Ireland international Tom O’Toole is set to undergo surgery this week on a chronic groin injury, which will keep him out for ‘approximately a month’ according to Ulster’s medical performance team.
Coming off the back of a ‘great experience’ with Ireland at the Rugby World Cup, O’Toole played the full 80 minutes and was Ulster’s player-of-the-match in their hard-fought 26-19 win over the Vodacom Bulls last Sunday.
However, the 25-year-old prop will miss at least the next five rounds of the BKT United Rugby Championship. Also sidelined for Saturday’s trip to Connacht are Kieran Treadwell (hip), and Cormac Izuchukwu and Dave Ewers, who are both following the return-to-play protocols following their head injuries.
With long-term absentee Martin Moore (ACL) yet to return, the news that O’Toole requires surgery comes at a bad time for the Ulstermen. It leaves them light in terms of available tightheads for the Galway game.
“The tighthead side, we only have James French and Greg (McGrath) that are fit. Marty will not be too far away, he still has a few things to tick off but it will not be in the next couple of weeks.
“We have got a few niggles at the minute, Dave Ewers came off with a concussion, ‘Izzy’ (Izuchukwu) came off with a concussion, and ‘Tredders’ (Treadwell) is carrying his hip injury…Greg Jones. There are a few niggles in there but it is what it is.
“These things are swings and roundabouts. We’ll have 23 hungry guys who will go down to Galway and we’ll enjoy that challenge.”
O’Toole made his Rugby World Cup debut during the opening round against Romania, playing the final 30 minutes. He also had recent runouts against Samoa and Italy before the tournament, bringing his current caps tally to twelve.
Given he had not played as much rugby as he would have liked to recently, he stayed motivated and kept himself fit so he was in a good headspace to come back from the World Cup and make a quick return with Ulster.
Praising how accommodating his provincial team-mates have been, some of whom are new, he revealed: “At the start of the week, I was getting my head around certain calls and getting back to the system here. I was coming from two different environments.
“I was away with the Ireland group, who became like a small family group spending a lot of time together and you are coming into a new group who have been working through the summer and after a long pre-season, they have built relationships and added a few new guys.
“So this week I’ve not been too hard on myself, just focusing on getting back in and not rush anything or put too much pressure on myself. The boys made it easy for me.”
The new Kingspan 3G pitch was to O’Toole’s liking, as he enjoyed ‘a faster, more free-flowing game’ and the fact that it ‘held up really well underfoot and for set-pieces when it started raining’.
The Drogheda-born front rower, who fizzed out a fine pass to set up Jacob Stockdale’s try against the Bulls, finished last season as a Grand Slam winner. He was the only Ulster player to feature in all five of Ireland’s Guinness Six Nations games.
He feels the World Cup experience, which he describes as ‘one of the best few weeks of my life’, has really brought him on as a player. Getting more game-time in 2024 and beyond is the obvious target as he looks to become a more regular member of Ireland’s matchday 23.
“The result was disappointing (going out at the quarter-final stage), but I think the relationships and connections we made as a group, you become like a family. It was nice having Hendy (Iain Henderson), Stu (McCloskey) and Rob (Herring) there and we came a lot closer as a four.
“It was an honour to be part of the group and I think it helped me with my development, maturity as a player, but that’s life and you don’t win everything. It was a great experience.”
Ulster are third in the table following opening victories over Zebre Parma (40-36) and the Bulls. Their only loss in their last eight URC matches was at home to Connacht during last season’s quarter-finals. McFarland wants to right the wrongs of that 15-10 defeat.
“There’s always an element of, ‘the last time we met we didn’t do ourselves justice’. I thought Connacht played very well in that game and we played one of our worst games of the year.
“Is it the biggest thing? I don’t think so. We need a combination of understanding that we need heart and passion and that little bit of a feeling of letting ourselves down the last time, but we also need to be clinical and good at the rugby.