Tom O’Toole was all smiles this week after being called into a 45-man Irish panel for a 24-hour stocktake with the Ireland coaching team ahead of a busy interprovincial schedule.
“I just found out after training and I’m delighted to be noticed by the Ireland coaches,” he said, speaking at Ulster’s media briefing shortly after hearing the good news. “There are a lot of players fighting for that position, so I’m happy to keep training and working hard. I’m over the moon with the opportunity and I’m sure I’m going to learn a lot.
“I was a little surprised; I was just focusing on Ulster and my prep for this week so I was completely oblivious to it, then I saw a few messages from people and looked online to see that I was selected. I’m just really grateful to be recognised, I’ll just put my head down and keep working hard.”
The 21-year-old couldn’t then have picked a better time to score his first Ulster try than on Friday night against Harlequins at The Stoop in a dominant Ulster performance, to catch the eye of new Ireland Head Coach, Andy Farrell.
“I was absolutely delighted to score my first Ulster try; it only took me about 30 games but I got there in the end! Hopefully there will be more to come and it won’t take that long until the next one!
“I came on for Marty quite early and tried to play the game out; it was a real set piece-orientated game and in the second half, we opened them up a bit. It was nice to get over the line. The boys were all supporting me and pleased for me to get my first try; they gave me some stick for a front-rower crashing over! I will definitely remember that one for many years to come.”
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) December 16, 2019
The young tighthead, who was born in Drogheda then grew up in Australia before enrolling at Campbell College in Belfast aged 16, has had a steep trajectory upwards since moving to Ulster. At 19, he joined the Abbey Insurance Ulster Academy, and having delivered a series of outstanding performances for Ulster A in the then British & Irish Cup, he was rewarded with his senior debut in April 2018 against Edinburgh. The Irish U20 International has since made 34 senior appearances for Ulster and has come up against some of the best front rows in Europe.
“The European games have been the best time for me to learn because the senior players here say it’s the closest you’re going to get to playing at international level, as far as club rugby goes. To feel the weight and pressure from French teams like Clermont and Harlequins who have a big English pack and a lot of weight, it’s a big test.
“Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler in their front row are among the best in their positions, so the experience I get from that is fantastic, and getting feedback from Marty Moore is a great learning process. It’s been a good build-up for these three inter-pros which are always heated battles and great fixtures to play in; they’ll be a big test for me too.
“Playing professional rugby has always been my ambition, to drive on and get to the next level. At an early age, I’ve been given so many opportunities and my career has been fast-forwarded a little coming up against senior loosehead props, you learn quickly.”
O’Toole has credited much of his speedy development to both Head Coach, Dan McFarland and his fellow tighthead, Marty Moore. With McFarland being a prop in his playing days, he has been working very closely with O’Toole.
“Since day one of pre-season, Dan and I have had a very tight relationship and focused a lot on the scrum. I’m always trying to meet with him and go through different aspects of my game. Dan has been excellent for me. He’s been very patient and has a lot of time for me to help me out. He’s not a coach that you’re afraid to ask for help from; you can ask him anything, even if you think it’s a stupid question, he will explain things for you to understand better.
“He has really helped me with things I didn’t even think of to bring into my game. We’re putting in a lot of hard work and it’s starting to show out there on the field, so I’m very grateful for Dan.”
Despite the competition for a starting place in Ulster match-day teams, O’Toole says the relationship with Moore is a very positive one.
“Marty has played in the Premiership for a couple of years and the scrums over there are a big part of the game. He’s brilliant in that he helps me out a lot even though there’s a competition for a place there. Coming up against certain front rows, we’ll have a good talk together to prepare. When we’re working together, it’s really healthy and a nice environment to be in. He is a great mentor to learn a lot about the set piece; he has so much experience and can give me a lot of tips.”
The 21-year-old will be hoping to feature in the first of three interprovincial games in the Guinness PRO14 against Leinster at the RDS on Friday.
“It will be an exciting one to go to the RDS; last year we didn’t do as well as we wanted but the group has come a long way since then and we’ve a good depth in the squad. A lot of the players are excited to be getting the opportunity to play Leinster.”