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O'Loughlin working hard on his 'points of difference' to get back in Schmidt's plans

It’s now over a year since the Leinster centre’s sole international cap, but he is focused on taking his chances.

THERE WAS NO call from Joe Schmidt this time around, but Rory O’Loughlin — at 25 and plenty of road left ahead of him — is quietly content with the progress he has made this season.

It’s now over a year since the Leinster centre made his international debut against Japan and while he has spoken openly about the disappointment of missing out on three Ireland squads in the interim, O’Loughlin has knuckled down and performed in the blue jersey.

Rory O'Loughlin O'Loughlin at Leinster HQ this week. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

As Schmidt has proceeded with alternative midfield options in Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Will Addison, Sam Arnold, Stuart McCloskey and Tom Farrell in November and during this Six Nations period, O’Loughlin has narrowed his focus and hit key markers. 

Told by the Ireland head coach in no uncertain terms that he needed to feature more for Leinster in the big European occasions, the former St Michael’s College man has done just that this term, partnering Ringrose in the pool games against Bath and Toulouse.

December’s round four tussle with Bath at the Aviva Stadium was O’Loughlin’s first start in the inside centre position for the province and his first start in Europe for two seasons, as he marked the occasion of his 50th Leinster appearance with an impressive man-of-the-match display. 

O’Loughlin took his first-half try against the Premiership outfit brilliantly after a slick wraparound move involving Johnny Sexton, Ringrose and Jordan Larmour, while his defensive contributions and physicality in the number 12 jersey were standout traits. 

“Yeah, the Bath game and the Toulouse game, especially against Toulouse as they’re one of the bigger teams in Europe,” he tells The42.

“I wouldn’t be the biggest centre, you see some guys like Chris Farrell and Tom Farrell who would probably weigh a good bit more than me, but being able to show that you can hold your own defensively in those games, you can’t be seen making negative tackles every time someone bigger runs at you.

“Those games stand out for me and playing with Garry in those games, the way we play as a backline, playing 12 or 13 is very similar. They’re highlights of the year so far, yeah.”

Overall, O’Loughlin has made 15 appearances for the eastern province this season after a combination of untimely injuries and the form of Henshaw and Ringrose meant he was unable to truly build on his outstanding breakthrough season in 2018.

That said, he showed his versatility in the closing stages of Leinster’s run to a historic double last term, stepping in at inside centre in the Pro14 semi-final and final for Isa Nacewa, while earning a place on the bench for the Champions Cup final in Bilbao. 

O’Loughlin featured in four of Leinster’s European pool games either side of Christmas, as well as starting in two of the Pro14 inter-pros, and has certainly hit the consistency of form and selection which eluded him in his second full season at the province.

“I’ve been pretty happy with how the season has gone for me here,” he continues.

“I’ve played a good few times in Europe now, been involved in some big games and felt I played pretty well in those games. It’s all about being adaptable. It’s so competitive with Ireland at the minute that you don’t know where or when your chance is going to come.

“I’ve played this season at 12, 13 and on the wing. For me, it’s about being able to play at that highest level in all three of those positions and fit in as best I can so if I do get an opportunity in one of the Ireland squads, that I can be seen as versatile as it’s something Joe puts a massive emphasis on.”

Rory O’Loughlin O'Loughlin came off the bench against the Kings last week. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Schmidt has maintained a regular line of contact with O’Loughlin since his first cap in Japan in June 2017, highlighting the areas of his game he needs to improve on while providing reassurance of just how close he is to breaking back into the national squad.

With a wealth of options available to him, Schmidt turned to Connacht’s uncapped Farrell for this championship and O’Loughlin is honest enough to understand what he needs to do to get on the right side of the selection call.

“When you’re not in the Ireland squad it’s disappointing and you see who got in and you think of the reasons why I suppose,” the centre says. “The inter-pros play such a big part of it, when you play in those games, it’s massive to try and win those one-on-one battles.

“I think we’re different type of players, Tom brings something different to what I do so it can be a load of different factors, it depends what Joe is looking for in his squad but I wouldn’t be a person to look at it on an individual basis.

“I would also be a very different type of centre to Chris Farrell, his strengths probably wouldn’t be something I can bring to my game, it’s all about what you do well and making what you don’t do well better. Making what your point of difference is an even greater difference when it comes to selection is something I’ve focused on.”

For O’Loughlin, he has already spoken about versatility being a key asset of his but major improvements in his tackle technique off the back of pre-season work with Leinster’s contact coach Hugh Hogan has made a marked difference in the busy midfield channels this season.

Among the other areas O’Loughlin has worked on is his leadership, both on and off the field, and while his personality does not lend itself to being the most vocal in the dressing room, Stuart Lancaster has been driving to improve those qualities. 

O’Loughlin explains: “Some people are naturally good at it and it’s something in this block I’ve had to work on a bit. When you’re playing with players who have played so many times for Leinster and Ireland, you know you only have to worry about yourself.

“Not that you have to worry about the younger players, but I remember getting frustrated in my first season, I would linger on a mistake for far too long and it would affect my game for the next 10-15 minutes.

“You see it with young lads when they make a mistake, it’s the way you interact with them after that, you can’t give them a negative reaction. It’s something I have focused on, how I react to mistakes.”

Rory O'Loughlin and Paddy Patterson The centre is set to start on Friday night. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

O’Loughlin is in line to return to the Leinster starting XV for Friday night’s Pro14 clash against the Cheetahs at the RDS [KO 7.35pm, eir Sport/Premier Sports], and will again be one of the senior members of the squad for the final league outing of this Six Nations block.

He came off the bench to score a late try in the rout of the Southern Kings last weekend and while O’Loughlin’s immediate focus is on helping Cullen’s side to another strong home performance, he makes no secret of his long-term goals.

“You have to take it one game at a time but you also need to have a goal to work towards and that Ulster game is definitely one of mine,” the Ireland international admits.

There are just two games, including Friday’s visit of the Cheetahs, between now and Leinster’s Champions Cup sold-out quarter-final against Ulster at the Aviva, and O’Loughlin has his sights firmly on a starting berth that day — even if both Ringrose and Henshaw are fit and available.

“They’re the games you really want to play in and I played in a couple of big games towards the end of last season which I absolutely loved,” he adds.

The competition here is so high that every game you’re picked on merit and what you’re doing at the time, it doesn’t really matter what you did earlier in the season. There are only two games before that game, so if I’m playing this weekend, I’m going to have to put in a performance.  

“It’s a nice way to finish this block. There has been a smaller group [of players] around here for the last month and a lot of academy lads have gotten to train with us on a consistent basis and some have got their chance to play. If they’re involved again, I’m sure they’ll take their opportunity and I’m looking forward to hopefully producing a good performance in front of the home crowd.”

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Ryan Bailey

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