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'I missed my chance and my dream of professional rugby was slipping away'

After falling out of the Leinster academy system, Peter Sullivan has bounced back from a potentially fatal career setback to lead the All-Ireland League try-scoring charts this season.

Peter Sullivan scores a try Lansdowne's Peter Sullivan has scored 14 tries this season. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

IT FEELS IRRESPONSIBLE, misguided even, to decide that a young player’s entry route into the professional game has shut in front of them if, for whatever reason, they fail to make the grade at underage level.

But in an increasingly competitive and cut-throat environment, where places in provincial systems have essentially become the golden ticket on the journey to the top, that pathway through school, Ireland U20s and then the academy structures is considered the one and only route. 

The soaring levels of professionalism within the schools game, coupled with the added significance of that platform as the first stepping stone on the conventional pathway, has given young players, in all four provinces, a very realistic and tangible end-goal. For many, they work tirelessly to achieve it. 

In that sense, earning a place in a sub-academy or academy is often seen as the be-all and end-all, but for every success story and seamless transition through the grades, there are countless cases of talent slipping through the net, or potential being extinguished.

The selection process can be utterly ruthless and a player can be disregarded and deterred as quickly as another can make the step up to senior rugby.

Even at such a young age, players can feel their dream is slipping away when they fall on the wrong side of selection or injury denies them the chance to showcase their talent in the brief audition window at provincial underage level. The margins between ‘making it’ and not are so fine, so often defined by the tenacity of a player to seize their one opportunity when it arrives. Failure to do so, and another may not come. 

That opportunity came and ultimately passed Peter Sullivan by. A chronic run of knee injuries pockmarked his time with the Ireland U20s last season and unable to consistently train, let alone play, he fell out of the Leinster sub-academy. 

“It was tough,” he tells The42. “You know everyone is watching and most of the lads aren’t on academy contracts at that stage, so you kind of feel you’re in competition with everyone for a place. At the time, it did feel like it was slipping away from me.”

Having impressed in schools rugby and for Leinster U18s, U19s and U20s, Sullivan — an athletically powerful winger — had negotiated the first set of career hurdles to earn a place in Noel McNamara’s U20s squad for the Six Nations, scoring in the first home game of the campaign against Italy. Take-off. 

But injury was to curtail his involvement in the championship, as he fell out of sight and out of mind, and further frustration followed when the knee issue — sustained during the open training session against Joe Schmidt’s senior squad in Athlone — was originally misdiagnosed. 

“I missed a lot of opportunities not being out there,” he laments. “It’s a big spotlight and I only got the first two games in, and then missed the rest of the Six Nations and the World Cup. There were opportunities to show what I was about but I wasn’t able to take them.”

Arthur Coville tackles Peter Sullivan The winger played twice for Ireland during last year's U20 Six Nations. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

What should have been a straightforward rehabilitation process turned into a four-month nightmare for the 20-year-old, who was told by two consultants that the injury was a recurrence of a previous PCL strain in his knee and surgery was not required. Just rest, and you’ll be fine. 

“Every time I would go back to train, it would swell up again and give me more pain. I was only really training once every two or three weeks, and if I was, I was kind of stumbling around the place. I didn’t get picked for the World Cup squad as they couldn’t rely on me being fit.”

It was a deeply frustrating period for Sullivan who spent the second half of last season wondering why he was unable to shake off the problem, spending time he could ill-afford to lose simply resting and icing it, and hoping — praying — for a remedy. 

“When I was left out of the World Cup squad, I booked surgery because it wasn’t going away and had to be fixed,” he explains.

“During the tournament, there were a few injuries to wingers and Noel, probably as a last resort, called me over. I saw it as a chance to get back out there and impress, it was a bit of desperation, to be honest. I knew I needed surgery and it wasn’t right, but I wanted to play. I was thinking at the time my chance was gone, so it was my last chance really. Or that’s how I viewed it.

“I played against Georgia and it blew up straight away. I actually played the full game but had to go home straight away for surgery. I played but couldn’t perform and, yeah, you’re thinking that’s it.”

As Sullivan went for surgery and faced a further injury layoff, some of his team-mates — the likes of Jack Dunne, Hugh O’Sullivan and Caelan Doris — have since progressed through to the Leinster senior squad, all three of whom were involved in the Pro14 game against Benetton on Saturday night. Luck can play a big part, and if it wasn’t for his bad luck with injuries, Sullivan, it seems, wouldn’t have had any luck at all. 

“I had chats with Peter Smyth [Leinster academy manager] and Noel McNamara but they just told me they hadn’t seen much, or enough, of me last year,” he admits. Again, it can be an unforgiving process. 

“But I think the injury and surgery changed my view on rugby. I just wanted to get back after and play again. When you’re in that environment there’s so much focus on performing and getting ahead of the next guy in the queue. You’re nearly looking ahead to what’s on offer down the line more than you are at the next game or playing. I think I came back more determined, but with a new look on it all.” 

