THIS TIME LAST year, there was perhaps no star of Irish rugby rising as quickly as Eoin O’Malley.
Then 23, the Leinster centre was on the absolute cusp of Ireland’s senior team; the 23rd man even forming part of the pre-match huddles at the Aviva Stadium.
Leinster’s unforgiving quest for a double claimed him as a victim when deputising for Brian O’Driscoll in the Pro12 semi-final win over Glasgow.
SInce then, O’Malley has only been able to stand still while other names advance their claims to be Ireland’s next great 13.
“It is frustrating.” He said before training with his province on Monday. “You are watching a lot of guys around you progress – in other provinces as well as here -but there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.
“I was trying to really block it out of my head and focus on my leg, really- if you are a month or two months away from playing it can be frustrating, but I tried my best to ignore it.”
To onlookers, his long-awaited return felt interminable, every week his name would be included on the fitness progress reports, yet when the team-sheets arrived in, neither the 13 nor 23 jersey was allocated to him.
As is so often the case, it took an injury to force Joe Schmidt’s hand before the trip to Cardiff.
“I was pretty nervous.” He says of his second appearance this season, the starting role against Treviso.
“It was more excitement. I think the week before the way it worked out – I was going over to Cardiff on standby and then one of the lads pulled out the day before, so I got 20 minutes – I wasn’t really in my head.
“I didn’t have the time to be nervous for that one. Whereas I had a good sense I was starting last week so there were a good bit of nerves, good bit of excitement. It was nice to be back playing in the RDS, it’s been a while.”
Maybe it was the sunshine refreshing the training pitch after a gloomy winter, but O’Malley’s smile through every sentence showed a man with a weight finally lifted off him. Nerves out of the way, he will take on the midfielder’s responsibility again this Saturday when the in-form Scarlets come to Dublin looking to complete a Pro12 double and overtake Leinster in third place.
“It’s an eight-pointer.” O’Malley says of the coming challenge. “They are right behind us in the league and I think the Scarlets are a real quality side so it’s going to be important to try and get a result. We’ve played them a lot this year so they know us pretty well, they know us well and they always turn out to be pretty tough affairs.”
As a pacey centre, O’Malley is relishing playing against opponents who crave as much open space as he does. He admitted it was ‘brilliant’ to play on dry ground against Treviso and he – with his recovering knee – will be hoping conditions will offer plain sailing from here on in.
Then perhaps, his time on the outside looking in will be over.