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From Queensland Schoolboys to the Ireland U20s: Tom O'Toole's tale

The Ulster tighthead prop is an exciting player for the future.

TOM O’TOOLE CAN recall a few moments of doubt when he was 16.

The Drogheda native had just moved back to Ireland from Australia, where he had been living with his family for 10 years, returning to pursue his ambition of playing rugby at the highest level.

Tom O'Toole

The IRFU had tracked his impressive progress in Australia and wanted the tighthead prop back in their system, leading to an opportunity for O’Toole to move to Campbell College in Belfast and eventually on into the Ulster academy, and now the Ireland U20s set-up.

While his parents did also move back to Ireland a few months later and are now happily settled in Termonfeckin, O’Toole returned on his own at first.

“The first month was especially tough,” says O’Toole, ahead of the U20s’ clash with Wales this evening in Donnybrook [KO 7.15pm, RTÉ], for which he is on the bench.

“I remember my first night in boarding school, sitting there, looking out the window and thinking, ‘Oh my God, how did I end up here?’ It was just overwhelming meeting so many people and there is pressure on yourself.

“You don’t want to be going back to Australia having not made it or just done two years in school and then not working out, so the first month hit me hard. I was missing my family a wee bit but I thought that if I was going to do this then I had to give it 100%.

“I couldn’t keep thinking about my friends back in Australia or what was going to happen. I just had to play well for my school and hopefully go into the academy system in Ulster and luckily enough it all worked out pretty well.”

Indeed it did, with O’Toole now considered one of the finest prospects in the Ulster set-up, having impressed in his first few appearances for the province’s ‘A’ side, even winning the man-of-the-match award in a British & Irish Cup win over Hartpury in December.

At a time when Ulster are crying out for tight-five forwards, O’Toole’s promise is exciting.

Tom O’Toole and Shane Daly

Born in Drogheda before moving to Australia via Meath due to his father’s work, O’Toole first took to Gaelic football and soccer and then played Aussie Rules when the family had settled in Brisbane.

“Then I realised I didn’t have the body type for AFL and they kept putting me in goals in soccer,” says O’Toole with a laugh, his accent an intriguing blend.

“That wasn’t too much fun so I thought, ‘Give me a rugby ball and maybe I can hit a few people as well.’ My older brothers went to secondary school and I watched them play rugby and thought ‘that’s what I want to do’.”

O’Toole began to shine on the rugby pitch in Padua College, a school that has produced several high-profile AFL and NRL players. While rugby league is hugely popular in Australia, it was union that the young Irishman immediately preferred.

“They love to play open rugby there and move the ball around so I got to develop my skills,” says O’Toole. “I played about five rugby league games in the ten years I was there. It was mostly all rugby union and as I got older that was the direction I wanted to go.

“Without putting rugby league down, I put a lot of thought into it and there is a bit more reading to do in union with things like lineouts and scrums. It’s not just ‘run the ball as straight and as fast as you can.’”

O’Toole’s talent was recognised, as he played for a Reds development side and then the Queensland Schoolboys in 2015.

Had he remained in Australia, there would have been a strong chance to line out for the national Schools team, but Irish rugby wasn’t going to miss out on luring one of their own back to these shores. The IRFU made contact and O’Toole didn’t think twice.

Tom O’Toole

“When I heard about it, I just went for it,” he says. “I wanted to come home. I always wanted to do some schooling in Ireland. That was a big thing for me.

“Even though I was in Australia for ten years, it wasn’t quite home. When I had the opportunity to come back and potentially play for Ireland at underage level I just thought, ‘Yeah, let’s do it’.”

Impressing with Campbell College thanks to his explosive power, mobility and handling skills, O’Toole played for the Ireland U18s in 2016, progressed into the national U19 set-up in 2017 and is now with the U20s.

That upward curve has convinced O’Toole more than ever before that he made the right decision in returning to Ireland.

“This has been a huge confidence boost,” says the prop. “You just know you are on the right track, it’s about ticking all the boxes. Ireland U18s was my first experience of it, getting a taste of it. I loved that and them got to go France with the U19s but U20s was the one.

“I knew that this was the big year. You have the Six Nations and Junior World Cup so that was the big box. The last box before you go on to senior rugby.”

While that prospect is very much at the back of O’Toole’s mind, and his potential is promising for Ulster, the focus right now is on nailing his involvement in the U20 Six Nations.

Having shown his resilience in making a move across the world at the age of 16 work, it would be no surprise to see O’Toole’s rise continue.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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