Rory O’Loughlin is in an unusual position for a 22-year-old. Considering he has made his senior Leinster debut, bagged a first European cap and racked up 10 first-team appearances, the season should be rated as a successful one so far.
However, the fact that the man he is chasing for a starting jersey in his favoured position of outside centre — Blackrock prodigy Garry Ringrose — is a year younger than him puts him in an odd spot.
O’Loughlin wore the No 13 jersey for Leinster’s two most recent Guinness PRO12 outings — victory over the Dragons and defeat by Munster — but those games were bookended by their back-to-back European wins against Northampton, when 21-year-old Ringrose was wearing Brian O’Driscoll’s old No.13 shirt.
“It’s a strange one,” admits O’Loughlin on his pursuit of a younger rival, rather than an established veteran for a starting spot. “Myself and Garry competed at under-20s as well… obviously he’s gone ahead of me.
“It’s obviously good because we’re both kind of learning together but it is difficult once the European games come around when it’s back to… Garry going in at 13 or whatever.”
It is a pattern that has been familiar since Ringrose put his hand up as a starting centre in Leinster’s opening PRO12 outings before going on to make his Ireland debut in the November Series.
“We’ve a good relationship, me and Garry,” continued O’Loughlin. “We’re constantly improving each other.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an awkward relationship, but it just kind of means that I’m going to have to become more adaptable in the positions I can play and then when I do get the chance to play at 13, to show I can compete as best I can which is going to make us both better, at the end of the day.”
In the home win over Northampton, O’Loughlin was introduced on the wing and he admits that, like many of Leinster’s young guns, he has been forced to learn fast in adapting to a challenging new position.
O’Loughlin is one of 10 Leinster Academy players to have featured for the province so far this season — he is expected to progress to a senior contract at the end of the season — and he is part of a talented group of St Michael’s graduates to have emerged at senior provincial level.
Ross Byrne, Dan Leavy, Nick McCarthy, and Ross Molony were all St Michael’s senior cup team-mates of O’Loughlin.
“We played together for two or three years in school and then onwards through the Leinster underage system,” explained O’Loughlin. “A lot of people have been saying to me recently, especially from Michael’s, that it’s pretty incredible that it’s happened.
“I think it comes down to the coaching in the school — Andrew Skehan and Emmet MacMahon at the moment have taken the helm there — and even when I was there, Bernard Jackman was coaching me, so the quality of coaching is really there.”
Byrne, Moloney, Leavy, and O’Loughlin all started in the St Stephen’s Day loss to Munster and while the Blues suffered defeat, O’Loughlin insists that the intensity of the seasonal inter-provincials offers a welcome barometer of their progress ahead of Saturday’s New Year’s Eve showdown against Ulster at the RDS.
“Lining up against internationals such as Simon Zebo is when you kind of see you can hold your own and compete against them,” said O’Loughlin.
“It’s good to see where you stand and while they’re obviously world-class players, you’re not that far away from them.
“That’s where you want to be, competing against world-class international players, holding your own and then hopefully excelling at the same time and putting yourself in the window there.”
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