Sunday 21 April 2019

Promising cub relishes Lion's arrival

Eric O'Sullivan's shift to Ulster has enabled him to keep his learning on an upward trajectory

Eric O’Sullivan, left, and Rory Best during the PRO14 clash between Ulster and Munster at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Eric O’Sullivan, left, and Rory Best during the PRO14 clash between Ulster and Munster at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

When David Nucifora was settling in to his Lansdowne Road office almost five years ago, he had a couple of things written down in his little notepad. His agenda would develop in time, but at the starting gate the boxes he wanted to tick were, 1) Sevens rugby and 2) Spreading the talent base around the provinces.

The sevens programme currently is no Rolls Royce, but neither is it the blank parking space that greeted him on arrival. We used to treat it as something other people did. Now it has risen to a point where occasionally it catches public interest. As for getting players to leave one province for another to improve their careers - the spiritual equivalent seemingly of selling your soul - the union's Performance Director scored a handful of direct hits.

So the once-blank walls of his office are now adorned with poster boys Joey Carbery, John Cooney and Jordi Murphy. Jack McGrath's image is currently with the printers but the space has been reserved. The irony is that McGrath, much experienced but equally much diminished, would be taking the place of a little-known name who, when he first appeared on the Ulster senior team, prompted folks on this side of the border to wonder if he had been lifted from GAA ranks in that part of the world.

Eric O'Sullivan will start for Ulster against Leinster in the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final at Lansdowne Road on Saturday afternoon. It will be his first game in the stadium. He is in the Ulster Academy. It is one of those oddities in a game obsessed with early talent identification, gym culture and training age that this fella has arrived to this point with so little of the right paperwork.

Props coming out of school these days are a different shape to those of 15-20 years ago. They are further along the evolutionary journey, better able to cope with what adults throw at them in the club game. So the universities don't suffer to the extent they used to back in the day when the goal of every pack who played them was to bully them from start to finish.

Eric O'Sullivan wasn't typical of the modern prop however. He wasn't a gym freak like Andrew Porter and didn't have the benefit, like another contemporary, Jeremy Loughman, of being a dedicated prop through his days in the youth system and then topping it off in finishing school at Blackrock.

Rather O'Sullivan was a hybrid. He had enough about him as a back-rower - openside or number eight - to get on to Leinster's underage radar, but the signal they picked up flashed the word 'change'. Well, it did to Dan van Zyl.

The former Springbok, now running Rugby Academy Ireland, through his years in the youths system has made a significant contribution to the quality of player running around for Leinster - and, by extension, other provinces. He has a knack for pointing players to the position that best suits their development. He came across O'Sullivan in a summer development programme.

"He (Van Zyl) was reffing one of our games," O'Sullivan remembers. "And he came up to the coach after the game and said: 'I'd be interested in bringing him to trials but it'd be as a prop, not a back-row'. So it started pretty early. That was under 17s. I'd have been 16."

The 'early start' was also a false start for O'Sullivan wasn't following it up with time spent at the coalface. When he was on Leinster development duty he was learning the nuts and bolts of the front-row; when he was back in Templeogue he was playing where they needed him most: the back-row. So for a very bright young man he was, inevitably, a slow learner.

As a result, everything has been in the category of catch-up. "He gets everything very quickly," says Ulster scrum coach Aaron Dundon of L Plate man. "He's always coming to me looking to improve things and make himself better. You saw his 22 tackles count against Scarlets? That's an incredible count for any forward but to be doing that as a prop is off the charts."

O'Sullivan, who grew up just beyond City West, went to school in Templeogue College, a satellite on the Leinster schools rugby circuit. He had no interest in the sport before fetching up there; no family history. He wouldn't be the first big kid to discover it could be the great escape from standing between the sticks in round ball games. Once he fell in love with it he developed the idea of doing it for a living, but when four years ago it came time to form an orderly queue for access to the Leinster Academy, he was towards the back.

"In hindsight, I had that discussion with Wayne Mitchell (Leinster) and he was saying I hadn't had enough game-time there (at loosehead) so they didn't know enough about me, which was fair enough. It was an easy decision to make if you're stuck between one guy who plays week in, week out and one guy who doesn't."

Never mind. He was welcomed into Trinity College to study business and engineering and quickly got on a fast track - via the All-Ireland League - to life as a loosehead prop. It was the ideal learning ground for him. So when Ulster were staring at a blank space where their home-grown looseheads were supposed to be, they were pointed towards O'Sullivan, and opened the door to their Academy. Sorted.

Having to ditch Trinity in Division 1A for Banbridge in 1B wasn't ideal, but he had nothing but good things to say for the welcome he got at Rifle Park. Initially, Ulster progress was slow, however. He says he was sixth in the pecking order at Kingspan and the closest he would get to training with the seniors was to see them in the distance. That was two seasons ago.

He was part of the mix in pre-season last August, however, and then made his Pro14 debut off the bench in the first round against Scarlets. When injuries took Andrew Warwick and Kyle McCall out of the picture - and Schalk van der Merwe's time came to an abrupt end - suddenly O'Sullivan was front and centre.

"After the first game, the week leading into that Scarlets game I was very nervous," he recalls. "In one of the pre-season games against Wasps I was up against Kieron Brookes and that didn't go well for me. It was a tough day out. So after that it was, 'Oh Jesus, this might take longer than I thought to get to grips with it!' But once I got that Scarlets game out of the way I was, not confident, but I'd found my feet a bit. And as the season has progressed I've got more confidence. Obviously with exposure you get more used to coming up against big guys and it just develops from trial and error basically."

At 114-115kg, he's not the biggest on the circuit, but neither is he a bug on a windscreen. His work-rate is excellent, and an ability to carry lots of ball has helped get him noticed by fans and statisticians alike. And the national coach weighed in after O'Sullivan had done a great job in the win over Racing at home. He has been involved in all but three games for Ulster coming into this weekend. En route there has been a long list of big men to subdue.

"Going up against Dan Cole over in Welford Road, that was a pretty tough day for me. I struggled a bit there, he's obviously very experienced and he had me on the ropes a bit. But you learn from it. You get in and go through the analysis and see what you could have done better. I'd like to think if I was to come up against him now he wouldn't have it as much his own way."

And what of Jack McGrath? One a decorated Lion, the other a very promising cub. It would make sense to have two quality looseheads on hand but on current form it's McGrath who would be holding O'Sullivan's coat. The younger man is bending over backwards to show respect.

"I know myself it'd be great for Ulster and I'd learn from him, but at the same time it's going to limit my game-time so selfishly you're not looking at it too favourably. No, I think it'd be a great signing for Ulster and I'm sure I'd learn a lot from him. I have a lot of respect for him as a player - his record speaks for itself so anyone with that kind of experience you'll learn from them. So if he's going to make the move I can't wait for him to get in. And hopefully put up a good fight to keep the jersey."

David Nucifora needs to clear some space on his office wall.

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