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'Scrums were like a necessary evil to me, I'd just hit and hope'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

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Sixteen weeks on from the proudest moment of his career, London Irish tighthead Ollie Hoskins is still living the dream. He is in the process of getting his debut Wallabies jersey framed for hanging in his Richmond living room but that jumper could yet have some company by the end of the season. The Exiles are revelling in nosebleed Gallagher Premiership territory, challenging for the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.

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It’s quite the change for the front-rower Hoskins who spent two of his six years at the Irish roughing it down in the Championship not quite knowing that he was ultimately destined for better things in the sport for club and country. Chucked on the Super Rugby scrapheap by his hometown Western Force in 2016, it took years for the Australian to fully adjust to northern hemisphere rugby.

Hoskins is now flourishing, though, in the cut and thrust of the English top tier, a key member of the London Irish squad that has adventurously charged up the table after far too many years in the doldrums. It’s an admirable improvement by the club, their recent return to a stadium based in London transforming what they have to offer. But in the case of Hoskins himself, the improvement can be classed as remarkable.

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No more is he the journeyman who doubted he had what it took to succeed. Now Hoskins is a 28-year-old capped international who is in the process of negotiating a fresh deal at Irish from a position of strength that he didn’t think possible not so long ago.

Before we dwell on the London Irish title hopes and the story of Hoskins’ remarkable Wallabies call-up in November to play against England, a trip through his less assured past is needed to put all this wonderful 2021/22 giddiness into proper context. He sure doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties he encountered along the way, chatting at length to RugbyPass about the blood, sweat and tears put into him finally making it.

“I felt a bit lost in my career, to be fair,” explained Hoskins, jogging his mind back to how he became surplus to requirement in Perth and gambled on a lifeline dangled by Irish from the other side of the world. “I got sacked off from my hometown team and I had dreams of playing for them for my whole career. I came over here on a bit of a whim and it has turned into the best decision of my life.

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“The Force didn’t want me anymore and when I spoke to Tom Coventry, they had a real genuine interest and really wanted me. He painted a picture as to how I would fit into the squad and what they saw for me going forward.

“That was a really exciting prospect and in my development, that first year in the Championship was probably the best thing for me because it allowed me to deal with what is a very tough transition coming from the southern hemisphere and learning a more attritional, more set-piece orientated way of playing. It allowed me to kind of fail in a little bit of silence because my first six months here I was getting absolutely battered set-piece wise.

“It was just a massively steep learning curve but it allowed me to develop under the radar a little bit without the shining light of the Premiership on me. Initially, when I came I was probably not up to standard. I was a young kid who had been playing Super Rugby and cared more about the flashy parts of the game than what my job as a tighthead was.

“Scrums were like a necessary evil to me. I’d just hit and hope… I struggled massively for a good year or two and set-piece wise I definitely wasn’t up to the standard. Even later in my career, there were some points even a year ago where I really felt under the cosh. More than anything it was a mental thing.

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“I did quite a lot of work in pre-season and towards the end of last season with our team psychologist. I had a few self-fulfilling prophecies in running demons around my set-piece and I was just in a negative mindset around it. When things were going right I’d think it was lucky and then when one scrum went wrong I would catastrophise it in my head and have this running (negative) narrative.

“But I worked a lot with the psychologist around my set-piece and we focused on things that I can control and how I can bounce back from setbacks. It has been really revolutionary. I just feel a lot more confident and it has manifested into me physically being in a better space around scrummaging technical wise and all that stuff but it really started with the mental aspect.

“It wasn’t something that came naturally to me, it was something I had to really work on and develop over a long period of time and now I’m 28 I feel like I have hit my straps with it and I can let the rest of my game flourish with my scrum.”

How Hoskins now views what he has to offer as a rugby player and how London Irish view themselves compared to the yo-yo existence where two of the Australian’s initial three seasons at the club were spent in the second tier is like night and day. The scars of that awkward journey, though, are empowering.

“I’ve got a real attachment to the club because we have been through the wringer,” he enthused. “It’s been a roller coaster, down in the Championship twice and a Premiership season where we only won three games, so it has been tough.

