Age and borders no barriers to success for Eric O’Sullivan
Ulster prop keen to keep learning in breakthrough season after successful move north
Ulster’s Eric O’Sullivan in action against Leinster in the Champions Cup. ‘Just to think you are on Joe Schmidt’s radar is pretty encouraging.’ Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
It has been a season of younger players showing age is no barrier. If Jordan Larmour, Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan have been market leaders others such as Ulster prop Eric O’Sullivan have been noticeably taking heed.
The 23-year-old has been virtually an ever-present for Ulster after he was recruited to the province’s academy last season. Dublin-born the forward moved north to Belfast when he missed out on a place in the Leinster academy. The way things have evolved since, too bad for Leo Cullen.
His goal at the start of the year was to gain five caps with the senior team. “I reassessed that fairly early in the season,” he says. O’Sullivan is still on an academy contract but with 24 appearances for the seniors including playing in the European Champions Cup, he has become part of coach Dan McFarland’s fixtures and fittings.
I do not really feel tied to Leinster
Still, the converted number eight knows he still has a lot to learn about playing at loosehead prop. He is not about to get carried away and with the arrival of Jack McGrath to Ravenhill Road over the summer, the challenge is about to get greater.
“Still not comfortable quite yet, but getting there,” he says of testing himself every week. “Like anything the more you play and get out there the more you experience it. Coming up against Tadhg Furlong [in the Champions Cup quarter-final], that was a pretty nervous week for me. But on the day I felt it went all right.
“You learn when you have bad days. We went poorly against Connacht down at the Sportsground. That was a big learning curve for me and hopefully in a couple of weeks’ time [Pro14 quarter-final] I can correct that if I get the opportunity.”
He played youth rugby for St Mary’s and underage with Leinster. But he did not hear anything from the academy or sub-academy and ended up studying at Trinity College. Going into his final year he received a call from Kieran Campbell to come up to play an “A” game.
Ulster had just two fit props. For O’Sullivan the stars aligned. The rest is history. He slipped into a club regime with Banbridge. Over Christmas, Joe Schmidt mentioned him in passing. Happy Christmas Eric.
“Just to think you are on Joe Schmidt’s radar is pretty encouraging,” he says.
This weekend he may get another crack at Leinster in the Pro14. As Furlong put in a heavy shift against Toulouse and Leinster have already secured a home semi-final, O’Sullivan is likely to face Michael Bent at the Kingspan Stadium. Still he knows that it is Furlong who has the potential to school other props.
“There is a lot that he does really well,” says O’Sullivan. “It was just important to work collectively on what we did well. If you get involved in an individual battle with Tadhg it is not going to go well for you. He is just going to chew you up and spit you out. It was just important sticking with Marty [Moore] and Rory [Best] and focusing on getting our part right.”
“Coming into a game against Leinster personally I was just worried about Tadhg and what kind of challenge he was going to be. If I could do the best I could to keep him quiet, help the team to get a result.”
O’Sullivan, who went to Templeogue College may also represent one of the new breed who will play where their rugby takes them. Leinster players in the past were loath to leave and if they did, hungered to go back. There is a bigger picture now. The island of Ireland has become smaller, or maybe the mindsets have expanded.
“I do not really feel tied to Leinster,” he says. Nor do recent acquisitions Moore, McGrath or Jordi Murphy.
“He [McGrath] will be away with Ireland I am sure playing games there and that is where I will get my opportunities [next season],” he adds. “Hopefully, I just keep working hard at training and get in his ears as much as I can. Like Marty [Moore] this season, it has been great for me.”
The migration north was a profitable move for him. Age and borders are no longer barriers.