Saturday 24 August 2019

'I don't really feel tied to Leinster' - Eric O'Sullivan has grabbed Ulster opportunity with both hands

Ulster’s Eric O’Sullivan will bid to put one over on his native Leinster in Kingspan Stadium tomorrow. Photo: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
Ulster’s Eric O’Sullivan will bid to put one over on his native Leinster in Kingspan Stadium tomorrow. Photo: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

CIan Tracey

It was towards the tail end of last year when Joe Schmidt was accepting his manager of the year award that, unprompted, he name-checked Eric O'Sullivan as one to watch.

O'Sullivan's name wouldn't have resonated with many of the casual rugby fans in the audience but, as ever, it was a clever ploy on Schmidt's part.

The 23-year-old may still be waiting for his first international call-up, yet Schmidt knew that by mentioning O'Sullivan he would make it clear that he was keeping tabs on the loosehead.

For a player who began the season merely looking to play a handful of senior games with Ulster, having the Ireland head coach single him out was a massive confidence boost.

"No one has been in touch, but it is great to get that mention, just to think you are on Joe Schmidt's radar is pretty encouraging," O'Sullivan reflects.

"It might have been my old principal, Aoife O'Donnell, who may have texted me to say Joe Schmidt just mentioned your name.

"I tried not to give it too much thought, you can get carried away with people talking about you."

It has been a whirlwind season for O'Sullivan, who came close to giving up on his dream of playing professional rugby when he was overlooked for a place in the Leinster Academy.

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Attending Templeogue College, he was always up against it in terms of gaining recognition among players who went to the 'bigger' rugby schools, but he owes a lot to Trinity College and in particular their director of rugby Tony Smeeth, who has worked wonders in his role.

"I played youth rugby for St Mary's, and underage with Leinster as well," O'Sullivan recalls.

"But I didn't hear anything from the academy or sub-academy, so I just went to Trinity and was working with Tony Smeeth - he could get anybody a contract - he is a good man to work with.

"He is a great coach and that just shows every year. They always compete, he is doing something right there.

"I studied engineering and management for six months and then dropped out and went to DCU and studied business there.

"I was just hoping to get an opportunity and training away with Trinity.

"I got to the end of that season and hadn't heard anything, then going in to final year it was probably time to take the studying more seriously, but I got the call from Kieran Campbell (Ulster Academy coach) to come up to play an 'A' game."

The M1 from Dublin to Belfast has been well travelled in recent years with an increasing amount of Leinster players looking for opportunities with Ulster.

Jack McGrath will become the latest to do so next season, with some talk that he may not be the only player to make the familiar journey north.

In O'Sullivan's case, however, he never got a chance with Leinster, so from that end, he admits: "I don't really feel tied to Leinster.

"I know myself it was a tough year to be trying to get into the Leinster Academy, especially as a prop as Andrew Porter and Jeremy Loughman went in.

"They had two good players there so they were not going to need a third.

"There were a lot of injuries at the time and I think Ulster only had two fit senior props and then Tommy O'Hagan picked up a toe injury and they didn't really have anyone else.

"I got the call, and he said Tommy was moving on to a senior contract and that they had a position in the academy, so if things went well I could get in there. It was a no-brainer, up for a training session two days later, I flew out to Jersey and played."

Since taking his chance, O'Sullivan has become the cornerstone of Ulster's scrum and has racked up 24 appearances in a stunning breakthrough season that went beyond the Dubliner's wildest expectations.

"I had hoped to have five caps this year, that was my goal at the start of the year," O'Sullivan reflects.

"I reassessed that fairly early in the year. It has been an incredible season for me and I have enjoyed every minute of it.

"I came into the season with no real ambitions, I just wanted to work hard and get a couple of caps for Ulster and take it from there. But if Joe Schmidt knows who you are it is a little bit crazy.

"I'm still not comfortable quite yet, but I'm getting there.

"Like anything, the more you play and get out there the more you experience it. Coming up against Tadhg Furlong was a pretty nervous week for me, but on the day I felt it went all right.

"You learn and when you have bad days, those are the ones you really learn from."

O'Sullivan has certainly enjoyed more good days than bad and while some tougher experiences inevitably do lie ahead, he is living a dream that not that long ago looked dead and buried.

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