Eric O’Sullivan has put himself on the map with Ulster
The prop is a prime example of the IRFU’s leave-no-player-behind policy
Ulster’s Eric O’Sullivan against Benetton.“Over the last 18 months he has been getting stronger and stronger.” Photograph: Elena Barbini/Inpho
Joe Schmidt loves an elongated name-checking exercise, so when Des Cahill over Christmas asked about the many “young players coming through” we braced for the former school principal to rattle off each and every teenager he has witnessed since landing on this isle in 2010.
The Ireland coach went another way, settling for just two in Connacht centre Tom Farrell and a largely unknown 23-year-old Ulster prop.
“There’s a few who haven’t been on the stage yet that are starting to push up through,” said Schmidt. “Young guys, like Eric O’Sullivan, who played very well at the weekend...”
The ulterior motive was clear. You are mapped, kid. We see you.
“I always remember watching Cian Healy, he was so explosive and dynamic,” O’Sullivan told the Belfast Telegraph. “He was always someone I looked up to big time, especially being in Leinster. I remember watching him running round Maxime Medard. That’s the kind of thing that sticks in the memory when you’re talking about a loosehead prop. He was the first of those modern props. He set the tone going forward.”
Eric O’Sullivan is a prime example of the IRFU’s leave-no-player-behind policy where unused Leinster seeds are gathered and replanted in Limerick, Galway and Belfast fields.
The current gold rush of loosehead props began with Healy. Jack McGrath’s career overlaps, so while he is heir to the number one jersey, and even wore it for two seasons (2015-17), Ed Byrne is currently selected ahead of him at Leinster, while Peter Dooley looks every inch the part whenever the dust clears at the RDS.
Dave Kilcoyne remains a genuine contender for Ireland selection in 2019. James Cronin was keeping Kilcoyne out of the Munster team until his latest injury lay off. Jeremy Loughman, a prodigious tighthead who found his way to Blackrock College in 2014, a team that also took in fellow Munster defectors Joey Carbery and Conor Oliver for their Leaving Cert, appeared to come of age at the Sportsground last Saturday. That same interpro gathering should have been Denis Buckley’s 150th game in Connacht green. A stomach bug temporarily slows the 28-year-old Roscommon man’s search for national recognition.
What of Ulster?
With little to report on the home-grown propping landscape, O’Sullivan swam to the surface via the circuitous route of Templeogue College, Trinity and Banbridge.
“I played backrow for a few years. Leinster sort of said there’d be better opportunities going forward in the frontrow and that’s the sort of advice you take on board.”
O’Sullivan’s story is thus: he turned up for under-18 trials as a prop but on return to Templeogue, a minor rugby nursery in terms of production with Mal O’Kelly their guiding light, number eight was his necessary position.
“When he first came to us we played Lansdowne and he was bollixed, absolutely wrecked afterwards,” remembers Trinity director of rugby Tony Smeeth. “Jesus, Eric, what is wrong with you?”
“That’s the first time I’ve ever played a full game at prop,” he replied.
He had only really done 20 minutes here and there for Leinster [underage sides] so his progress has been phenomenal.”
O’Sullivan’s immovable obstacle used to be Andrew Porter. Fortune briefly shone upon him when the enduring Healy/McGrath combination prompted Porter’s shift to tighthead in 2017, but in the same period Loughman became a loosehead.
The Leinster Academy passed on O’Sullivan but other routes exist.
“We try to recruit everyone who makes underage provincial trials,” says Smeeth. “We send letters to all of them. Eric ticked all the boxes; good player, a true blue and I am not just saying that, he’s a special guy. He works so hard. Smart as well, 500-plus in the Leaving, real unassuming and maybe that’s why he didn’t make it at Leinster. He would be polite; ‘no, you go first’ type of guy. Incredibly well mannered. Like, old school well mannered.
“He played [Trinity] 20s and two years senior so we are delighted he has landed on his feet up in Ulster.”
It nearly went the other way. The net gets casts wide nowadays, but it still requires patience to grow props (Porter and Healy being freakish exceptions to the obvious rule about boys becoming men).
“I remember [UCD director of rugby] Bobby Byrne coming up to me at the Colours dinner,” Smeeth continues. “Now, Porter had just moved over to tighthead and Eric destroyed him – it was Porter’s second game – but Bobby was wondering, ‘why hasn’t anyone picked him up?’ That’s the opposing coach saying that. His work rate has always been off the charts. He still plays like a number eight.
“In fairness we all knew about Porter – he was this man child – but the best thing he ever did was move to tighthead. Look at his body type, he’s incredibly strong. Loughman is now cutting it for Munster. I know Jeremy, coached him in Blackrock, and I always thought Eric was as good.
“The problem was after each trial Eric was playing backrow in Templeogue whereas Jeremy was returning to Blackrock for almost daily scrum sessions with Seamus Toomey, who is probably the best scrum coach in Ireland. Eric even played centre for St Mary’s under-18s.”
Thankfully for Ulster, Smeeth still has the soft eyes needed to identify real potential in its infancy.
“I bumped into Bryan Young, the scrum coach up in Ulster, and he was saying they don’t have any good young props coming through. ‘We got someone for you.’ We sent up some tapes and the rest is history.
“To be honest, in the first year they messed him around. He nearly didn’t go up to their academy as they initially told me he could keep playing for Trinity in Division 1A but when they got him they said he has to play for Banbridge in 1B. There is a big, big difference between 1A and 1B as we found that out when we came up. That was nearly a stumbling point but he had to go up.”
The road opened up for O’Sullivan when Schalk van der Merwe followed Rodney Ah You out of Belfast in December. Schmidt doesn’t name-check players mired in club rugby or for Leinster A.
This remains far from a success story. The potential for horrendous exposure comes when locking necks this Saturday with gold standard tightheads Ben Tameifuna/Census Johnston and Cedate Gomes Sa.
“He’ll still get his ass kicked,” Smeeth agrees. “Even Tadhg Furlong struggled recently after coming back from a lay-off. It’s a position where you can get humbled very quickly.”
Rory Best’s presence has helped during some heavy examinations over these winter months.
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” O’Sullivan admitted. “Rory is incredible, always in your ear before every scrum with little tips, little nuggets, just to keep you focused and keep your head in the game. Coming up against someone like [Scarlets and Wales tighthead] Samson Lee, it definitely helps having Rory beside you.”
Trinity can take a little credit too.
“I give Hugh Maguire eight lads at the start of every season and by the end he has moulded them into men. Not just rugby wise but for life as well. Every Tuesday we put down 40 minutes of live scrummaging. You have to with students or we’d get destroyed by the Lansdownes of this world, who are actual men.
Good running shape
“Eric came through that. He was never big into the weights when he came to us. Always in good running shape – I know he was a minute ahead of the next Ulster prop this pre-season over 1,000m – but after the first year he got a little disillusioned that the chances weren’t coming. He’s a lovely guy, you see, a sensitive guy, so I said, ‘you got to condition. Porter would eat you in the gym.’ His numbers weren’t great but over the last 18 months he has been getting stronger and stronger.
“I sent him a text last week, ‘The ultimate compliment is getting rested the week before European Cup!’ That’s where you want to be.”
And that’s where he seems to belong.
YOUNG PLAYERS THAT MOVE
IRFU performance director David Nucifora recently spoke about Leinster-born and raised talent – passed over by the academy – flooding into other provinces.
“You take your hat off to the young players that moved. If you’re going to be a high performing athlete you have to be ambitious. You have to take chances, put yourself out on a limb, and that’s what they are doing because they want to be the best they can be. They’re choosing to chase their dreams by doing that.”