Academy prop Eric O'Sullivan shining with opportunity in Ulster

The 23-year-old has come through the AIL with Trinity and Banbridge.

THERE WERE IMPRESSIVE performances all over the pitch for Ulster on Friday night against Scarlets and chief among them was 23-year-old loosehead prop Eric O’Sullivan.

Outside centre Will Addison was named man of the match but O’Sullivan could easily have been awarded that honour as he played all 80 minutes for Dan McFarland’s side.

Jacob Stockdale celebrates his try with Eric O'Sullivan O'Sullivan celebrates Jacob Stockdale's try on Friday. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

He had gone the distance for Trinity and Banbridge in the All-Ireland League before, although completing the full game as a prop in professional rugby is on a different level.

“I was looking up at the clock trying to count it down!” said O’Sullivan with a smile post-match at Parc y Scarlets

“But we did well to dig in towards the end when the Scarlets came at us.” 

Beyond just completing the game, O’Sullivan was vital in Ulster’s bonus-point win, helping to earn scrum and maul penalties, hammering into tackles, and showing his mobility and power in the carry.

The Dublin native certainly didn’t look like a man making his first Heineken Champions Cup start, but then this season has been all about O’Sullivan making big steps with impressive composure.

Still in the Ulster academy, O’Sullivan hadn’t played a game of professional rugby before this campaign began. Injuries to Andy Warwick and Kyle McCall, as well as the release of Schalk van der Merwe, have meant opportunities for O’Sullivan, however.

The former Templeogue College man might be something of a late bloomer in the pro game, but is clearly making up for any lost time now and his development has been a major positive for Ulster this season.

O’Sullivan played for Leinster through the underage levels but didn’t secure an academy spot in his native province, shining for Trinity under Tony Smeeth instead and earning a call from Ulster to play for their A team two seasons ago.

Eric O’Sullivan O'Sullivan has developed promisingly for Ulster. Elena Barbini / INPHO Elena Barbini / INPHO / INPHO

His form secured O’Sullivan an academy deal and he impressed with Banbridge in the AIL in 2017/18, as well as playing more A rugby and readying himself for this season’s rapid progress.

“It’s about trying to learn so much more, getting in on analysis, working on my running lines, maul D, scrum set-ups, everything like that,” says O’Sullivan of the challenge of professional rugby, his enthusiasm palpable.

“It’s just one step at a time for me.”

Far from being daunted by his first European start on Friday night in Llanelli, O’Sullivan was a busy man on the day of the game.

Still studying outside of rugby, the prop had to complete an assignment on public sector accounting on Friday morning.

“Regardless of what level I’ve played at, I try to keep the same process and treat it like another game,” said O’Sullivan of his maiden Heineken Cup start.

“I had a uni assignment to hand in, so I spent some of my morning doing that. It was good because I didn’t spend hours focusing on the game getting too built up or focusing on it.

“Then for three or four hours, it was head down and focus on the game. You just try to treat it like any other game.”

Michael Vaughan tackles Eric O'Sullivan O'Sullivan during his AIL days with Trinity. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

O’Sullivan was part of a superb performance from Ulster’s pack at Parc y Scarlets and he appreciates the experience of those around him, including captain Rory Best.

“It’s incredible, he’s always in your ear before every scrum with little tips, little nuggets, just to keep you focused and keep your head in the game.

“Coming up against someone like Samson Lee, it definitely helps having Rory beside you against an experienced operator.”

The sight of O’Sullivan, Best and Marty Moore winning scrum penalties and contributing to some powerful attacking mauling – O’Sullivan says Ulster have work to do on their maul defence – was heartening for the province’s supporters.

Scrum coach Aaron Dundon and head coach McFarland will continue to push the pack for more, but the emergence of O’Sullivan has been a big positive.

“We’re working hard with Aaron and Dan, just trying to progress,” said O’Sullivan. “We knew our roles but it was just about getting more aggressive in there and making sure we were drilling boys when we got the chance.

“That’s been big for us, being more aggressive with teams and not willing to take a backwards step. We’re fighting for every inch.”

Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Andy Dunne preview a big weekend of Heineken Cup action and dissect the week’s main talking points.

Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42 / SoundCloud

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