And so Sullivan started his ascent back up the ladder, working diligently through his rehab in order to get back to full fitness in time for the start of the All-Ireland League season with Mike Ruddock’s Lansdowne, a club he had joined after completing his Leaving Certificate in 2017. It wasn’t where he wanted to be, but Sullivan knew it was a fresh start, and a chance to get back out on the pitch, a privilege he had been denied last year.

“I was literally back just in time for the first week of pre-season, so it worked out well,” the Greystones native, who is in second year studying History and Politics in UCD, says.

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“I started all of the Leinster league games and then two of our others wingers — Mark O’Keeffe, who moved to America, and Adam Leavy, who was busy with the sevens programme — left and I just got game-time. That’s what I needed.”

And he has made the most of it. With Lansdowne averaging over 40 points at home this season, Sullivan has been in prolific try-scoring form, with his brace against Garryowen on Saturday bringing his AIL tally to 14 for the campaign.

Peter Sullivan on his way to scoring a try despite Matt Gilsenan The 20-year-old has been in sensational form for Lansdowne. Source: Ben Whitley/INPHO

It is a remarkable return for the winger who not only tops the Division 1A try-scoring charts but yesterday’s double equals Lansdowne’s club record for the number of tries scored in a single AIL season held by Connacht’s Matt Healy. And he’ll have the chance to break it next weekend against Clontarf, and then in a semi-final tie against the same opposition later this month.  

Sullivan — who has also been training with the Ireland sevens squad to improve his speed, fitness and skills — has excelled in Lansdowne’s pacy and lethal back three alongside Dan McEvoy and captain Eamonn Mills this season, as he has put his injury problems firmly behind him to catch the eye with his performances and try-scoring exploits on the left wing.

Pace, power and a lethal finishing ability, Sullivan has clearly benefitted from a consistent run of games and working under the guidance of former Wales coach Ruddock, has developed his game to become the most potent player in a physically-punishing league. 

“Mike is a great coach, he’ll give you an opportunity if you’re performing and has put a lot of faith in me,” Sullivan continues. “Through the injury, I would never have thought I would have had the season I’ve had now and I’ve been really lucky to stay injury free and have that consistency in performance. I can get out there every week and play and I’m enjoying it.”

Not only has this season restored Sullivan’s confidence after the difficulties of 2018, he has proven to himself more than anyone that he is more than able to make the step up to the next level, after doubts had naturally crept in after the unwanted setback. 

With every game, and try, Sullivan’s stock has risen and while he hasn’t received contact from anyone outside Lansdowne, there is a renewed drive and ambition to chase a professional career now that the potential he always had is being fulfilled in eye-catching fashion. 

“It’s definitely still an ambition of mine to go pro, and maybe play for Ireland as well,” he states. “I’m taking it one step at a time and not looking too far forward. Maybe at the end of the season, something good might come out of it. You’re hoping, praying, someone will pick you up.

For the moment, I’m focusing on the here and now. I was in the Leinster sub-academy last year, so you never know. I haven’t really spoken to them [Smyth and McNamara] much this year so I don’t actually know what they’re thinking. But I’m open to other provinces as well, I’m not very fussy about staying in Leinster, to be honest.

Having been cut from the Leinster system last summer, and forced to face up to the reality that the professional rugby may pass him by, Sullivan has taken heart from seeing other players who were disregarded by their home provinces take alternative routes to the top in recent times.

Paul Boyle, who also played for Lansdowne during his time in the Leinster sub-academy, was told there was no place for him in the full academy. Overlooked but not discouraged. Now, he’s making waves out west with Connacht and was awarded a first professional contract back in November. His story, among others, gives Sullivan hope and encouragement. 

“It’s great knowing there’s not just one team you have to play for. You know all the provinces have their eyes and minds open to other players, and they’re not just focused on who is in their region.

Daniel McEvoy celebrates scoring a try with Peter Sullivan Lansdowne are second in Division 1A. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It’s inspiring to see other lads being picked up by Munster, Ulster and Connacht because it reminds you, Leinster is not the be-all and end-all. They’re just one team, there are three others in Ireland.”

As others before Sullivan have proved, and many more will continue to prove, there is more than one pathway and while the flame may flicker because of one unfortunate injury or one selection decision, the AIL continues to be an excellent breeding ground for those players in need of another opportunity to prove their talent. It’s not always a smooth journey, but when there’s a will, there’s a way. 

It remains to be seen how Sullivan’s future — both in the short-term and further down the line — will play out but there is no doubt he has grabbed his chance with both hands and proved those who doubted him wrong. 

“I’ve got a lot more confidence now,” he adds. “Because I don’t think I believed it would happen for me last year through the injuries.

“Mike is a great coach and I’m loving it at the moment and delighted to be helping the team. If anything comes of that, it would be great and something I’ve been working towards for so long. But I just have to continue to perform for Lansdowne and see what happens.”

Sullivan can do no more than that. For now, all eyes are on next weekend’s clash with Clontarf and Healy’s try-scoring record. Breaking it would represent another knock on a door that is far from shut just yet.

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Ryan Bailey

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