O'Malley making all the right moves on the number 13 route

 

The versatile former Belvedere College student is fast fulfilling the potential he showed in an outstanding underage career, writes JOHN O'SULLIVAN

LEINSTER’S NUMBER 13 jersey is available on a short-term lease. Eoin O’Malley is a prospective tenant; well versed on the requirements of occupancy, he likes the aspect too but is currently involved in a bidding process alongside Fergus McFadden. He’s the under-bidder for the moment.

Okay a depressed housing market analogy is not an appropriate metaphor for these two excellent, versatile and in rugby terms desirable young players nor does it fully convey the topography of the situation. It’s a little bit more complex.

The two have played together regularly and successfully for Leinster in the absence through injury, World Cup duty or the national player management guidelines of Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy. McFadden played in the opening Heineken Cup match against Montpellier but an injury meant he was replaced for Leinster’s second game against Glasgow Warriors by O’Malley, who scored two tries.

Last weekend at Bath’s Recreation Ground McFadden’s primacy of selection was restored, but a minor injury to Gordon D’Arcy means the McFadden/O’Malley axis is reconstituted for this evening’s return fixture at the Aviva Stadium with the latter fulfilling the outside-centre role.

The 23-year-old O’Malley is conspicuously mature in his outlook which may explain why there isn’t a whiff of frustration as he charts an articulate passage from his schooldays to the cusp of commanding a regular place on the Leinster team.

He explains: “I have played more rugby this season than at any other time in my career. I may have missed out on a couple of the big European games but there is an element of patience required. You can sometimes get itchy feet but for me the most important thing is to take the chances when they are presented.

“Everyone wants to play but we all can’t. What we can do though is on getting the call, you add value to the team; that can be for 80 minutes or it can be for 10 minutes.”

He gets a chance to deliver on that promise this evening because the structures in the Irish province have changed over the last 18 months. There is greater squad rotation under current Leinster coach Joe Schmidt than his predecessor Michael Cheika, a statistic substantiated by the fact O’Malley has started 27 matches in league and cup – his run on tally over three seasons is just four more at 31 – since the New Zealander took over at the beginning of last season.

The young centre appreciates Schmidt’s measured candour when appraising performances. “If you asked any of the lads they consider him (Schmidt) a very good communicator. He keeps everyone on their toes. He doesn’t choose a starting XV and wrap them in cotton wool or put them on a pedestal. There is a real challenge day to day; training has an edge to it because of the competition for places.

“That may be down to the players but he creates that environment by giving them an opportunity. He is very upfront. If you are not playing he will call you into his office and tell you why. He’s specific about why he’s disappointed and that feedback helps you learn. You don’t dream of arguing because he is (invariably) right,” O’Malley smiles.

“You might occasionally have something to say for yourself. He’s very fair. If you have done a couple of good things that he has asked you to work on then he’ll say it to you as well. He is very hands-on and communication is open, not just with him but all the coaching staff.”

O’Malley is modest in discussing a career that began in Belvedere College – there was a brief hiatus in St Michael’s primary school – where he won a Leinster Schools’ Senior Cup (2005) in fifth year alongside Cian Healy, Paul O’Donohue and Ian Keatley. They surprised a heavily-fancied Blackrock team that included Luke Fitzgerald, Niall Morris, Vas Artemyev and Ian Madigan.

He played Ireland Schools, Under-19, Under-20 and for the Wolfhounds and was a standout player in his age-grade. He though would claim otherwise suggesting his July birth date was beneficial adding: “the year above me in playing terms was the Grand Slam (2007, Ireland U-20, Darren Cave, Aidan Wynne and Kyle Tonetti the centres) team. I was in the same year but played rugby for the year below. There were a lot of good players in that team. I was a bit smaller, needed another year of development. As much as schools rugby, Leinster and Ireland Schools went well for me, I would have gone into the Leinster sub academy with guys like Seán O’Brien and Cian Healy; they were a lot bigger in name terms than I was.”

