The body was sore after his long-awaited return to first-team action but Conor Oliver is relishing the opportunity to prove his worth in the Munster back row all over again.
The province’s Academy Player of the year in 2017 has had to bide his time before getting the chance to build on the progress he made last season, highlighted by regular praise from former director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.
A serious shoulder injury suffered during preseason caused the 22-year-old to miss the first half of 2017-18 but since making his comeback with a man-of-the-match performance against Connacht on January 6, Oliver has continued to make strides.
Incoming head coach Johann van Graan relied on his senior back-rowers to secure a Champions Cup quarter-final berth as Oliver built his match fitness with the Munster A team in the B&I Cup.
However, with Ireland’s Six Nations bid claiming the services of Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander and openside flanker Tommy O’Donnell battling a shoulder injury, last weekend’s resumption of the Guinness PRO14 campaign has opened the door once more for the Dublin-born back-rower.
Oliver put in an 80-minute shift in the 33-5 bonus-point victory over Zebre at Thomond Park last Saturday and van Graan will be sure to utilise him again across the next three games as Munster play Cardiff Blues in Wales on Saturday, welcome Glasgow Warriors to Cork on February 23, and then go to Edinburgh on March 2 without their Ireland contingent.
“It’s good to get the 80 minutes. The body feels a bit sore,” said Oliver. “Trying to get used to the post-game soreness. It’s great to be back in the mix and getting game time.
“This window is massive for the younger guys coming through and trying to get a bit of experience. You have to try and put your best foot forward, try and give the coaches a few headaches about selection and stuff.
“You always look forward to this block because you get your opportunity to showcase what you can do, and especially coming back from a long-term injury. I was waiting and this was a good time for me to come back now and try and get a good run of games in before the guys come back from camp.”
Oliver has been with Munster since summer 2015, having jumped at the offer of a place in the academy while playing AIL with St Mary’s. A pathway that started at Skerries RFC via Blackrock College and into the Leinster and Ireland underage set-ups, where he played for the U18s, 19s, and 20s, did not lead to a place with his home province.
“It wasn’t really a big call (to move to Munster). There was nothing really there for me in Leinster. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do in college, but I knew I wanted to be a professional rugby player. The minute I got the chance, especially with Munster and their history and how good of a club it is, I didn’t even have to think twice about it — the minute the opportunity came up I just took it with both hands.”
Oliver last week signed a two-year senior contract having transitioned from the academy to a development deal this season but he admits it took time to settle but it got much easier for the teenager as the prospect of making the grade began to crystallise.
“I didn’t really know too many guys down here. I knew Stephen Fitzgerald from playing U20s. I moved down with Jordan Coghlan, he is not here anymore. But we moved down at the same time. Two lads coming down from Dublin. I lived with him so I settled in that way. It took a few months. But when I started being in and around the senior squad I started realising the opportunity that was here for me.
“I thrived a bit more when I knew how close I was to playing international rugby.”
Cutting his teeth further in the AIL was another bonus, and Oliver credits the support of Garryowen for helping him settle. Waving goodbye to Erasmus, one of his biggest advocates, was another potential obstacle, particularly as he was rehabbing an injury, but Oliver saw the switch to new management as an opportunity rather than a roadblock.
“I just started from scratch. My injury probably helped, the fact that the coaches changed. I came back in I felt like I was starting from scratch anyway, no matter if the coaches were different or not. It gives you massive confidence when you know a coach and they have confidence in you. You go out with no worries, you don’t really have any doubt, you don’t doubt yourself in your head either.”
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