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Tom O’Toole – A Tight-Head’s Journey

Tom O’Toole – A Tight-Head’s Journey

Tom O’Toole is delivering an impressive body of work in this year’s Guinness Six Nations Championships but his journey to this point has included a good degree of patience, trust and faith in his ability.

Tom made his Ulster debut at that age of 19 against Edinburgh in April 2018 and the following season he would make his Champions Cup debut off the bench against the Scarlets. As a raw tight-head prop he was making steady progress pre COVID and had made 51 appearances for Ulster including 16 starts before he was called in the national squad in January 2021 on a learning brief.

O’Toole entered an Ireland squad that had Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter packing down on the tight-head side and would get the opportunity to square off against veteran looseheads in Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne.

“Tom is a tough kid, a smart rugby player well able to play the game.  He has some unique physical attributes and at that age putting him into a group of props like Tadhg (Furlong), Cian (Healy) and Killer (Dave Kilcoyne) we knew he would learn on the job.  The plan was that he would come in, gain experience from being around the group and being around the environment.  That was what we wanted to do initially when he came in as a 21-year-old,”  – Ireland scrum coach John Fogarty.

Tom O’Toole Timeline

April 2018                     Ulster debut v Edinburgh at age 19

December 2018          Champions Cup debut for Ulster v Scarlets

January 2021              Named in Ireland Senior Six Nations Squad

July 2021                       1st cap vs USA at Aviva Stadium

November 2021          Replacement v Argentina at Aviva Stadium

January 2022              Named in Ireland Senior Six Nations Squad

July 2022                      Replacement v New Zealand in 1st Test & 2 starts v Māori All Blacks

November 2022         Start v All Blacks XV & replacement v Fiji

February 2023            First Six Nations appearance – four consecutive appearances

Tom O’Toole makes his Ireland debut against the USA in the Vodafone Summer Series, Aviva Stadium in July 2021

It was not part of the plan for O’Toole to feature in the Six Nations but he would be given an opportunity to don the green jersey a few months later as he started for Ireland against the USA at the Aviva Stadium in July.  He would also feature off the bench against Argentina in the Autumn Nations Series the following November.

Again, he was named in the Ireland squad for the 2022 Guinness Six Nations Championships where his tutelage continued with Finlay Bealham back in the tight-head mix and Porter now firmly established on the loosehead side.   He would again not feature in a match day squad across the Championship.

Named in the extended squad for the 2022 Summer Tour of New Zealand, O’Toole started the opening fixture of the tour against the Maori All Blacks in Hamilton.  A perfect storm of injury and illness opened the door for him to come off the bench in the first Test against New Zealand just three days later.  He would go on to again start in the win over the Māori in Wellington.

During the 2022 November international window he started against the All Blacks XV in a tough outing for Ireland A and he would earn another cap off the bench against Fiji.

Tom O’Toole in action against France in the 2023 Guinness Six Nations Championship

Speaking of O’Toole development in national camp, Fogarty said, “I think it’s important that players have a positive experience.  You are looking at them the whole time in training, gauging how calm they are, how much they understand how we want to play the game.  In training we first got glimpses of him getting what we wanted him to deliver.  He’s a very competitive kid and he learned very very quickly.   The games in New Zealand, he learned on the job and he put himself in a great place coming into this Six Nations.

Heading into his third Six Nations campaign O’Toole was primed to deliver and has done with aplomb coming off the bench in all four games adding value at set-piece and in open play.

“Tom has had to bide his time in the wider squad, he has had to gain trust of both the coaches and his peers and that trust has been built, and in himself as well.  He has absolute belief now in what he is doing and we are seeing that on the field.  He has been a big part of what we have done to date in this year’s Six Nations,” said Fogarty.

Roman Salanoa celebrates with teammates after beating the Griquas in the 2022 Toyota Challenge in Bloemfontein, South Africa

Roman Salanoa is another young tighthead on a steep learning curve.  Limited by injury at Munster, Roman was selected to tour with Emerging Ireland last autumn and started the game against the Pumas and was a replacement against both the Griquas and the Cheetahs. He was a late call up ahead of the opening round of this year’s Guinness Six Nations on the eve of the first round fixture against Wales and has been training with the squad ever since.

Speaking of Salanoa’s development Fogarty opined, “We want him to go through the same steps.  When players come in first they want to show everything that they can do, they want to show everything about themselves, they don’t quite fully understand what they plan is or what the system is and it takes a little bit of time for them and just be nice and accurate.  Tom went through that process and Roman is in that process now and we see a lot of the same attributes in Roman that we saw in Tom and we are going to keep a very close eye on what he is doing in Munster and his development here with us and we’d like him to follow the same pathway.”