The prospect of an Irish U20s jersey must have seemed a distant dream to a 16-year-old Tom O’Toole, as he looked out the window of Campbell College, in Belfast, on his first night at the school, and thought about the family he had left 10,000 miles behind, in Australia.
Born in Drogheda, the Ulster tighthead prop spent some time in Meath, before upping sticks to Brisbane with his family, when he was seven.
A Gaelic footballer and soccer devotee in Ireland, he followed in his two elder brothers’ footsteps by enrolling at St Patrick’s College, in Brisbane.
A school with a strong rugby league tradition, it had turned its focus towards union and O’Toole was good enough to be involved with the Queensland Reds underage set-up and the state schoolboys side. Then, talk of a shot with Ulster surfaced.
“When I heard about that I just went for it,” he explained, with a curious accent, part Aussie with traces of Belfast and a touch of southern brogue. “I wanted to come home. I always wanted to do some schooling in Ireland.
“That was a big thing for me. Even though I was in Australia for ten years, it wasn’t quite home. When I had the opportunity to come back and potentially play for Ireland, at underage level, I just thought, ‘yeah, let’s do it’.”
His parents would follow him home a few months after term started — they live in Termonfeckin, in Louth, now — and one brother was already in Dublin, starting out on a career in media. But those first few weeks as a boarder gave rise to the odd second thought.
“The first month was especially tough. I remember my first night boarding and sitting there, looking out the window, and thinking, ‘Oh my God, how did I end up here?’ It was just overwhelming, meeting so many people and there is pressure on yourself.”
Well-received appearances with Ulster ‘A’ this season have followed stints with Campbell, Banbridge, along with outings with Ireland at U18s and U19s levels, and this last few weeks are proof that his leap into the unknown has paid off.
“This has been a huge confidence boost. You just know you are on the right track.”
A replacement for Leinster’s Jack Aungier, in the opening games against France and Italy, O’Toole will play understudy to the same man again this evening (Donnybrook, 7.15pm, live on RTÉ2), with head coach, Noel McNamara, making three changes to the XV that squeaked past a 14-man Italy two weeks ago. Ronan Kelleher joins Aungier in the front row, having missed the last outing with illness.
That is the pack’s only alteration. Johnny Stewart slots back in at nine, having missed the Azzurri game, due to Ulster duties, and provincial colleague, James Hume, comes in at midfield.
Wales have made 10 changes, as they seek to expose as many players as possible to the grade, prior to the summer’s Junior World Cup.
Both sides have mixed the good with the bad. Ireland may just have that bit more coherence tonight. Their side is more settled.
M Silvester (Dublin City University/Leinster); T O’Brien (UCD/Leinster), J Hume (Banbridge/Ulster), A Curtis (Queensy/Ulster), J McCarthy (UL Bohs/Munster); H Byrne (UCD/Leinster), J Stewart (Queens/Ulster); J Duggan (Naas/Leinster), R Kelleher (Lansdowne/Leinster), J Aungier (St Mary’s/Leinster); C Daly (Clontarf/Leinster), J Dunne (TCD/Leinster); S Masterson (Corinthians/Connacht), M Agnew (Ballymena/Ulster), J O’Sullivan (UCC/Munster).
C Evans (Ospreys); J Goodchild (Dragons), C Carson (Ospreys), M Llewellyn (Cardiff), T Rogers (Scarlets); B Jones (Cardiff), H Morgan (Ospreys); J Reynolds (Dragons), I Harris (Cardiff), R Henry (Ospreys); O Lloyd (Cardiff), M Williams (Dragons); T Reffell (Leicester), J Botham (Cardiff), T Basham (Dragons).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved