Belfast Telegraph

Chris Henry: Eric O'Sullivan is proving he has the quality to prop up Ulstermen

Fired up: Eric O’Sullivan has been a revelation this season
Fired up: Eric O’Sullivan has been a revelation this season
Jack McGrath
Chris Henry

By Chris Henry

It was pretty evident early on that Eric O'Sullivan was going to be one of Dan McFarland's star pupils. I don't know whether it was their mutual love of scrums or something else, but instantly they just seemed to get on well together.

Sometimes it's like that between a coach and a player, everything clicks and they're able to get the best out of you.

It's been an incredible season for Eric already, especially considering he'd not played a senior minute before Dan arrived, but his performance against Dragons on Sunday was certainly one of his best. He may have got a bit giddy at times with the offloads but to see your props making linebreaks as he and Marty Moore did, it's just something that provides a real lift for the whole side.

He deserved his man of the match award for sure and I've no doubt there'll be a part of him thinking the timing could certainly be worse too.

We'll wait and see what happens with the potential move north for Jack McGrath but I'd say the rumours will certainly have acted as motivation.

For me, I know Jack well, he's a brilliant player and I'd be the first to say he'd be a great addition. He's always got on well with all the Ulster lads in Ireland camps and, even if he's been playing through a bit of an injury recently, he has undoubted quality. If both players are there playing at the best of their abilities then Jack would get the nod but, when it comes to props, you can never have enough depth.

And there's absolutely no harm in Eric offering reminders that, 'Hey, I'm the guy who is here now and doing it'.

He's so young and there's no telling where he'll end up. To be honest, it's surprised me that he hasn't already been called down to Carton House to train and get some exposure to the international environment so that it's less of a shock to the system when he does make the step up.

But in terms of catching the eye in Rodney Parade, O'Sullivan wasn't alone among the forwards.

I was never club captain at Ulster but had the privilege of leading the side out a good few times, usually when Rory Best was absent on Irish duty. So I know how hard it can be to get the emotional pitch just where it needs to be at this time of year, while it always seemed that, for whatever reason, Dragons was a difficult place to nail it too.

With the weather as well, this was certainly a game that could have been seen as a potential banana skin, and credit has to go to stand-in skipper Alan O'Connor because Ulster came out of the traps like they meant business.

Al is a great player but not necessarily flash so he's someone who doesn't always get the credit he deserves. He's not somebody from here but there's no denying how much it all means to him and, while he doesn't say much, when he does it carries weight and he's someone that all the boys respect.

He's a hard man too so, in a lot of ways, it was the perfect game for him, one where Ulster had to roll up their sleeves to get the job done.

To go down to 13 men in any game is unusual but to get the bonus-point try during that spell really was bonkers. To go through 25-odd phases off the lineout, keeping everything tight down two men, it was really something.

If there was a lasting impact of Jono Gibbes' short stay in Ulster it was probably that increased focus on running hard, direct lines. His thing was always that it made sense to have 300kg hitting the same point.

It doesn't always work, but those straight carries from the likes of Clive Ross and Nick Timoney really made an impact at the weekend, while there was almost a viciousness to the way Rob Herring and Jordi Murphy were clearing out rucks.

It wasn't a great day to be a back - and having been returned from Ireland duty, it was probably a game where John Cooney put too much pressure on himself - but, adding in a good performance off the bench for Matty Rea after injury, it was one where the pack really stood up and made it count. As a former forwards coach himself, I've no doubt McFarland was a happy man too.

Joe Schmidt is right to remain positive about Ireland's 2019 hopes

My old Ireland coach was humorous and insightful but he was honest and forthright too. He admitted that Ireland have been sluggish so far in this Six Nations but he still seems positive about this group of players - as he said himself, as well he might given that they're still the winners of 20 of their last 22 games.

He seems to be of the opinion that a good win against France on Sunday could really set the ball rolling and he's right.

For all the doom and gloom, if they do that then they're going to Wales not only with a view to stopping another Slam like they did to England in 2017, but with a shot at retaining their Championship.

The way the fixtures have fallen, there's no denying that you'd rather have had France earlier and England later, but when I look at Les Bleus I just wonder if that game against Scotland was almost them getting their win of the tournament.

In Dublin as well, all these years later and it's still the old cliché of not knowing how they're going to pitch up when on their travels.

For Ireland, the break will have done wonders too. I had written last week about needing to get out of their own heads a little bit so it was no surprise to see them out and about during the week in Belfast, even getting the chance to go out for a few drinks.

There'll have been a good buzz about the group and being away somewhere else just gives you that opportunity to chill out a bit more... or as much as you can during a Six Nations.

There'll be reinforcements too, of course.

We all expect Rory Best to come back in as skipper while, with CJ Stander, James Ryan, Cian Healy and Garry Ringrose all available too, I'm sure we'll see changes from the Italy game.

I'd be surprised if we don't see a home victory.

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