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O'Toole grateful for McGrath and 'guru' McFarland as he looks for an edge in the scrum

The young prop could play an important role with Ireland in the years ahead after moving back from Australia to Drogheda.

O'Toole at the end of last season.
O'Toole at the end of last season.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

WHILE MOST OF Ireland was left disappointed by Saturday’s World Cup result, one man in Ulster was left doubly disappointed by the day’s results.

Having spent 10 years of his childhood in Australia, prop Tom O’Toole naturally had a strong investment in the day’s first quarter-final as well as the second, with the 21-year-old dreaming of an Australia-Ireland double that would set up a semi-final meeting between the two.

Alas, as we know now, neither of his teams would come through for him.

“I was on the phone to a few of my friends in Australia. I was saying unlucky to them and then a few hours later they were saying it to me!” laughs the tighthead, who played at underage levels alongside current Wallaby flanker Lukhan Salakaia-Loto for Queensland while Down Under.

It’s at times like during a World Cup that the possibility of O’Toole at one point representing Australia rears its head again. Born in Drogheda, his decade spent in Brisbane saw him seemingly on a collision course to be wearing green and gold instead of just green.

But, while the ambition of playing at a World Cup is the end goal, there’ll be no gold on the jersey he wishes to represent.

“I’m all about the green, that’s what I want to be about in my future,” insists the former Campbell College stand-out.

“Every rugby player wants to play for their country and hopefully maybe go on and play for the Lions one day. That’s what I want to do. I wouldn’t be playing rugby if I didn’t want to get to the next level, so I’m eager and ready to work hard.”

So far this season he’s taken several strides forward in terms of his placing at provincial level.

While last season it seemed as if he and Ross Kane were on an even standing as back-ups to the impressive Moore, so far this campaign it’s been O’Toole who has commanded the minutes. He’s started all three games of Ulster’s Guinness PRO14 campaign so far and has been afforded a long leash by propping standards too, averaging just over 56 minutes a game and justifying the coaches’ faith by turning in some strong performances in a white jersey.

His usual abrasive ball carrying has seen him lead Ulster’s props in metres per carry through the first three games (2.9) and is good for fourth among all of their forwards, while on the other side of the ball he’s made 26 tackles while missing just two.

john-cooney-and-tom-otoole O'Toole tangling with John Cooney in training. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“It’s been really good,” says O’Toole. “I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given early on in the season. It’s nice to prove yourself and all the hard work in pre-season paid off in that respect, so happy to get the three games under my belt.”

One of the biggest areas that he’s seen an improvement in, however, is in his scrummaging, the area that was widely seen as the part of his game that could use some refining to take him to the next level.

Although he, and the Ulster front row as a collective, got no change out of Ox Nche and the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, he’s bested former Wales prop Rhodri Jones in their opener against the Ospreys and then Juan Schoeman of the Southern Kings last time out.

“Last year was a bit up and down in that area, I had to learn a lot and I’m still a long way away from where I want to be, but this year I wanted to take a step forward,” admits O’Toole.

“I’ve been working very closely with Dan but he has shown a lot of belief in me and I’ve grown in confidence around my scrummaging, around that area is such a mental side of the game as well.

“I’ve got the weight, I’ve tried to pack on a few extra kgs during pre-season, but it is as much technical and mental as being big. (Head coach) Dan (McFarland) has sat down with me and we’ve had one-on-one sessions where we’ve just gone through scrum after scrum so it’s never not a work in progress, but I’ve definitely taken steps forward to where I want to be.

“Dan around scrummaging is a bit of a guru and he doesn’t miss anything, he’s definitely the coach I want to be around when it comes to improving my scrummaging.”

Also helping has been who he is scrummaging against in training, in particular the newest arrival to Ulster’s loosehead stocks. When it comes to practising and making sure your technique is spot on, there are many worse props you could be doing it against than Jack McGrath.

Not only has the former Leinster man been a good source of reps to bounce off in training, he’s also driven up the standards within the front row, according to O’Toole, with the three-time European Cup and four-time PRO14 winner the kind of guy a trophy-starved Ulster side need in the dressing room.

“He’s a British and Irish Lion, just an unbelievable talent. The standards he drives and he expects and he demands is just a credit to him and lifts the whole squad,” praises O’Toole.

“As a young front-rower I take a lot of learnings from him. I look at him as a leader and someone I want to base my game around.

“It was a bit like going into a game the first training scrum we had. My mentality was ‘here we go, this is Jack McGrath’ who I was watching at schools and on TV, and definitely it was an experience coming up against him in the first training session.

“For me, it gave me a really good idea of where I need to be if I want to progress at that level. The talent he is, I know where I need to be at and where I need to grow and develop if I want to be at that standard he has played at, so it is brilliant having him there because if you slip he’ll let you know about it.

“Next on the list of looseheads O’Toole is zeroing in on besting is the Cardiff Blues’ Brad Thyer, who will be the man opposing him when the two sides meet at Kingspan Stadium tonight (kick-off 7.35pm) in the fourth round of the PRO14.

The Conference A table looks rather nice for Ulster at the moment, with Dan McFarland’s side sitting third after the opening three games with two wins and a defeat, and with two home games to come before the annual daunting trip to Thomond Park, there’s optimism they can be sitting pretty by the time the World Cup comes to an end.

tom-otoole O'Toole in training this week. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

However, the nature of their latter two results have left something of a sour taste. The 63-26 thumping they took to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein exposed defensive frailties within the system, while the bonus-point win over the Kings consisted of one scintillating half and one that was worryingly pedestrian and error-strewn.

After a week off to reflect on the opening block of games, the arrival of the Blues to Belfast allows the squad to reset and go again.

“We weren’t happy with how we played against the Cheetahs. That’s not what we want to be about, that wasn’t us defensively. We took a lot of learnings from that game and knew we had to bounce back right away the next week,” admits O’Toole.

“Even though we were in South Africa and away from home we put a lot of hard work in and a lot of prep into the Kings game, and in the first half we delivered what we wanted to deliver, but we still didn’t give an 80-minute performance, but coming away from SA with six points we were delighted with that.

“When you’re away in South Africa it’s such a long way it seems like you’re in a different planet nearly, but we’re eager to go out in front of our own fans and feel that buzz and feel that energy that we haven’t felt in a month now.”

Ulster

15. Will Addison
14. Craig Gilroy
13. Luke Marshall
12. James Hume
11. Louis Ludik
10. Billy Burns (Capt.)
9. John Cooney

1. Jack McGrath
2. John Andrew
3. Tom O’Toole
4. Alan O’Connor
5. Kieran Treadwell
6. Matthew Rea
7. Sean Reidy
8. Marcell Coetzee

Replacements

16. Adam McBurney
17. Eric O’Sullivan
18. Ross Kane
19. Sam Carter
20. Nick Timoney
21. David Shanahan
22. Bill Johnston
23. Matt Faddes

Cardiff Blues

15. Matthew Morgan
14. Jason Harries
13. Garyn Smith
12. Willis Halaholo
11. Aled Summerhill
10. Jarrod Evans
9. Lloyd Williams

1. Brad Thyer
2. Liam Belcher
3. Scott Andrews
4. Josh Turnbull
5. Rory Thornton
6. Will Boyde
7. Olly Robinson
8. Nick Williams (capt)

Replacements:

16. Kristian Dacey
17. Corey Domachowski
18. Keiron Assiratti
19. Seb Davies
20. Shane Lewis-Hughes
21. Lewis Jones
22. Jason Tovey
23. Harri Millard

On the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly, Andy Dunne tells Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey about where it all went wrong for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland


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