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Eric O'Sullivan savouring his remarkable rise through Ulster's ranks

 

French test: Ulster’s Eric O’Sullivan gets to grips with Racing’s Simon Zebo earlier this season
French test: Ulster’s Eric O’Sullivan gets to grips with Racing’s Simon Zebo earlier this season
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster's newest front-row hope is a relative novice when it comes to social media. Indeed, Eric O'Sullivan has tweeted just once on his new Twitter account, remarking to his few hundred followers on December 31: "What a year it has been! Wishing you all the very best for 2019."

The 23-year-old could be described as something of a master of the understatement too.

The first game of his 2018 saw him take the field as Banbridge's tighthead against Old Belvedere in the second tier of the All-Ireland League. It was a game his side lost to 14 men after the conceding of a late drop goal was followed by a failed attempt to maul their way over in the corner.

His first game of 2019 will be a more well-attended affair, with in excess of 17,000 expected to file through the Kingspan Stadium turnstiles tomorrow afternoon for Ulster's huge Champions Cup game against European heavyweights Racing 92 (3.15pm kick-off).

That O'Sullivan's presumed selection in the home side's No.1 jersey seems such a foregone conclusion speaks volumes about the incredible journey he's been on in the last six months.

Before last week's loss to his native Leinster when he was given a deserved rest, he had featured in every game this season - all this having never played a senior game before September. With Kyle McCall and Tommy O'Hagan injured, and both Schalk van der Merwe and Rodney Ah You having been ushered out the exit door, the reliance upon him could hardly be greater.

Listen to this week's Ulster Rugby Round Up podcast as we look ahead to the big game:

"I think ultimately it's been a bit of good fortune and misfortune on other guys' behalf," he said to describe his rapid ascent. "Obviously Kyle (McCall) was very unlucky earlier in the year and that gave me a great opportunity. I'm just trying to take it game by game and put in good performances. It's been going alright for me."

Of all the Ulster Academy products to make an impact in the early days of Dan McFarland's reign, O'Sullivan is perhaps the most unlikely.

Having attended Templeogue College - the Dublin school perhaps most famous in rugby terms for producing 92-times-capped Ireland lock Mal O'Kelly - O'Sullivan had played Under-20s rugby for Leinster but went no further. It was off the back of his performances for Trinity in the All-Ireland League that he was given a chance for the Ulster A side away to Jersey Reds at the start of 2017.

On a team-sheet that, somewhat amusingly in hindsight, contained a J Stockdale on the wing, O'Sullivan's subsequent performances saw him secure an Academy deal with Ulster.

When it now seems that more and more players are tipped for provincial honours while only halfway through school, his story is a reminder of the myriad of ways to make your mark in the professional game.

"There's lots of talented players who maybe wouldn't get picked up if they weren't playing for a good school or a good club," he said. "I think the club game has a lot to offer.

"Personally playing for Trinity, (coach) Tony Smeeth was very good for my development and from playing at that level you can definitely progress."

While he was limited to working with the under-age side in his first year, he saw the pre-season as a real chance to make an impression on the coaches, especially new man Dan McFarland.

"I was really excited coming into pre-season and really excited to get out there," he said.

"All last year I was training with the Academy but obviously if you're training with the seniors you're going to be exposed to the coaches.

"That was a big thing for me, just to make sure I made an impression in every session and pushed myself as hard as I could.

"The big thing that hits you is being in the changing room and looking around at all the guys around you. The likes of Iain Henderson, Rory Best, you just think, 'Wow, I've looked up to these guys for so long' and then you're in beside them. It's pretty incredible."

As will only be natural for one so inexperienced, there have been lessons along the way with O'Sullivan using them as teachable moments.

"Pre-season against Wasps didn't go well for me," he recalled with a rueful chuckle. "Going up against Kieran Brookes in the scrum didn't go well for me but it's been going better since then.

"You're learning a lot. Obviously there's a long way to go and I'm still pretty young for a prop, but there's definitely been an emphasis on trying to learn as much as I can and squeeze every drop out of it."

This week, that means taking on one of Europe's premier sides in the shape of Racing 92.

O'Sullivan was a second-half replacement when the Parisians won 44-12 in October.

With Racing suffering front-row injuries, it'll be a different line-up put out there by the visitors but O'Sullivan is expecting no less of a threat.

"I think it will be pretty similar," he said. "Obviously they have a very big forward pack so it's very important that we front up. Then they have great backs like Finn Russell, Simon Zebo.

"They just look to be really enjoying themselves out there on the pitch so it's very important that we get our roles right up front in the forward pack, we need to look after them, then on the back of that we need to respect what they've got."

It'll be his fifth appearance in the Champions Cup, where arguably he produced his best performance in an Ulster jersey away to Scarlets last month.

While half of his outings at this level have admittedly been against PRO14 opposition, he is yet to discern a huge step up in quality from domestic to European action.

"Not really, no," he said. "There's a great buzz around all week, it's big rugby at this stage, knock-out rugby, so there's a sense of occasion to it but, at the same time, for us young guys just getting to pull on the white jersey regardless of what game we're playing is special.

"It's a great opportunity to give the coaches something to look at."

One coach who has been watching has been Joe Schmidt, who name-checked him at the Phillips Manager of the Year awards ceremony last month. Thoughts of an Ireland jersey remain far from his thoughts.

"It's very flattering but there's a lot of great props in Ireland, well-established guys too," he said. "It's just about playing well for Ulster. Hopefully off the back of that in the future there might be something there for me but for now, my head is firmly on Ulster."

Ulster vs Racing 92

Heineken Champions Cup - Pool Four

Kingspan Stadium, Tomorrow, 3.15pm

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