'You want to be performing to a level where it’s not up for debate, you just have to be picked'

Ulster’s Eric O’Sullivan is eager to push his game on and hit new targets in his career.

AMIDST A YEAR that most will want to forget, Eric O’Sullivan will look back on 2020 as one that yields mixed emotions.

eric-osullivan-makes-his-international-debut Eric O'Sullivan during his international debut last year. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Off the pitch, like everyone else it was still one to forget for the loosehead prop with the Covid-19 pandemic limiting everyone to their sofas for the guts of six months, but on the pitch it was much better as he chalked off one of his career goals: winning his first cap for Ireland, coming on in the Autumn Nations Cup victory over Scotland at the Aviva Stadium in December.

“Getting my cap was a wonderful achievement for me, it’s something I’ve wanted for so long,” says the 25-year-old when asked to reflect.

The call-up had been deserved, too. He had edged out Jack McGrath to start some of Ulster’s bigger games post-lockdown and was combining a merciless work rate around the pitch with a hard-nosed, effective form of carrying. Allied with his age, which is still young in propping terms, he had emerged onto Andy Farrell’s radar as one for the future alongside provincial team-mate Tom O’Toole.

eric-osullivan O'Sullivan in action for Ulster. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

But since that high, the Ulster man has found himself battling against one of the toughest parts of making your first appearance for your country – backing it up.

By the time the Six Nations rolled round three months later, Dave Kilcoyne had returned from injury for Munster and was recalled by Farrell. Leinster duo Cian Healy and Ed Byrne were retained too, and O’Sullivan found himself the odd man out, limited to one trip down to Carton House as injury cover rather than calling it his permanent residence.

He’s not looking for sympathy, however. The Tempelogue College man is the first to put his hands up and say that he hasn’t hit the targets that he has set himself as a player since winning that single Ireland cap just over five months ago, so much so that he has found himself benched for some of Ulster’s bigger games since, such as against Leinster down at the RDS Arena in January.

That is a source of frustration more than anything, though. In his career, O’Sullivan has made a habit of defying the odds, making it with Ulster after being deemed surplus to requirements in Leinster’s sub-Academy and then scaling the heights to being called up to the Ireland squad. Now, his ambition is to not be a one-cap wonder.

“You get capped and you want to be getting back there. You want to be performing to a level where it’s not up for debate, where you just have to be picked,” he says.

“I think off the back of [my first cap] my performances haven’t been where I’d expect them to be myself. I have high standards for myself and I’m probably not hitting where I want to be at the minute. It’s been a good year for what I’ve got but if I want more of that I need to be playing to a level that’s going to get me back there.”

All this comes, ironically, after being named in the Guinness Pro14′s Dream Team, an honour which he describes as “a nice acknowledgement” but, equally, it “wasn’t something I saw coming”. That, more than anything, is a reflection of where he sees himself currently and the frustration that he is not a fixture in the Ireland squad yet.

So, all that considered, where does he need to improve in order to edge out one of the incumbent looseheads in the Ireland squad and turn one cap into two?

“For me it just comes down to going back to what you perceive as your strengths and doing them really well,” believes O’Sullivan. “Personally, I consider my work rate to be one of my strengths, so that’s something that I can fall back on, but then as a front-row, your set-piece is massive. That’s something I need to focus on.

“It’s just having the confidence to go, ‘You are a good player, you deserve to be here’ and going back to what you know, performing in that and then the rest all feeds into it. It’s like that expression that you create your own luck, it’s the same with hard work. You play better when you’re putting the effort in.”

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Throughout his career that’s not something that can be questioned about the Dubliner, as evidenced by his ability to bounce back from being told he wasn’t wanted at one province to becoming an international with another, and that hard work will be tested when Ulster head to Franklin’s Gardens tomorrow for their Challenge Cup quarter-final against Northampton Saints.

A week on from dismantling Harlequins’, admittedly under-strength, scrum in the last-16, it’s another chance for O’Sullivan to prove to Farrell that his work in the tight has improved – the area that he himself as highlighted as the weakest part of his game – potentially against a former Leinster Schools rival.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever been on the pitch at same time together – he’d usually start and I’d be on the bench!” laughs O’Sullivan of his former team-mate. “We’ve both developed so much from then, he’s gone his route and I’ve gone mine. It’ll be good to see him at the weekend and have a good shot at him.

“We want to be a team that competes for championships, so we know that’s there. But it’s one game at a time, we’re not getting ahead of ourselves and there’s good reason for that. Northampton are a very good team, and then the competition is stacked, so you can’t afford to think about that, you have to respect the opposition you’re coming up against.”

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

Murray Kinsella, Bernard Jackman and Gavan Casey look back on a mixed weekend in Europe for the provinces before previewing Exeter-Leinster and Wales-Ireland.

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