Eric O'Sullivan: Fast tracking Ulster prop being talked about in Irish circles
Eric O'Sullivan is still coming to terms with how things have moved quickly for him this season with Ulster.
The loosehead prop, who is still on an Academy contract, is almost a first team regular and has 16 starts for the Province this season.
And that’s pretty impressive considering Ulster have played 18 matches in all competitions to date.
O’Sullivan and Ulster face a tough assignment on Saturday afternoon (3:15pm) at Kingspan Stadium when they meet Racing 92 in what is a pivotal Pool Four game as the focus switches to the European Champions Cup.
The French side, beaten in last year’s final by Leinster, currently lead the pool, five points ahead of Ulster. A win will secure a place in the knockout stages for the Top14 side.
However, Ulster have plenty to play for and have put themselves in a strong position to continue to press their case for a place in the last eight for the first time since 2014.
Even defeat tomorrow does not discount them, but they would then have to go to Welford Road next weekend and win, probably with a try bonus, to be certain of going through as one of the three best runners-up across the five groups.
Leinster Schools’ prop O’Sullivan saw himself moving North, Ulster seeing an opportunity when the exciting prospect was not offered an Academy contract in Dublin.
It has worked out well for the 23-year-old and he has come up against some of the top props in Europe since the season kicked off.
The modest O’Sullivan admits he has had his share of luck from some injuries within the front row that possibly forced the coaching staff’s hands.
“I think ultimately it’s been a bit of good fortune and misfortune on other guy’s behalf,” said O’Sullivan.
“Obviously, Kyle (McCall) was very unlucky earlier in the year and that gave me a great opportunity.
“I’m just trying to take it game by game and put in good performances. It’s been going alright for me.”
McCall, who suffered an elbow injury in pre-season, is having no luck at all with injuries his return lasting just 48 minutes during the Guinness PRO14 game against Leinster last Saturday evening.
And he is set for another lengthy spell in the medical room after suffering what Ulster Rugby described as a “significant hamstring injury.”
McCall was due to see a surgeon at the end of this week to get a further opinion.
Crucially for Ulster, in terms of strength in depth, O’Sullivan’s ability to slot in and not look out of place in an tough environment has been one of the good news stories this season.
However, O’Sullivan admitted he still looks around the dressing room in awe sometimes.
“The big thing that hits you is being in the changing room and looking around at all the guys around you. The likes of Iain Henderson, Rory Best, you just think “wow, I’ve looked up to these guys for so long” and then you’re in beside them.
“That’s pretty incredible,” he laughs.
And he adds: “But I also remember pre-season and the game against Wasps when I had a pretty torrid night going up against Kieran Brookes.
“I like to think it has been going better for me now.”
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland is a fan, but just recently O’Sullivan was also name-checked by Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt so O’Sullivan must be doing something right.
He is not getting carried away by it all thought.
“It’s very flattering but there’s a lot of great props in Ireland, well-established guys too, so it’s just about playing well for Ulster,” says O’Sullivan.
“Hopefully off the back of that in the future, there might be something there for me but for now, my head is firmly on Ulster and putting in good performances here.”
O’Sullivan came off the bench when Ulster faced Racing - and lost 44-12 - in the indoor arena in Paris and he expects it to just be as hard in Belfast this weekend.
“Obviously they have a very big forward pack so very important that we front up.
“They just look to be really enjoying themselves out there on the pitch so it’s very important that we get our roles right up front in the forward pack,” he adds.