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O'Loughlin itching to get back on the pitch after working on Joe's homework

The Leinster centre missed out on a place in the Ireland squad but was given plenty to work on by Joe Schmidt during the November break.

O'Loughlin is set to start Leinster's Pro14 clash with Dragons tomorrow evening.
O'Loughlin is set to start Leinster's Pro14 clash with Dragons tomorrow evening.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

THERE IS ALWAYS an element of good fortune when a player enjoys a meteoric rise, but in Rory O’Loughlin’s case hard work and perseverance was at the heart of his breakthrough season.

His nine-month journey from no man’s land to touring with Ireland has been well-documented, but it’s easy to forget just how far he has come in a relatively short period of time; a Leinster debut in September 2016, an international debut in June 2017.

It’s been quite a year for the 22-year-old, who made 21 appearances for the province last season, scoring 10 tries, as he propelled himself firmly into Leo Cullen’s long-term plans. A first senior contract followed, and then that Test debut in Shizuoka.

Modest goals, with big rewards.

Now, in his second full season in the Leinster squad, and his first as an established member, O’Loughlin has had to reset the dial with slightly different aspirations.

Early-season injuries to Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Noel Reid and Tom Daly opened the door for the former St Michael’s student in Leinster’s midfield, rather than on the wing where he caused most damage last season.

Featuring in the first five of Leinster’s Pro14 games of the campaign, O’Loughlin continued an encouraging start with a brace in the province’s inter-pro victory over Munster at the Aviva Stadium, but then fell out of favour for the opening two rounds of the Champions Cup.

Sitting out the wins over Montpellier and Glasgow effectively ended his chances of earning the call from Joe Schmidt for the November internationals.

“Definitely disappointed to miss out,” he says. “Joe actually rang me the night before the squad was announced just to let me know. He said it was a very close call and told me who he was going with, some of the reasons why, what I was doing well and what I need to work on.

“To get a call was kind of reassuring as he told me I wasn’t far away and what needs to be done to hopefully get back in the picture for the Six Nations. To miss out on the two European games before the squad was selected, I kind of knew they would be a big factor in the tight calls so that was the disappointing thing.”

Rory O’Loughlin runs in his sides second try Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With Bundee Aki eligible to represent Ireland, Chris Farrell now back in the IRFU system and Stuart McCloskey enjoying a powerful start to the year with Ulster, O’Loughlin had fallen down the international pecking order.

Schmidt threw him a mountain of work.

“After the summer tour he kind of met with all the players and highlighted what needs to be worked on,” O’Loughlin explains.

“And some of that stuff I’ve gotten better at and there’s still some stuff I need to improve on. He just kind of gave me feedback on how the games have gone so far this season so it was definitely reassuring to hear that.

Can you go into specifics? The work-ons?

“He’s big into anticipating play especially as an outside back. That’s what I’ve tried to be better at as there’s certain stuff I wouldn’t have even noticed I wasn’t doing both in attack or defence.

“From an attack perspective, it would be communicating to the forwards especially as it would be one loose forward with me that I would need to give direct communication to. It makes the whole play kind of work especially at international level as you see sharp running lines in the outside channels and it sits down defenders and that’s when you score tries.

“He’s given me feedback on some games when I’ve been too slow to do that and there’s been disjointed forwards out in the wider channels and then in defence just not switching off.

“There have been games when play has been on the other side of the field and as a 13 or a winger you need to be anticipating a line break to the corner flag where I have been kind of switching off. That’s another area I have been working on to try and get better at.

“And then defensive position off set-pieces, it’s different as it depends on who you’re playing against but if you’re playing against a backline which likes to throw the ball wide you need to be wide off the first phase or else you’re going to get cut up. There have been situations this season when we’ve paid the price for that so there’s a good bit to work on. Thankfully I’ve a bit of time to do it now in the next few games.”

Comprehensive feedback, then.

Having worked under Schmidt on the summer tour to USA and Japan, O’Loughlin has used it all as nourishment. That exposure has been hugely beneficial.

Rory O’Loughlin Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He continues: “You realise very quickly when you go into a camp, Joe’s not going to say something you are doing wrong without having proof of you doing it wrong.

“He will show you a number of times that you’ve done it wrong to highlight it. His analysis of the game and every minor detail of the game is insane.

“It would make you concentrate on everything you do. That’s why his teams are so successful. His training sessions are so intense that, if your body position is in any way off, be it in a made-up ruck or running a dummy line, he will let you know about it.

“It is a different environment to in here [at Leinster] in that way. It is all minor details that he focuses on because international rugby is a step-up and those minor details do have repercussions.

“You need to go in there [to camp] and really be ready to work. It is not going out to Carton House for a few days and training and switching off. You have to be switched on the whole time.

“You have to ask questions if you are not sure about stuff and, if you make mistakes, you have to ask questions about what you’ve done wrong and how you can do better.

“But, if you are being quiet about it, he won’t tolerate it. It is about going in there and wanting to work and having a mindset that I’m going to get better in there and buy into it.”

A steep learning curve, but so too was the whole of last season for O’Loughlin.

When an opening on the Leinster wing presented itself, he took full advantage of injuries to Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden. He made the position his own, seized his chance and grew in stature and confidence week-on-week, milestone after milestone.

Primarily a centre in schools rugby and the academy, O’Loughlin showed all his versatility and raw ability by switching to the wing and made a big impact to emerge as one of the brightest young players at the heart of Leinster’s exciting renewal.

But with Garry Ringrose returning from a five-month injury lay-off and set to renew his partnership with Robbie Henshaw, O’Loughlin knows he needs to up the ante again and hit the ground running when Leinster return to Pro14 action against Dragons tomorrow evening.

Rory O'Loughlin Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Schmidt sees him as a centre who can play on the wing, rather than vice versa, but such is the depth of resources and competition for places at both club and international level, he admits there may be more of an opening on the wing than in midfield going forward.

“The more you can play wing the better you get there and there’s a lot of players like Fergus McFadden who started off as a centre and ended up having a career on the wing,” O’Loughlin says.

“I’m more than happy to play there, I enjoyed it last year when I played on the wing but at the moment I’m playing in the centre. I don’t know when Garry comes back fit and he’s in the centre and I’m pushed out to the wing I’ve no issues playing there. It’s about playing at the end of the day.

“Maybe that is a better option to get into the Irish team but I don’t know, I’m just going to take it as it comes really.”

And why wouldn’t he? It is an approach, coupled with hard work, that has paid rich dividends over the last 18 months — and he is now itching to get back on the pitch again.

“It seems like ages since we’ve played, so I’m really looking forward to it. Hopefully, we can get back to winning ways.”

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