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'I need to get that degree first': O'Sullivan happy to bide his time in AIL
The Lansdowne back row spent the summer on trial at London Irish.

THE FINE MARGINS between success and failure in elite sport can so often come down to the sheer tenacity to grasp an opportunity when one arises, but Jack O’Sullivan has been happy to bide his time and patiently wait for the right one to present itself.

A talented product of Castleknock College, O’Sullivan recently spent the summer on trial at London Irish and featured in two of the English club’s pre-season fixtures, including their trip to face Munster at Musgrave Park in August.  

Jack O'Sullivan after the game Bryan Keane / INPHO O'Sullivan is back preparing for another season with Lansdowne. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

The back row made a considerable impression on Declan Kidney, the club’s director of rugby, but just as it was two years ago when he looked to secure a contract with Saracens, O’Sullivan was keen to return home rather than pursue a career in the professional game just yet.

Instead, he’s back with Lansdowne ahead of their All-Ireland League opener against Clontarf on Friday night and for now has prioritised his academic studies, as he enters year two of three in the Dublin Business School studying Business and Management.

It was his performances in the AIL last season, as Mike Ruddock’s Lansdowne won the Leinster League, Leinster Senior Cup, All-Ireland Cup and AIL Division 1A, which ultimately earned him selection for the Irish Universities team and with it he harboured renewed ambitions of cutting his teeth in professional rugby.

“I was meant to go to Cardiff Blues initially,” he explains. “I had organised that myself. The analyst in Lansdowne, the guy who does the camera work, made a clip and I went and sourced email addresses for coaches and sent it out myself.

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“I spoke to people like Bernard Jackman [Dragons coach] and I got an email from Clive Jones [Cardiff coach] who said we are really interested in your clips, can you send us more? I was looking at a five-month probationary period but unfortunately that didn’t materialise.

“I played for the Irish Universities on the back of a bit of form in the AIL. Dave O’Mahony was the coach and he is close to Dec. I met Dave one night and filled him in on what happened with the Cardiff Blues deal. He asked me would I be interested in going to London Irish. I told him that every club in England that I had spoken to had told me that English qualification was holding me back. Dave said: ‘I can talk to Declan but I am not promising anything.’”

As it so happened, Kidney was in Dublin and was interested in meeting with O’Sullivan.

“It was the day of the Dublin Sevens and I was on my way with a car full of lads,” he remembers. “I got a phone call at about 7.45am and Declan Kidney was on the line. He said, ‘I will be in Dublin for an hour, and I can spare you 20 minutes. Can you meet me?’

“I had to drop the lads, turn the car around and go back across the city. He hadn’t seen a huge amount of me and was taking a risk in bringing me over there.

“It was his reputation on the line in [taking a chance on me]. Between us we came to a fair agreement and I don’t think he was too ashamed of how I did over the summer. I thought I was there or there abouts but I just didn’t feel it was my time. I think I would get more benefit from playing week in, week out in the AIL than maybe stuck in a gym over there for the winter.”

1018279840-594x594 Sportsfile O'Sullivan in action against Munster back in August. Sportsfile

As well as coming off the bench in Cork against Munster, O’Sullivan saw game time against the Leicester Tigers, and while Kidney was certainly enthused by what he saw — ‘he was far from out of place out there in a professional setting, so I think he should be very proud of himself’ — the pieces just didn’t fit at this time.

The experience of a full pre-season in a professional environment will have benefitted O’Sullivan hugely, and while it would have been easy to accept any terms offered to him by London Irish, the priority remains getting that degree and developing as a player with regular game time in the AIL.

Lansdowne, under former Ireland and Wales coach Ruddock, have set the benchmark for standards both on and off the field in recent times, with the Dublin club boasting a strong playing roster with a mix of youth and experience, including Leinster academy prospects Oisin Dowling and Ronan Kelleher.

“We are blessed in Lansdowne,” O’Sullivan continues. “It’s a bit clichéd at this stage going on about Mike, but he is meticulous in the way he organises sessions and approaches matches. It wasn’t a huge surprise [at London Irish] in terms of the content that you would cover in training.

“I found that you had a lot more time to analyse things and obviously the pace of the game increases marginally. To be honest between the hit out against Munster and the [AIL] final back here in May there wouldn’t have been a huge difference in terms of prep, the physicality that was going on out there [Aviva] and the pace. Division 1A is a great stepping stone for guys to push through because you are playing against pros week in, week ut with the clubs that are in there. It’s not a huge difference.”

O’Sullivan stood out at schools level for Castleknock, but was never selected for the Irish Schools team and while he received recognition in the form of an appearance for the Leinster U19s, he was then cut from the province’s U20 panel.

At 19, he went to Saracens for a two-week trial but quickly returned home, disillusioned and deterred by the experience. Doubts started to creep in, particularly when his size had been mentioned in different conversions. Maybe pro rugby wasn’t for him, after all.

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“I always feel I’m not the biggest back row out on the pitch,” he admits. “That might have worked against me.

“I did a trial in Sarries and after that I was dying to get home because I wasn’t used to it. When you are playing the underage systems here you have your parents to go back to and you are literally half an hour from home. The size thing is the number one issue in the back of my mind going over and that I never had any major honours.

Jack O'Sullivan tackled by Darren Ryan Laszlo Geczo / INPHO The back row in action against Garryowen in last season's AIL semi-final. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“Guys kind of ask you ‘who have you played for? And you go ‘no one professionally.’ That doesn’t set the mark too high to start.” 

But O’Sullivan made his mark for Lansdowne U20s and quickly moved into the first team, before a serious ankle injury ended his debut season at AIL level prematurely.

It meant last year was his first full season at senior level, and as Lansdowne conquered all around them, O’Sullivan emerged as a key player for Ruddock’s side with his consistently abrasive and impactful performances.

His experience in London over the summer, coupled with his standout year for Lansdowne, means O’Sullivan goes into this new campaign with more confidence and conviction that he can earn the right move.

“The summer definitely showed me that I am capable of doing it and that any guy out there [in the AIL] is not that far off the pace. I have definitely improved as a player, bulked up as a player. I am looking to use that to establish myself as one of the better players in the league and am definitely using it as a vote of confidence for myself.

“But I have a few other things I need to concentrate on. I need to get that degree, first and foremost.” 

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