I've tried to stay grounded since 'crazy' mention by Joe Schmidt, says Ulster star O'Sullivan
When this season began, tomorrow's fixture with Leinster at Kingspan Stadium (5.15pm kick-off) was perhaps the sort that Eric O'Sullivan would have targeted for game time.
The former Templeogue College and Trinity student had yet to make a professional appearance when he was included in the senior squad's pre-season preparations, his place in the Ulster Academy owing to an impressive turn for the A side when they found themselves short a loosehead prop for a British and Irish Cup game.
A year playing with Banbridge in Division 1B of the All-Ireland League had provided a few more learnings, and as he approached 2018-19 he set himself a goal of five senior outings by season's end.
Fast-forward nine months and he's become so integral to Dan McFarland's side that, with a heavily rotated side likely to take the field tomorrow, he seems a good bet to be one of those wrapped in cotton wool.
Having hit his initial target of five games just five weeks into the season, he's now managed 24 of them, all the while becoming Ulster's first-choice loosehead and even catching the eye of Joe Schmidt in a World Cup year.
"I had hoped to have five caps this year, that was my goal," he said with a smile at a sponsor's event for Kingspan in Dublin.
"I reassessed that fairly early in the year. It has been an incredible season for me and I have enjoyed every minute of it.
"I'm still not comfortable quite yet, but I'm getting there. It's like anything, the more you play and get out there the more you experience it. You learn, and when you have bad days, those are the ones you really learn from."
Having missed out as an 18-year-old when Leinster decided upon their Academy intake, it is perhaps no surprise that when asked for the secret of his unexpected success, O'Sullivan points to being given an opportunity.
"It's a bit of good luck (for me) but misfortune for Kyle McCall," he said. "He got injured (before the season opener) and was meant to be on the bench for the Scarlets game. I got in there and I have had a good run since."
While modesty is no bad thing when it comes to the often humbling experience of top-level scrums, that can be seen as something of an understatement.
A former back-rower, his impressive work rate was a key tenet of his best performances so far, with lengthy shifts at the coalface now becoming the new normal.
It was after one such outing against Scarlets in the Champions Cup that brought the name-check from Schmidt, the national coach responding to a question about which young players were emerging onto the radar.
"I came into the season with no real ambitions, I just wanted to work hard and get a couple of caps for Ulster and take it from there," he said. "But if Joe Schmidt knows who you are, it is a little bit crazy.
"I tried not to give it too much thought, you can get carried away with people talking about you, but it is great to get that mention, just to think you are on Joe Schmidt's radar is pretty encouraging."
Given his form, there were those who questioned Ulster's acquisition of Jack McGrath. A Lions loosehead, one with more than 50 caps for Ireland, is hardly a signing to be sniffed at though and O'Sullivan says he welcomed the impending arrival.
"It is great to see that quality of a player coming in and I think it is only going to progress the group," he said. "He has impressed me as an individual. It is very exciting and I'm looking forward to it.
"He will be away with Ireland, I am sure, playing games and that is where I will get my opportunities, and hopefully I keep working hard at training and get in his ears as much as I can.
"Like Marty (Moore) this season, it has been great and hopefully will be the same next year."
As one Ireland and Lions front-rower arrives, another will leave, with O'Sullivan admitting that come next week's Guinness PRO14 quarter-final with Connacht there will be a real desire to give the retiring Rory Best a fitting send-off.
"It would be awesome to get that for Rory," he said. "It is not something we have talked about but I am sure everybody is thinking it would be great to get that for him and the team as well."