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Eric O'Sullivan determined to recapture last term's red hot form


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Hungry for action: Eric O’Sullivan at Kingspan Stadium ahead of the trip to Wales

Hungry for action: Eric O’Sullivan at Kingspan Stadium ahead of the trip to Wales

Hungry for action: Eric O’Sullivan at Kingspan Stadium ahead of the trip to Wales

The idea was to switch off during the break in games, though the best of intentions don't always align with reality.

Eric O'Sullivan took himself off to Rome during his time off, enjoyed the food, the coffee, some of the sights and even managed to sit outside with his sunglasses on. No bad thing with the weather the way it is around these parts.

And yet he couldn't completely tune out - few professional players really can - from the niggling thoughts of how the 24-year-old's season has unfolded so far, especially compared to where he was 12 months ago.

Back then the Dublin native had unexpectedly made the loosehead prop position his own and had even been name-checked by Joe Schmidt as being very much on the then Ireland coach's radar.

Fast forward to now and, well, things aren't quite what they were. The recruitment of Jack McGrath has reduced his game-time from the admittedly full-on and weighty load of last season and may indeed now be viewed as, well, a bit of a roadblock.

O'Sullivan admitted as much himself when initially asked about the Ireland and British and Irish Lions prop heading north, but has, since then, mostly covered his tracks well with diplomacy and the need for learnings off a much more grizzled operator in the murky world of scrummaging.

O'Sullivan did get a run of starts for just short of a month in the approach to Christmas while McGrath nursed his thumb issue, but then the older loosehead returned and was called into Andy Farrell's squad, while the young tyro who also got the nod to attend was tighthead prop Tom O'Toole.

It's all been a bit flat really for O'Sullivan, who has had only six starts from the 12 games he has so far been involved in for Ulster. All the sort of stuff which is hard to entirely shift from the mind, even when in Rome.

"I've been happy enough with some of my performances," says O'Sullivan before elaborating.

"I don't think I've got back to the level where I need to be at and I know I have a lot to work on to get back where I want to be. In a couple of games I've struggled in the scrum. And if you're not giving a good set-piece as a front row forward that's never a good sign."

The set-piece work of any prop has to be the foundation stone and, in last season's break-out campaign, O'Sullivan held his own while cutting a dash in the loose as a player with handling skills and an eager engine for getting around the park.

This time around he has spoken with Dan McFarland about the scrummaging as well as bending McGrath's ear. Then there is Marty Moore and other Ulster tightheads who can also assist.

"I always find you learn more from a tighthead because they are the ones you are scrummaging against," O'Sullivan states.

"They can tell you what you've done wrong and what's working well," he adds, before trying to put his finger on why his set-piece work this term hasn't been just so high grade.

"I don't know, maybe last year they just didn't know me and maybe now they're watching more footage (of me).

"Maybe it's just getting one or two things off (technically) and that can completely throw you.

"A big one for me this year is my left arm coming down a bit (on the bind with the opposition tighthead), but I've argued there have been a few tightheads on my arm but the referee sees my arm going down and, well, that's an easy decision (to make against me).

"Referees will differ but, fundamentally, it's not about adapting to the ref, it's just about giving the ref good pictures and simply working towards being a dominant pack."

He knows there are likely to be any amount of scrums come Saturday at the Liberty Stadium as the weather is expected to be less than benign, which was also the case a year ago when Ulster came out on top in an 8-0 slugfest against the Ospreys at Bridgend's Brewery Field.

Whether O'Sullivan starts or is benched again, he will want to make a positive impression against the really struggling Ospreys as Ulster begin a three-week window of Guinness PRO14 clashes which could go a considerable way to helping them secure their second-place in Conference A.

"I'm definitely looking forward to any opportunity I get," he says, presumably meaning being in the starting side, though McGrath's return from Ireland camp may not necessarily see that happening this weekend.

Ulster certainly travel to Wales off the back of some pretty impressive form having lost just two games from their last eight in all competitions, though, unsurprisingly, O'Sullivan is keen to play down the notion that this should be a routine result against a side who have won just one match all season.

"It doesn't matter who you play, or how well you've played, you need to perform week in and week out. It just doesn't happen for you," he says.

He doubtless reminded himself of this over those coffees in sunny Rome.

Rainy Swansea now awaits.

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