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I fell in love when I first laid eyes on Kingspan: Tom O'Toole

 

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Big impression: Tom O’Toole is loving life at the Kingspan

Big impression: Tom O’Toole is loving life at the Kingspan

Tom O'Toole in action for Ulster

Tom O'Toole in action for Ulster

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Big impression: Tom O’Toole is loving life at the Kingspan

Imagine upping sticks and leaving your whole life behind to move halfway across the world. Now consider doing so not for a career, but just the chance of a career. Finally, think about what it would have been like at the age of only 16.

This was the start of the journey that brought Tom O'Toole to Ulster.

He was born in Drogheda but had lived in Australia for a decade, the move coming thanks to his father's work commitments. With his family having settled in Brisbane, he had quickly found himself switching Gaelic football for Aussie Rules.

Rugby came later - after, he jokes, he realised that consistently being placed in goals meant the AFL probably wasn't for him - but he was soon making an impact and was picked for the Reds development side, then the Queensland Schoolboys in 2015.

"One of the coaches when I was playing for the representative team, Johnny McMurray, he got me in contact (with Ireland) by putting my name in the Exiles system," said O'Toole.

"I was delighted at the time, but I never thought anything of it.

"I was coming back (to Ireland) for a holiday and he said, 'Do you mind coming up to Ulster and having a chat with Kieran Campbell?'

"It was awesome, I was so excited. I was still a schoolboy then. I went up and spoke with Kieran and he said, 'Yeah, if you finish your school in Australia and maybe do university here, there could be an opportunity'. I said, 'Sure, that sounds great'.

"The plan was originally to go back to Australia, finish the schooling and then come over, but a few months went by and we kept in contact and we decided if I was going to come I might as well come now and do a couple of years schooling here, that the transition might be a bit easier.

"I remember when I came here and had a look around, I fell in love. I loved the stadium, I loved the facilities and the people I met there were just awesome. I just knew it was exactly where I wanted to be. Seeing a lot of quotes around the place, a lot of those quotes spoke to me a bit with my personality, that's where I wanted to be, so immediately I didn't really look anywhere else. I didn't really want to look anywhere else, to be honest."

It was a huge decision to make for one so young, especially as his parents would not be returning with him at first.

"I had a week to decide," he recalled. "A week later I was on a plane. I was 16 at the time. The plane door just shut and I thought, 'What am I doing? Get me off'.

"But it was what I had to do at the time, this was hopefully my future now. The plane took off and I have been here ever since."

Quicker than anyone could have imagined, O'Toole has cracked the senior panel. At a time when many of his contemporaries are still studying, he's been learning lessons in PRO14 scrums having made 12 appearances after debuting as a 19-year-old last April.

"It was coming near the end of the year and I'd played with the Irish Under-20s, Ulster 'A' and Banbridge, my club at the time," he said. "At that time, my focus was on the U20s World Cup and I was putting my head in that direction and then, all of a sudden, I was coming off my last Ulster 'A' game against Bedford away, I remember getting a text on the plane. I saw the text saying, 'Come in on Monday'. It wasn't a huge text so I thought I was going to hold a tackle bag and run around. Then I was told I was starting.

"To be given the opportunity was just awesome. Then I was told I'd be playing. It was unbelievable but I didn't want to just survive, I just wanted to get out, throw myself in there and really excel. Getting the opportunity was a great, great memory."

Now 20-years-old, he has been learning his trade on the fly. Naturally, it hasn't always been a smooth process in a season when Ulster's scrum has struggled.

"I think with some of the young players, we are all still trying to figure it out a little bit and we are taking all the advice we can on board and taking it all in, doing what we learned during the week on the weekend," he said. "It is just a bit of consistency and getting reps in.

"It is good to get this experience now and as young players together I think if we can just improve, in the next couple of years we will be really comfortable with the young guys.

"It is a tall learning for us, but it has been great."

Against Uruguay in tonight's Kingspan Stadium friendly (7.30pm), he'll be seen almost as a senior figure. Ulster fans are already glad he stayed on that plane.

Belfast Telegraph