. His sole appearance in 2017/'18 was against Saracens in the quarter-final. Not a place for any auld mug.
And even with the injuries, Leo Cullen and the rest of the coaches had sufficient confidence in his ability to include him on the bench for the Champions Cup final in Bilbao. An unused sub he may have been but he came on at half-time against Munster a week later in the Guinness PRO14 semi-final for an injured Isa Nacewa and came on after less than 20 minutes again for Nacewa in the PRO14 final.
Luck may have deserted him for the European games but 20 PRO14 games over a season of 23 games shows just how much faith the coaches have in him. And now to this season, season number three for O'Loughlin, Lady Luck has largely been on his side so far with injuries and he will play in his third Champions Cup game of the season tomorrow.
"It's been a different season so far all right than last and I've been delighted with the game-time I've had in Europe. Hopefully tomorrow I'll get another decent run.
"Last year with injuries to others I played the majority of my rugby at 13 but already over the last few weeks I've played in three positions, wing, 12 and 13. It's challenging definitely in that you are forced to look at the game through different perspectives but that is also hugely enjoyable. I'm loving it."
When pushed he confesses a preference to "13" but by the same token the experience that he gained working alongside Nacewa, for example, for the last few years has meant that he has a keen eye for what is required in a few different positions.
He has also enjoyed his relationship with the man outside him, a relationship that isn't as new as some might think.
"Ultimately, I just enjoy playing with him. I started playing with Garry (Ringrose) when we were 19 in UCD so I've known him quite a while. Ross Byrne was in that team as well. He is just such a calm player. It's tough to explain but when you're out there with someone who is so calm and cool and confident in himself and what he has to do, that rubs off on you.
"You don't have to worry about him at all. Having played 13 myself a bit I think I also know what Garry wants in a 12 and that is a help.
"Defending in that 13 channel is one of the hardest things on a pitch and you can be made look a mug very easily, so the relationship between 12 and 13 is crucial."
So to the considerable threats posed by Messrs Kaino, Medard and Kolbe. What does O'Loughlin feel they need to do better this week than they did in Round 2 in October? A good start?
"Yeah, obviously we had a poor start over there but I think the energy of this game is different because we are now at home. It's always harder when you are away from home and in France in particular.
"The crowd at the RDS will as usual do their bit which is brilliant and they've sold the place out for the third week in a row which is something that we as a club can be hugely proud of but we can't rely on that alone.
"We can though control things ourselves and can give the supporters something to get behind. That's the task for us. Be really good at the things that we do."
Top of the priority list for tomorrow?
"I think when we have the ball, keeping the ball! I know that sounds obvious but so many of their tries this season in Europe and in the Top 14 has been off sloppy or loose play, counter-attacks by them from just about anywhere. They really come alive. Old-school French rugby and it's what they built the club and their trophies on over the years. So we can't give them those easy opportunities to come into the game. How do we do that?
"Exiting on our own terms. Kicking with a purpose. And with a purpose to get the ball back. We will need to be patient too. Hold onto the ball and wait for the right moments."
For Toulouse, there is the safety net of knowing they are unbeaten to this point and have a home game against Bath to finish out the pool.
For Leinster, ever since that loss in France there has been no safety net and they have been chasing Toulouse. Two wins against Bath means that they've caught up with them but still have an almighty battle on their hands to overhaul them.
"Since we lost down there it's been in the back of our minds the whole time. The fact that if we got past Bath, then the winner of this game this weekend takes complete control of the pool with a game to go. Now we're here.
"In many ways it's a knockout game for us. This week's prep has reminded me a lot about the preparations for the knockout games last season. The intensity and the focus has been right up there. Even the fact that it's sold-out already sharpens the mind. You want to perform for them and for your family but ultimately we want to put in a shift for the group itself to make sure we are best-placed heading over to Wasps next week."