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O'Sullivan aiming at high benchmark after smashing through this season's targets

The Ulster loosehead was hoping to make five appearances this season, but has excelled to make a serious impact.

‘I MIGHT NEED to be more optimistic,‘ says Eric O’Sullivan with a self-depreciating laugh.

He’s on the subject of goal-setting, because – frankly – he has smashed through every personal target set in front of him this past year.

Eric O’Sullivan in action with Nicolas De Battista O'Sullivan making a carry against Zebre this season. Source: Matt Mackey/INPHO

Entering his second year in Ulster’s academy, the Dublin native set what now looks like an incredibly modest bar. His short-term mid-summer outlook centred around getting to train with the seniors and, from there, building himself up in search of five appearances with the red hand on his chest.

He completed that before September turned to October and sitting in Dublin for media duties in the name of Ulster’s main sponsor Kingspan last week, he ought to boast about his 23 caps, six of them in the Heineken Champions Cup.

O’Sullivan’s push for caps was, as is always the case in rugby, aided by injury. Kyle McCall’s misfortune was his gain, but after impressing with his insatiable work-rate, he took stock, reset his goals and promptly blasted through them too.

By Christmas, his name was one of just two to pass the lips of Joe Schmidt when the Kiwi was asked to offer hope for beyond his own tenure as Ireland head coach. For O’Sullivan it’s still crazy talk. He’ll accept the slap on the back, but he’s not yet ready to slide ‘Japan 2019′ in among his target range.

“That was a total shock,” the smiling O’Sullivan says of Schmidt’s compliment.

“No contact or anything (beforehand), but it’s flattering when you get that kind of namecheck. He’s obviously a great coach and to know you’re on his radar in any way is pretty special.

“I think my (Templeogue College) principal might have been at it (the Phillips manager of the year presentation) and she text me… it was pretty special, yeah.”

Eric O'Sullivan Eric O'Sullivan will play a key role for Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I know myself, I’m focused on playing well for Ulster week in week out, if that gets me  anywhere else I’m happy for that to happen. It’s just about playing hard and getting results for Ulster.”

Playing hard has certainly been at the core of O’Sullivan’s rise and he has consistently hit high marks in tackle count and ruck involvements, while as a former back row, his skill-set has allowed Dan McFarland more variety emerging from his pack.

When it comes to improvements, though, he has lofty goals indeed. Scrummaging can always be improved, he insists – “if you think you’ve made it you’ll get punished pretty quick” – but in open play he is working towards the benchmark set by Lions props from his native province.

“Breakdown work, if I can get to a stage when my breakdown is like Tadhg Furlong then it will be good for me and Ulster,” says the 23-year-old.

Between himself and Cian Healy, as a loosehead he’d be the example of what you can achieve. Tadhg Furlong is probably the best tighthead in the world, so I think they’re two guys to take inspiration from.

“When you see them just down the road in Leinster that adds a bit of spice, if you can be better than them Ulster will be in a great position.”

Of course, O’Sullivan is not long removed from being pitted head-to-head with those standard-bearers as he played 71 hard-fought minutes of Ulster’s narrow Champions Cup quarter-final loss to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium last month.

Ulster’s Eric O'Sullivan O'Sullivan runs at Cian Healy in the Champions Cup quarter-final. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

He will hope to see a better outcome in this weekend’s inter-provincial clash, when Connacht go to Belfast with a Pro14 semi-final on the line. Ulster will hope to see Rory Best fit and able to pack down alongside O’Sullivan and add some much-needed experience to a front row which will be short Marty Moore’s power on the tighthead side.

O’Sullivan speaks of both in glowing terms and credits their influence with improving his set-piece work, but with the Poyntzpass legend playing his final provincial matches this month, Ulster would dearly love to see him hoist an overdue trophy before leading Ireland in his fourth World Cup.

“He’s been very good for me personally. He helps everyone in the squad, he’s been there done that. He has so much knowledge.

Marty Moore, Iain Henderson, Rory Best and Eric O’Sullivan O'Sullivan, right, with Best, Henderson and Moore in the Champions Cup win over Scarlets. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I don’t think there’s any problem you can go to him with that he hasn’t seen before. If you need help scrummaging, he’ll help you, he’ll go into the review room and have a look at it with you.

“Then on the pitch he’ll give you little cues that keep you right. It’s great to have him there in some of the bigger games when you might be a bit nervous. He gives you confidence.

He wouldn’t be one to lose the head or shout, but if he gives you a look in training you know you’ve messed up and you won’t do it again.

“He’s very good that way, stays calm and has a word when it’s appropriate.

“It’s obviously going to be tough for Rory. He’s been such an integral part of Ulster for so long. I’m sure he’ll miss it and we’ll all miss him.

“Hopefully we’ll have a good run-in and get some silverware at the end of it.”

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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