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Dublin: 8 °C Wednesday 12 December, 2018

Ireland U20s scrum-half O'Sullivan comes from a strong Meath GAA family

The 19-year-old played for his county at U14 and U16 levels and could have gone into the minor squad.

THE FIRST WEEKEND of February brought another proud few days for the O’Sullivan family from Moynalvey in Meath.

On the Friday night, 19-year-old Hugh made his Ireland U20s debut against France, coming off the bench in Bordeaux.

The following day, 26-year-old Mark played for the Meath hurlers in a win away to London, while Sunday saw 24-year-old Cillian help the Meath footballers to a victory over Clare.

Hugh O'Sullivan Hugh O'Sullivan turns 20 this week. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Not a bad weekend’s work for a very talented sporting family.

Hugh is a member of the Leinster academy, having helped Belvedere College to back-to-back Leinster Schools Senior Cup titles in his final two years in the school, but he has a strong grá for the GAA too.

O’Sullivan played for the Meath footballers at U14 and U16 levels and had a chance to advance onto their minor panel but instead opted to pursue rugby seriously in fifth and sixth year of school.

Anyone who has seen the intelligent scrum-half play will know O’Sullivan is very much rugby’s gain, with his replacement appearance against France having been followed by a try-scoring start against Italy two weekends ago.

Mark and Cillian played rugby in their school years at Castleknock College and Belvedere, and O’Sullivan laughs when recounting that “Cillian was saying he recalled being run over by Dan Leavy two years in-a-row.”

While his older brothers opted for GAA over rugby in the long run, Hugh benefited from their guidance.

“It was great when we were growing up because I had seen them being in a sort of professional environment, so you know what to expect and they’d be telling you a bit about what’s going on,” he says. “It was a good insight to have.”

Playing corner forward for Moynalvey in football and also hurling with the Kiltale club, O’Sullivan had skills in both GAA codes but he was earmarked as a future rugby star from an early age.

He played for the Leinster Schools side two years in a row, a relatively rare feat, progressing into the Ireland Schools side and then the Ireland U19s last year.

Cian O'Sullivan with Cillian O'Sullivan Cillian O'Sullivan played for the Meath footballers. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

While Leinster have always seen him as a scrum-half prospect, O’Sullivan – who is from the same town as Ireland lock Devin Toner – played lots of his schools rugby with Belvo at fullback.

“In school it’s sort of about getting your best players on the pitch and we had a good nine there, and I was pretty happy to do it as well,” says O’Sullivan.

But he remembers current Ireland U20s coach Noel McNamara – an elite player development officer with Leinster – calling Belvedere director of rugby Phil Werahiko asking if the school could move him back into the nine shirt.

“I knew myself that realistically at professional level that I wasn’t big enough to play 15,” says O’Sullivan. “You could get away with it at schools level.

“I prefer nine anyway because you’re getting the ball way more. It’s a specialist position, which I enjoy. I’m pretty happy to have all my focus there.”

O’Sullivan worked with McNamara on various representative sides throughout his development, while he also benefited from strong coaching from the likes of Werahiko, Massey and Andy Wood in school.

“More than anything else, I think it’s the variety of coaching that you get. Coming up, I had Andy in third year in school, then I had Phil for three years, but in between that, I came into Leinster and had Noel for most of that.

“It was really good to get that different perspective because you pick up things that you really agree with and see value in.

“Phil, with his New Zealand background, is huge on relationships and values in the team. He pushed that hugely, so now I try bring that into this environment.

Belvedere College's Hugh O’Sullivan charges at the St Andrew’s College defence O'Sullivan won two Senior Cups with Belvo. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

“I would be much more aware of the values of the team and stuff like that. It goes hyper-structured here and it’s all about the detail but it’s important not to lose sight of the relationship between the team and the value of that. Sometimes that can get lost a bit.”

Coming out of school and into the Leinster academy, O’Sullivan has been developing rapidly thanks to exposure to senior rugby with Clontarf.

Wood is the man in charge there, meaning ‘Tarf knew what they were getting and O’Sullivan has enjoyed the experience of influencing games in the Ulster Bank League.

“Any sort of game time you can get is great,” says the scrum-half, who has also been back at Belvedere coaching. “I got a good few starts this year and the first game in the B&I Cup I got a start at nine with Leinster as well, so any of those minutes is great experience.

“Playing against men is a big thing as well, so there’s a huge focus to play in the senior leagues and get those minutes in the B&I Cup. It doesn’t really feel like that much of a step-up then when you go into the Six Nations.”

O’Sullivan is in the mould of a French petit general at nine, happy to assume playmaking responsibility, always chirping away at his forwards and also looking out for opportunities to snipe.

He scored a try from close-range against the Italians two weekends ago and he enjoys lifting the tempo whenever possible in attack.

His varied sporting background appears to have been beneficial in building O’Sullivan’s game intelligence.

“When you say game intelligence, it’s making those good decisions at high speed,” says O’Sullivan. “When you’re running at full pace, some lads can’t multitask at one time – being able to see the picture in front of you and making good decisions with the ball when the game is at high tempo.”

Keith Keoghan and Mark O’Sullivan Mark O'Sullivan hurls for Meath. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

This is what rugby at professional level is all about now.

Having been exposed to the coaching of Joe Schmidt last week when the U20s provided opposition for the senior national team, O’Sullivan has seen that first-hand.

“The second we joined up on the pitch [with Schmidt's squad] it was bang, bang, bang. Joe was pushing and pushing the pace of the session all the time and you have to be really clued in.

“Collie McEntee [the IRFU's head of elite pathway] warned us about that – he said, ‘Don’t be the idiot that gets left behind.’ It’s the worst thing if you don’t listen to the rules of the conditioned game you’re playing, so it was great from a team perspective to get reps against a senior squad.

“Even the games we were doing were high intensity and under pressure – that’s the way a lot of the training is going now. It’s just playing, less and less drilled, more running and getting involved in match situations. It was great to get reps against a senior side.”

And the U20s also enjoyed having Leinster’s Stuart Lancaster lead a guest session in the build-up to their France fixture, perhaps giving O’Sullivan a taste of what is to come if he can push through the ranks with his province in the years to come.

“I’ve been there for bits and pieces in Leinster, but Stuart took us for a session before the France game and it’s all about those long stretches of running.

“He might call a linebreak down the pitch and there would be a 40-yard sprint to get to the next phase of play. It’s the best way to train because you’re making decisions under fatigue and that’s when you’re most likely to make poor decisions.

“So that’s where you see lads making good decisions and the good lads standing out when their lungs are burning and they’re still making good reads in D.”

Having made those decisions in hurling, football and at fullback, O’Sullivan is now looking most comfortable of all having settled in full-time at scrum-half as U20s boss McNamara asks him to constantly lift the tempo.

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Murray Kinsella

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