“For me and a couple of the other boys that have been here during my period, we have a real emotional investment in the club because this club gave boys’ lifelines at a crossroads in their careers. We felt really wanted and it has manifested into us building this tight-knit group that is enjoying playing together at the moment.

“There is something about this place and the people and the way they stuck by me. They took a chance and I felt I had to repay that faith shown in me. I just feel really lucky to have found my feet here and been accepted. After being here for six years it’s just a great place to be. I met my wife over here and I’m going to be in the UK for the foreseeable future. I have found my roots and I’m happy that it is with London Irish because it is a club full of great people.

“It’s easy to come in on a Monday when you have won a bunch of games recently, it gives a buzz to the group. But even after the Sale game (last weekend’s latest draw), the mood in the dressing room was probably a bit of disappointment. We thought we could have won and that is a bit of a shift from where we have been in previous seasons.

“I had gone to Sale maybe four or five times and been absolutely thumped. The best result was maybe a 20-point loss, so the fact we are in the headspace where we can go up to Sale, get three points with a draw and a bonus point and feel a bit disappointed shows where we are at mentally.

“There is a great spirit around the place, we enjoy coming to work even when it is pissing down on a Tuesday and we are beating the crap out of each other, it’s all fun. There are good jokes, there is banter when we come in. It’s a great place to be at the moment.

“We are trying to chip away at it [reaching the playoffs] slowly and surely but I’m not going to lie, the other week I looked at the table and in previous years 17 rounds in I don’t think I have been close to the top four so it is a lovely little incentive that we have put in a lot of foundations over a long time and we are reaping some rewards.”

Their latest reward was this weekend’s thumping 43-12 win over Worcester which elevated them back into fourth place on the table but by way of a seasonal highlight, Hoskins plumps for the dramatic November draw Irish had at Saracens as his favourite moment. “To get that draw was wild,” he quipped.

“I came off the bench, we were down by over 20 points with 20 minutes to go and down to 14 men with the red card and we just threw the kitchen sink at it and managed to get a draw in the last play. That summed up what we are about as a group, that if we keep sticking to our guns teams will eventually break as we are fit enough and believe in ourselves and even if we do go down we are going to go down swinging and playing the right style of footy.

“It has all come together so far in a really positive way but we understand there is still a lot of rugby to be played and we are not getting ahead of ourselves, but it is nice sometimes to step back and smell the roses a little because it’s a position in contrast to some other years here.”

Smelling the roses is something Hoskins has done regularly in recent months when it comes to reflecting on his tear-jerking call-up by the Wallabies. The touring Australian tightheads had gone down injured all at once and the emergency resulted in the Giteau law surrounding Test team selection being overlooked.

“I have read things where people now call me an international and it’s weird. It manifested so quickly but it was such a long slog. I’d been dreaming of putting that jersey on since I was 14 and to finally get a call up at 28, it was just a whirlwind week to go from playing for London Irish on Saturday night having no inkling there was an opportunity and then being in Wallabies camp on Monday.

“There wasn’t really any time to process it so it was just an unbelievable experience. I look back now on it and it baffles me. I pinch myself, I can’t believe it really happened but it was the proudest moment of my career,” he explained, doubly delighted that the stars aligned in these pandemic times to enable his parents to be present to see him debut at Twickenham.

“It was extremely fortuitous. I don’t think you could have written a better story. Even though it was an away game for the Wallabies, it was a home game for me because I live around the corner in Richmond and my mother was already here in the country randomly and then my dad was literally able to hop on a flight (from Kuala Lumpur) where if it had happened a month later when restrictions were tighter my parents wouldn’t have been here.

“It was an unbelievable couple of weeks and the experience of playing at Twickenham was mind-boggling. It’s all a bit of a blur but it was very emotional, something that has given me good fuel in this second half of the season.

“It has validated all the work I have put in over pretty much half my lifetime, that I have been going in the right direction and the decisions I have made, even though there have been a lot of tough times, it all manifested into me achieving my childhood dream. Now it has given me a good impetus to kick on with Irish and finish this season in places we haven’t been in before.”

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