Tuesday 18 December 2018

'Pat sees me as a full-back - and I will learn a lot from Mils'

Injury-hit Clifden native vows that fans will soon see the best of him when he returns to action

Connacht's Tiernan O'Halloran
Connacht's Tiernan O'Halloran

Declan Rooney

This is Tiernan O'Halloran's sixth season as a Connacht player. For someone who only turned 23 this year that is an incredible achievement. But after exploding into the province straight out of school, he'd be the first to tell you that we have yet to see the best of him.

This season is already the perfect example of the frustrations he has experienced in the green shirt. After a flawless pre-season he picked up a knee injury which halted his gallop and quickly a "two or three-week" problem will see him miss the first eight or nine games of the season.

But instead of going around with a long face, O'Halloran has already spotted the positives from his enforced lay-off: the chance to spend nine hours every day in the recovery room with Mils Muliaina.

As with any rugby player finding his feet in the game from such a young age, it has taken the former Garbally and Cistercian College student some time to pin down his best position. Off-season discussions with Pat Lam have reassured O'Halloran, and despite Muliaina's pending debut, he feels full-back is the role for him going forward.

"I had a good chat with Pat earlier on in the year, and we were more talking about playing full-back than wing. I wasn't sure about that with Mils coming in, but anything I can learn from him it is going to benefit me hugely in the future," he says.

"The only good thing about being injured at the moment is that we are in the injured room all day. We start at 8am and don't leave until about 5pm and we have a lot of time there. Mils is always passing on tips to me, he is inspirational.

"He is always willing to listen and give a helping hand. We've worked a lot on basic thing like communicating on the pitch. Sometimes we have worked as individuals in the past but now we are pulling together and Mils is bringing that in.

O'Halloran made his Connacht debut at the age of 19 in a 58-10 away defeat to the Scarlets. His first appearance was probably fast-tracked a little seeing as that was the week before the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final against Toulon, and Eric Elwood fielded a weakened side in preparation for that tie, but it quickly became clear to O'Halloran that the physicality of the game was a high hurdle for one so young.

Excites

"It is something that really excites when you are a young coming out of school. You are training with the big boys and any time you could get on the field was something you really looked forward to," he recalls.

"Mentally it was all brilliant at the time, it was really exciting times and everything, but it is a hard step up going from schools rugby to a professional squad set-up.

"My body wasn't ready for that at the time because I skipped the academy - those couple of years of being in the academy builds up your strength to get you ready for the progression.

"In that first year or so I picked up a few injuries. I tore my hamstring and I also did my left knee, I took a few knocks, but I really don't regret it.

"I think now it's great to have that experience in the bank. I have five years under my belt and I am nearly one of the senior lads now in the backline so I have to really stand up and be counted and use that experience.

"There are only five or six lads still here from when I came in so that shows how much it has evolved. I know it did take a year or two to get up to the standard physically but I got there eventually and I am happy with the way it went."

It was under the guidance of Elwood and first Michael Bradley that O'Halloran made the step up. He linked up with the senior squad first of all as an 18-year-old fresh out of Leaving Cert and he won't forget the patience the duo displayed with him when injuries threatened his progression.

"Eric showed great faith in me in the first couple of years. Being a young lad from Galway coming through the system, having Eric there was a huge thing," he says.

"Through the injuries and all that it must have been frustrating for Eric and Michael not to have me fit but they stuck by me. And around the 2011 season Eric gave me a lot of chances and I repaid him with a few good performances back then, I am very happy with what Eric did for me and I am very grateful for it."

After falling awkwardly on his knee in the pre-season game against Wasps, initial diagnosis pointed to cartilage damage, but after returning to see the specialist it was confirmed as a meniscus issue, which was repaired two weeks ago. This week O'Halloran was able to complete some light running and he has pencilled in the Ospreys game in a fortnight as his possible return date.

"It can vary from two, four or eight weeks so thankfully I was on the good scale. Hopefully I will be back flying fit in a week or two. Yeah, it is frustrating getting injured like that but the lads are doing well at the moment. You never begrudge anyone, it is great to see the lads going well," he says.

"I won't be playing against La Rochelle or next weekend. Europe has come too soon for me, but I'd hope to be in a position to feature somewhere in a couple of weeks' time.

"Coming back from an injury, minutes are precious, you just want to get back to where you were before you got the injury. You just want to do the basics right and to get back in the senior squad. That's the target."

Irish Independent

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