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'Like going into a game': Ulster's Tom O'Toole relives first training session with Jack McGrath

Ulster v Cardiff Blues, Guinness Pro14 Championship, Kingspan Stadium, Tomorrow, 7.35pm

Guiding light: Tom O’Toole (pictured) says he has benefited from training alongside Jack McGrath
Guiding light: Tom O’Toole (pictured) says he has benefited from training alongside Jack McGrath
Jack McGrath

By Michael Sadlier

Live scrums at training. Not exactly something that is often the stuff of well-thumbed anecdote.

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In fact, generally, word of what happens when the front rows go head-to-head has consistently remained a largely strange and unknown environment.

So Tom O'Toole's refreshingly enthusiastic willingness to talk about a tighthead prop - himself - packing down against a loosehead is almost the stuff of breaking the silence that usually prevails on such matters.

For O'Toole, who turned 21 last month, the moment in question is when he got to go against Jack McGrath, an Ireland international as well as British and Irish Lion, in training.

McGrath, a mere nine years his senior, had not long arrived at Ulster from Leinster, so over to O'Toole, who will make his 27th Ulster appearance tomorrow evening when the Guinness PRO14 reconvenes after a week's break, with Cardiff Blues providing the opposition at Kingspan Stadium.

"It was a bit like actually going into a game that first training scrum we had," he recalled of eye-balling his new team-mate McGrath. "My mentality was 'here we go, this is Jack McGrath' who I had been watching since I was at school.

"It was definitely an experience coming up against him in the first training session," adds the Drogheda-born player, who relocated to Australia as a child before, with rugby now firmly in mind, completing his education at Campbell College.

You tentatively wonder how he fared against a player with over 50 Ireland caps and O'Toole doesn't shirk this one either.

"For me, it gave me a really good idea of where I need to be if I want to progress to that level," he explained.

It's safe to assume that McGrath gave the youngster a few pointers towards surviving and thriving against top quality looseheads.

"The talent he is, I know where I need to be if I want to be at that standard. It's brilliant having him here because if you slip, he'll let you know about it."

O'Toole has been making progress anyway since his debut as a teenager against Edinburgh in April 2018 and has rapidly come through to essentially be Marty Moore's understudy, with his main rival to backing up Ulster's other former front-line Leinster prop being Ross Kane.

Moore, who has yet to play this season due to injury, is also name-checked as being fundamental to O'Toole's learning even though they are both rivals.

"He realises you're young and eager to learn. As much as you compete with each other, he gives as much help as he can."

There is little doubt that O'Toole has a future which could offer much, though he is clearly thriving in the present as well - his mobility, handling and defensive presence have all been attention-grabbing strengths.

Scrummaging is a steeper learning curve for any young prop but Ulster are investing heavily in improving this area where so much is gleaned from simply experience.

"Last season was a bit up and down," he says of working at the scrummaging coal-face. "But this year I want to take a step forward.

"I've been working very closely with Dan (McFarland) and he has shown a lot of belief in me and I've grown in confidence around my scrummaging.

"Dan has sat down with me and we've had one-on-one sessions where we've just gone through scrum after scrum, so it's never not a work in progress, but I've definitely taken steps forward to where I want to be."

Thus far, O'Toole is coming along very nicely.

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