O’Malley feels the current players in the academy have closed the gap in standard noticeably in relation to the senior squad from the one he believed existed in his day.

“I don’t think there is the same gap in ability say as there would have been when I was there. I don’t know whether schools rugby is getting better or it’s the players themselves, physically better able to handle senior rugby. I felt there was a big gap between me and the senior squad when I was in the academy.

“If a guy from the academy was called up in my day for an A game it was almost like winning a senior cap. It was a big deal. A handful of lads were training with the senior squad which seemed like a massive deal whereas now we train with the academy guys day in, day out so there is not the same gap.

“I was lucky. There was obviously Brian (O’Driscoll) and Darce (Gordon D’Arcy) who were by a long way number one (pairing) but there was a small bit of a gap behind.

“There’s a lot of luck involved at that age because if there is a handful of young lads in your position it creates a logjam; if you look at backrows in Leinster they’re producing them for fun and it can be much more difficult to get game time. It can just be timing as much as ability.”

He didn’t always enjoy good fortune, losing a year to a hip injury that required two operations. It was an uncomfortable time in every respect. “I suppose I didn’t always have faith I would come back. I had been out for nearly the entire season so I was nowhere near an established player. I had not played a lot of games so there was a lot of pressure for getting another contract.

“They re-signed me even though I had not played; I didn’t ask, I just signed the piece of paper as quickly as possible. It does make you appreciate everything a bit more. It was a tough time and I don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t worked out but it just makes you want to make the most of the second chance you have got.”

He has completed a degree in Sports Management at UCD and is toying with the idea of doing a cookery course; “idle hands and all that”.

His injury sabbatical ended in December 2009 when he played 15 minutes of an A match for Leinster. The following week Cheika picked him to play against the Dragons at Rodney Parade. Leinster lost but O’Malley was struck by the input of senior players like Trevor Hogan and Stephen Keogh in a young side that lost heavily. “There is a good honesty culture in Leinster developed from those days. Shaggy (Shane Horgan) and Drico and players like that have been trying to instil it for years.

“We might take it for granted. It was there when we arrived. He (Cheika) would never place too much expectation but yet those wins meant a huge amount to him. We had a couple of good wins.”

O’Malley had played 10 league games the following season – Schmidt had taken over that summer – when O’Driscoll suffered a cracked jaw while leading Ireland against Argentina in a November Test. He was ruled out of the province’s December trip to take on Clermont Auvergne at Stade Marcel Michelin. The 22-year-old Belvedere centre deputised, handed his European debut. He acquitted himself superbly, despite suffering a cracked rib but as he points out laughing: “Brian was fit enough to return the following week so I’m not sure I would have kept my place.”

In January he came on against Saracens in his second European game, scoring a try in the process. He has a remarkable strike-rate of three tries in just two starts in the tournament. He acknowledges the part O’Driscoll and D’Arcy have played in his development since he started training with them. “There has been a lot of encouragement from Gordon and Brian whether you are playing with them or coming in to replace them. They give you guidance.

“You’d be mad if you didn’t listen to what they say on the basis of the careers. They would give advice, getting the balance of letting you know something that is worthwhile rather then telling you every little detail where you feel you’re being lectured. I don’t look at long-terms goals; 12 months doesn’t work in my head. I prefer to look back last month and work out what I did well and what needs improvement. The competition is so tough at Leinster that if you look past next week you can get a bit lost.”

O’Malley has consistently delivered on his talent, demonstrating a wonderful aptitude to function on pressure-laden occasions. He can fulfil the inside centre role too – he played outhalf in his schooldays – and signed a two-year contract last March. He is where he wants to be; well almost as the position is not yet vacant. “I don’t think playing in the number 13 shirt puts any more pressure on me. It is just a massive opportunity with the players that are out. My main motivation is to play well for my home province and keep wearing that jersey.”

O’Driscoll managed to induce triskaidekaphobia in opponents, a state of agitation O’Malley will strive to maintain.