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Ulster's O'Sullivan focusing on playing 'better rugby' rather than Ireland ambitions

Eric O’Sullivan won his first Ireland cap last Autumn, but since then things haven’t transpired quite how he would have expected.

Eric O'Sullivan after making his international debut against Scotland in the Autumn Nations Cup.
Eric O'Sullivan after making his international debut against Scotland in the Autumn Nations Cup.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IT IS DECEMBER 2020 and the world seems to be at the feet of Eric O’Sullivan.

The break for the pandemic appears to have benefitted the Ulster loosehead, who has emerged from lockdown in a good frame of mind and is on a fine run of form that saw him called up to the Ireland squad for the Autumn Nations, which culminated with a first cap when introduced from the bench against Scotland.

But since then things haven’t transpired quite how the now 26-year-old would have expected. He was left out of Andy Farrell’s squad for the 2021 Six Nations, nor did he feature against either Japan or the USA in the summer. So far, that one cap against Scotland is his one and only international honour.

Provincially, things have taken a bit of a hit, too. While not being selected for Ireland during the first half of the year, O’Sullivan was at least still starting the big European games for Ulster in firstly the Heineken Champions Cup, then the Challenge Cup. But since the start of the new season, he has found his game-time limited to just five starts in their 14 games.

After a long stretch behind Andrew Warwick and Jack McGrath in the pecking order, just getting back in to play against Northampton Saints and Clermont in the Champions Cup last month was a big vote of confidence for the former Templeogue man, even if it was injuries that afforded him the opportunity, but it was one he seized.

Two strong performances against heavyweight European front rows will have done both his confidence and playing prospects the world of good, although O’Sullivan is cognisant enough to concede that the Ireland squad is the furthest thing from his mind at present.

“I’m not focusing on that at the minute,” he reflects honestly. “I think I have better rugby to play, so I’m focusing on myself and how I’m playing and, off the back of that, see where that gets me.”

Instead, he is placing prominence on being part of an Ulster tight five that is kicking the argument that they are too lightweight to compete for silverware into touch, as those games against Saints and Clermont proved.

Part of that strength comes from the depth that the northern province now possess in the front row, with O’Sullivan insisting there is no bad blood between the loosehead corps regardless of who is named in the run-on team each week.

“If you look at our set-piece and maul, it’s improved so much, and the tight five have such a big part to play in that. I think we’ve improved collectively. We’re happy with how we’re going in there,” says the former Leinster Academy man.

“I have a great relationship with those guys and I think off the pitch we’re able to put that aside so we’re really close. You spend most of your time with other front rowers because you’re in the trenches with them.

“And then on the pitch, in terms of helping each other, be as forthcoming as you can with any information because we’re all on the same team, we’re all trying to win and ultimately it’s what you know that might end up getting you picked ahead of other guys, but if that’s what you’re relying on then you need to push yourself and your standards.

“There’s no point in holding information; say what you can and it might help, and hope at the end of the day you perform the best you can and get picked.”

ulsters-eric-osullivan Facing ASM Clermont Auvergne in January. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

That starts on the training pitch, and it is at this point that O’Sullivan hails his front row colleagues on the other side of the scrum for never giving them a day off and allowing them to drop their standards in a bid to keep improving.

When you’re scrummaging against such a technically astute individual such as Marty Moore, with all his international experience, there is plenty you will learn before you step out on the pitch at the weekend for a fixture – and that sometimes can provide an even bigger challenge.

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“It is very competitive,” says O’Sullivan with a sly grin.

“You are trying to get one up on the other pack that you are up against and it’s only natural, there’s guys on that other team that think they should be playing and deserve to be picked and you know they are going to be coming at you, and likewise if you are not in the squad you are trying to get one over to prove a point.

“Sometimes they are nearly more competitive than the games, but it is just a scrum, you are not worried about running off the back of it, you can just go as hard as you can.

“It is very competitive and you are coming up against one of the best guys around (Moore), in my opinion. It’s tough going.”

Ireland legend Rob Kearney joined host Seán Burke, Murray Kinsella and Eimear Considine for the first episode of The Front Row, in partnership with Guinness. Rob ​​speaks about his most euphoric moment in a green jersey, life after retirement, a “brutal” return to the GAA pitch, and his skincare routine. Click here to subscribe or listen below:

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