Over the last few years, Leinster have enjoyed a sustained period of success, dominating domestic and European rugby. They have only lost two games in the Heineken Champions Cup since 2017/18 and in the Guinness Pro14, they are currently on a 13 game winning streak after winning back to back titles. One of the key factors to this continued success is Leinster’s faith in their younger players. Particularly when some of their senior players are on international duty, the club is more than happy to start some of their Academy players and give them a shot at laying claim to a starting shirt. One of these rising stars is Trinity’s Hugh O’Sullivan, who spoke to Trinity News about his journey through the rugby ranks.
Born and raised in Kiltale, Co. Meath, O’Sullivan started throwing the oval ball around in the early days of his childhood, but he was involved in more than just rugby. “I played in Navan when I was younger, about six or seven. But before I went to Belvedere (College), the rugby, the hurling, the GAA – it was all very intermixed. At that young age, I probably would have preferred the hurling and football more, rugby wasn’t that big on the radar back then.” Despite an early passion for the Gaelic games, O’Sullivan really invested in rugby when he started in Belvedere College. Schools rugby was something he had seen a lot of growing up and the prospect excited him. “My eldest brother went to Castleknock (College) and my other brother went to Belvo, and they both played schools rugby so I remember going to those games when I was young as well and thinking that it was a really cool atmosphere.”
Belvedere has always put a substantial emphasis on rugby and O’Sullivan’s natural abilities made him a real asset to the school teams. As early as second year, O’Sullivan was playing in the Leinster Schools Junior Cup, before reaching the Senior Cup level in fourth year. By the time he left school, O’Sullivan had reached five finals, winning back to back Senior Cups in his last two years. Despite some heartbreaking losses, O’Sullivan looks back on his time in Belvedere fondly. “The atmosphere I experienced in the school was really special and I really enjoyed it. There’s something really special about playing with lads that you’re spending most of your day with.”
His success at school level earned O’Sullivan a place in the Leinster Academy. Schools rugby is intense in its own right, but the Academy was a new experience for O’Sullivan. “It was challenging, obviously. I went into the Academy straight after school so I spent a lot of that summer in the sub-academy in Donnybrook.” Having played a combination of full-back and scrum-half during his time at Belvedere, there was a question of where he was going to play, but O’Sullivan was confident from early on how that would play out. “I sorta knew that I was going to play scrum-half, I probably wouldn’t have the physical size to play full-back. But even at school this was something I knew.” Luckily, O’Sullivan finds that his experience playing at No.15 hasn’t been wasted by any stretch of the imagination. “The way things are going nowadays, a lot of teams are playing in a way that their No.9 ends up defending a lot in the back field, back with the full-back a lot of the time,” he explained, “so to be honest, that experience of playing No.15 a lot back in school has actually helped me a lot because I’m pretty comfortable back there.”
Leinster train in Belfield beside University College Dublin (UCD) and so a lot of the players in the squad choose to study in UCD for ease of access. However, O’Sullivan wanted to pave his own path. “When it came to my CAO and stuff, I was adamant that my rugby wouldn’t affect what I put down. I didn’t want to put down a course in UCD that I didn’t want to do just because it would be easy to train there. PPES was my first choice and I got exactly what I needed, so I scraped in.” Now in third year, O’Sullivan admits that it can be difficult to balance academic work with training but Trinity has always been very understanding of his schedule. “Both my tutors have been very good to me, whenever I need anything like extensions or getting excused absences from tutorials. I’ve had no bad experiences with lecturers, they’ve been more than happy to help.”
“Leinster train in Belfield beside UCD and so a lot of the players in the squad choose to study there for ease of access. However, O’Sullivan wanted to pave his own path.”
O’Sullivan was in the Leinster set up for a year before he made his debut for the senior side. It was a home game against the Newport Gwent Dragons in 2018 and he has fond memories of it. “I remember it was a lovely sunny day and a late afternoon game,” he recounts, describing the RDS spectators as an “unbelievable” crowd. “It’s quite unique because it’s quite closed in so going on for the first time was great. It helped that I think we were beating the Dragons quite well at the stage I came on.” (They were; Leinster were 45-10 up when O’Sullivan entered the fray.) Joining a side with so many internationals can be quite daunting. On his debut, the starting team included such stalwarts as Jonathon Sexton, Rob Kearney and Garry Ringrose, but O’Sullivan was never in any doubt that he’d be able to hold his own. “If you’re able to survive in the sessions, which I knew I could at that stage, you feel pretty confident in your ability to go out onto the pitch.”
O’Sullivan’s debut season went from great to spectacular when he was named on the bench for the Heineken Champions Cup final against Saracens. Some would say that it was a meteoric progression for the young scrum-half and, in some ways, O’Sullivan agrees. “Things definitely developed quicker than I thought they would. But, in sport, that’s often the way things happen.” Even though the result didn’t go their way, with Saracens running out 20-10 winners on the day, O’Sullivan still remembers it as a personal highlight. “The atmosphere, walking into St James’ Park, it was one of the craziest things I’d ever seen. The bus was engulfed by Leisnter supporters and flags everywhere – I’d never experienced anything like it in my life.”
O’Sullivan has since made 20 appearances for Leinster and at the start of the 2019/20 season, he was given a senior contract, marking the end of his tenure as an Academy player. As a scrum-half, O’Sullivan is not short of company for the coveted jerseys. Luke McGrath and Jamison Gibson-Park are traditionally Leinster’s first choices, but Patrick Patterson and DUFC’s Rowan Osborne have also put their hand up for consideration. Despite the increased competition, O’Sullivan doesn’t feel that there’s any animosity there. “It wouldn’t really work day to day if you were in this big antagonistic relationship,” he explains. “When I went in there first, I saw that Jamison Gibson-Park and Luke McGrath were very good mates. Everyone has different strengths and you become quite a tight-knit unit. We kick every Wednesday so there’s a collective desire to want to get better.”
As has been well documented, sports have been cancelled or suspended currently due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While the situation is certainly an odd one for fans, O’Sullivan assures me that it’s no less strange for players. “All the collective training has been postponed for the moment. We don’t really know when we’re going to get back playing yet but it’s sort of insignificant in the current climate.” Despite the lack of certainty about when things might return to some semblance of normality, O’Sullivan’s approach to the crisis is exceptionally mature. “The way you have to look at it is to control things that are in your control. You can really turn it into a good opportunity to work on certain things as well. A game of rugby at this time, when the potential for loss of life is so high, it puts things in perspective.” There might not be any news on when we’ll start seeing live rugby on our screens again, but when it returns, it will be exciting to see what new heights O’Sullivan’s career will reach.