Dublin: 19°C Wednesday 22 September 2021

O'Loughlin's patience rewarded as he seizes his big chance in front of Schmidt

‘I would rather be playing any position in this team than a set position in another team.’

Ryan Bailey reports from the Aviva Stadium

THE SPONSOR’S MAN of the match award could have gone to any number of Leinster players, including the freakishly brilliant James Ryan or the orchestrator-in-chief Johnny Sexton, but there were few arguments when Rory O’Loughlin’s name was announced on the stadium PA.

A first start in the inside centre position for the province and his first start in Europe for two seasons, the 24-year-old marked the occasion of his 50th Leinster appearance with an impressive and standout performance against Bath.

Rory O’Loughlin celebrates scoring a try O'Loughlin celebrates his try against Bath. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Leo Cullen spoke pre-match about how O’Loughlin has had to bide his time after been frustrated by injuries over the last 18 months, and the former St Michael’s College man was clearly intent on seizing his starting opportunity at the Aviva Stadium.

Having shown his versatility in the closing stages of last season, stepping in at inside centre in the Pro14 semi-final and final for Isa Nacewa, O’Loughlin provided a timely reminder of his worth on Saturday, embellishing his night with an 18th try in blue.

Striking an encouraging relationship with the outstanding Garry Ringrose in midfield, O’Loughlin earned particular praise from Cullen afterwards, as his ability to get through contact in those channels caught the eye.

Having missed out on selection for the big European days last season due to a combination of untimely injuries and the form of Robbie Henshaw and Ringrose, O’Loughlin has also fallen off the international radar after making his debut, and only cap, against Japan in June 2017.

In the time since, Schmidt has been in regular contact with the centre — who enjoyed his breakthrough season at senior level in 2016/17, regularly playing on the wing — to give him feedback and work-ons. 

But there has been always one key message — play regularly for Leinster in the Heineken Champions Cup, and O’Loughlin knows he needs to be contributing at that level for the province on a consistent basis.

“You would always like to have a set position but it’s so competitive in that backline that whatever opportunity I get, I’m going to have to take,” he said post-match.

“I’m happy to do it. To be starting in Europe in a team like this is the goal really. I would rather be playing any position in this team than a set position in another team at the moment.

“For me, if I can start in Europe, that’s what I have been told by all the coaches — regular game-time in Europe is going to take you to the next level.

“If it was a case if I wasn’t starting at all or getting any opportunities to start in a game like this, then maybe I would get frustrated but at the moment I am happy to take it when it comes.”

It was also beneficial for O’Loughlin that both Schmidt and Andy Farrell were in the crowd at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening.

Rory O’Loughlin with Darren Atkins The 24-year-old was strong in contact. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Whenever I’ve talked to Joe it’s always been, ‘Games in Europe, let’s see you play in big games in Europe’ and it’s been frustrating because last year I got injuries at the wrong time and kind of missed out.

“Even when lads were injured I missed out on Europe and that was always the feedback, that he wanted to see me play in Europe.

“And again last week I was just coming back from injury and while I kind of understood why they [Leinster coaches] didn’t want to throw me in [to start against Bath], it was kind of frustrating, I suppose.

“But when I got the opportunity to start this week, that was just always on my mind, put in a performance and make it as hard as possible for a coach to drop you, I suppose.

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“I think I did alright tonight.”

Cullen, having brought O’Loughlin in to his starting XV at the expense of Noel Reid in the continued absence of Henshaw, was understandably delighted for the Ireland international.

“Rory was disappointed not to get the nod last week, he got the nod this week and maybe took out some of the frustration he had as well,” the Leinster head coach said.

I thought he did very well. He was very strong in the carry, fights through the contact well. He’s had the experience, even though he hasn’t started that many games. Thought he performed very well in that role [at 12] at the tail end of last season, and it was a really positive step for Rory today so I’m delighted for him.

O’Loughlin took his first-half try brilliantly after a slick wraparound move involving Johnny Sexton and Ringrose freed Jordan Larmour for the line, before the fullback showed dexterity to offload out of the tackle. 

But it was perhaps his defensive contributions and physicality in the number 12 jersey which impressed most. See the regularity he ran at Jamie Roberts, or the five tackles he made up against the former Welsh international and Kiwi Jackson Willison.

With Ringrose on his outside and Sexton on his inside, O’Loughlin had plenty of experience around him for support.

“I have been playing with Garry for four or five years now,” he explained, when asked about their partnership.

“I played with him at UCD and at [Ireland] U20s, we played in the centre and changed up 12 and 13.

Rory O’Loughlin is presented with the man of the match award by Pat Maher O'Loughlin was named MOTM. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I am quite used to playing with him, which always helps. I kind of know what he likes to do and as you said, the form he is in at the moment, he is playing with such confidence both in defence and attack.

“He’s just backing himself and he really leads the defensive line. You saw that out there, he will make a defensive call and everyone is on the same page. That allows us to put pressure on. I can learn a lot from playing alongside him.

“It’s good, I enjoy playing with him, I always have and I’d like to play with him a bit more.” 

Now back to full fitness, O’Loughlin will be keen to get another starting opportunity against Connacht this weekend as Leinster’s attention turns back to the Pro14 for three consecutive inter-pro derbies over the Christmas period.

With Henshaw sidelined until February at least, and Fergus McFadden and Joe Tomane among the long-term absentees, this is a big window for O’Loughlin to stake his claim and make the number 12 jersey his own.

And, then, who knows what might follow.  

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Ryan Bailey

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