Belfast Telegraph

Eric O'Sullivan eager to step out of the shadow of Jack McGrath

 

Raring to go: Eric O’Sullivan is set to start for Ulster against Clermont after Jack McGrath’s injury
Raring to go: Eric O’Sullivan is set to start for Ulster against Clermont after Jack McGrath’s injury
Jack McGrath
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Whatever was in the Dublin water during the 1995/96 season, those born during the campaign are proving a vintage year for Irish props.

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At the year-group's under-20s World Cup, the loosehead selections were Andrew Porter, now a tight-head and one of Ireland's best performers at the World Cup in Japan, and Jeremy Loughman, now of Munster and man-of-the-match for Johann van Graan in the province's Champions Cup.

With Cian Healy and Jack McGrath already ahead of them by the time they hit the Academy in D4, it's little wonder that both had to ultimately shift course from their ambitions of making the blue number one jersey their own, nor that Eric O'Sullivan had to escape to Ulster to extricate himself from the loosehead logjam at home.

Having seized the opportunity up north given to him by Dan McFarland with a string of stellar outings last season, O'Sullivan once again found himself stuck behind McGrath to start this campaign, his fellow St Mary's man having made the same well-worn trip up the M1 over the summer.

"He's a St Mary's clubman as well, where I played my youth rugby, but we never crossed paths," says O'Sullivan of the relationship between the two.

"I can learn a lot from Jack and I already have. He has so much knowledge.

"He's played with and against so many great players. He's been on a Lions tour, he knows his stuff.

"The more I learn from him, the better I'm going to be and the better then that Ulster are going to be."

With McGrath now requiring surgery on a thumb issue worsened in the win over Bath that he appeared to sustain against Munster a week prior, O'Sullivan was pressed into a 73 minute shift at The Rec and will likely be asked to go deep again when Clermont are in town on Friday night (7.45pm kick-off) for a clash where both sides are looking to begin their Champions Cup pool with two wins from two.

As usual, O'Sullivan let nobody down last week, part of a successful scrum and showing the engine of a player who grew up playing more number eight and centre than he did prop.

"It was a lot longer than I was expecting," he admitted. "I was thinking it was going to be similar to Munster, (McGrath) was going to get up and go another 60 minutes but he didn't this time. You just have to be ready at all times on the bench, you could be called upon at any stage and that's the mindset you need to have.

"You have to be ready to go and personally I'm always dying to get on the pitch anyway."

An interesting battle awaits when McGrath returns to fitness but in the interim Friday's opponents provide a fine reminder of the depth now required by top sides in the propping department. O'Sullivan is set to go head to head against either Rabah Slimani or Davit Zirakashvili come scrum time, a duo possessing merely 26 seasons of pro rugby and over 100 Test caps between them.

While the scrum wasn't the most obvious aspect of their demolition of Harlequins last weekend, the French pack not only forced two penalties and a free-kick from the first three set-pieces but also a tactical front-row replacement from their visitors after only 16 minutes.

"Obviously Clermont have some very experience operators and some big operators," O'Sullivan reflected. "They'll be able to change whatever they're doing if they don't think it's working or if you think you're getting the upper-hand on one scrum, they might do something different on the next one. You just have to get in and look at what they do and make sure you've prepared for it as best you can. In training, it's about trying to replicate that and boys giving you a good challenge and trying to replicate the sort of pictures you see.

"(Homework) is massive. Every tight-head approaches it differently. Whether they like to go at an angle, whether they come at you straight, you just need to know what you're up against because you can get caught unaware pretty quickly and give yourself a long day."

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