Historically in Ulster, there has been a well-worn route into the Ulster squad.
Tommy O’Hagan has taken a path less travelled – from a non-rugby playing background (dedicating more of his youth to Gaelic games), Tommy was introduced to rugby at a relatively late stage and, given his strength, size and love of the physical side of the game, took to it like a duck to water.
An incredibly likeable character, Tommy is popular around the squad and has a big future ahead of him. Here he is, talking about how he was introduced to rugby, his experience of breaking into the senior squad and his rugby-playing ambitions.
(This interview was conducted in the summer).
Can you talk about your route into rugby and your background?
I do get asked that quite a bit like – my route in is a bit different.
I went to St Pat’s, Maghera and we never played rugby or anything. The only thing we really played was hurling or Gaelic or you might have basketball if it was too rainy outside.
We had this guy; he was on like a sports placement year if you want to teach PE and he introduced us to Aussie rules. There was another teacher at the time and he would have been a big fan of Aussie Rules and we just progressively went from Aussie rules to a bit of rugby but it wasn’t anywhere near full contact or anything, it was just a bit of touch back then. I thought it was alright you know, I thought it was good craic and stuff.
You would have seen rugby on TV all the time, but it just passed you by. I had a couple of friends from Magherafelt and I stayed at their house one time. They all played rugby, but I hadn’t much of an inkling. I had an interest in it because of the way Gaelic and hurling season goes, our preseason would be winter time when the rugby’s just sort of kicking off. So my coaches at the time said ‘why don’t you play a bit of rugby over the winter time to get you fit come summer time for Gaelic and that’ and I said ‘yeah, sounds like a good idea’, but I never really bothered about it. I’d be quite laid back in my ways if you know what I mean!
So, I stayed at my mate’s house one night in Magherafelt and they were going to play rugby the next morning and they said do you want to come along to watch and I said yeah, no problem. And it turned out they needed an extra man to play City of Derry, under 17’s. It just so happened coincidentally they had a spare pair of boots. I’m pretty sure it was orchestrated like. I played second row that day and that was pretty much it from then on in!
Were you hooked from that point on?
To be honest, once I got my first tackle and my first carry, I loved it. I hadn’t a notion about the rules. I think got done for moving on the ground 3 times that day and they kept having to explain to the referee that I’d never played rugby before. Besides that, it was pretty good!
What made you switch to prop? Was it when you went into the academy?
I was 17 sort of age when I played second row. I started playing prop when I went into seniors. Then, under 18’s I played prop. The year they changed it to 17s-18s instead of 17s-19s I played one year under Sean Bloomfield and he actually used to come lift me from the house because I had no way to get from Swatragh to Magherafelt so he used to do the loop from Limavady to Swatragh to Magherafelt when he was the Youth Development Officer.
He was wile good to me at the time, so he was. Top lad, I couldn’t believe this lad would actually do that and everybody else at the club was being so nice to me and it wasn’t just me, the culture of rugby was really appealing because everyone was willing to help someone else out. But yeah it was funny how it just turned from just doing it for the craic one night because I was staying at my friend’s house to ‘I actually love this and I’m going to come to training on Tuesdays and Thursdays’.
How much did you stand out in those early days? When did you think you could make it professionally?
To be honest with you, if I was being bluntly honest, I didn’t actually ever think I would be playing professional rugby. I just genuinely enjoyed the sport at the time. What grabbed me was, even my dad said to me one day about it, was how much I actually liked it from only playing so little time playing it.
Instead of just passing the TV channel that had the rugby on to watch something else, I was actually watching it because I was like wondering like ‘can I do this here better’ and I was actually really interested from then onwards. If I had to put down anything, I loved the scrum – especially the contact areas. I would love carrying and everything, but scrummaging would be my favourite part of it to be honest.
How would you describe yourself as a player?
I’d definitely say I love to carry. I’d definitely say that’s one of my strong points, I just love to get hands on the ball. I wouldn’t be trying to tackle every 2 phases, I’d definitely be fond of carrying the ball.
On the other side of that, I wouldn’t mind if somebody knocked it on the odd time. I’d rather get us into the scrum than having to chase 50m back like!
Do you think your background in different sports has helped you?
I sometimes do think aye, it definitely is transferable. I would have good hands on me and stuff, but it still comes down to consistency in trying to perfect that. In Gaelic terms especially, there is a slight bit of contact but you can literally handle the ball all day, run it all you want but in rugby if you get a shot at the line you’ve got a lot of pressure on you to try and catch that ball, especially on the move as well. You’re thinking, ‘I need to catch the ball, what am I doing, am I carrying, am I popping, is it going out the back here’, you have literally no time to think about that.
That’s why Dan Soper is so good. He’s been really good to me, this last year especially being injured because you’re not getting the time in training that you can practice your ball skills but he comes up with these wee drills that make you really think under pressure that doesn’t simulate the contact but simulate the pressure being put on you In such a short amount of time.
When you made the transition from the academy, what changes did you have to make to your physique?
When I walked into the academy, I walked in for a trial and then I came out of the academy about a year after. So I trialled for more or less a season and then I came in sort of 2016ish into the academy, I came in at 132kg at my trial season and they were like ‘yeah, you’re strong, powerful but you definitely have to trim here’. So, by the time I came into the academy year I was down to something like 118kg, maybe even less than that, because it wasn’t necessary to have that excess fat, it was a bit of muscle loss but at the same time I could lift heavier.
They were brilliant to me, they understood that I was coming from pure raw potential in their eyes to have to catch up sort of thing. Amy Davis, when she was helping out with the academy at that stage – and the other coaches – were brilliant to me because they knew there would be a lot of catch up but it wasn’t forced on me straight away, it was small steps at a time.
Were there players you looked up to?
Sort of, yeah. Before I was in the academy, I was always looking ahead to see what might be in front of me. At the same time, my coach had been John Andrews who would have been coaching Ballymena academy – he would have coached Andrew Warwick at the time when he was at Ballymena. Waz has gone through the same process where he came from the club at a bit of a later stage and he went into the professional set up and he was wile good to me when I came into it as well and he gave me advice here and there and we were in the same shoes, only a couple of years between us and in the same position as well. He was pretty helpful when I came in.
Callum Black as well – he was brilliant last year when he was still at Ulster. He was really good so he was, trying to help out technique wise, what I could do better even off the ball, stuff like that.
Was the atmosphere in the squad helpful or was it extremely competitive?
I think everybody is competitive in what they do but not to the point where they resent you if you know what I mean.
It’s a wile cliché but you are brothers in a way, you’re trying to help each other. Even if you’re training during the week and there’s the starting team versus the subs and the guys who aren’t picked that week. It isn’t just like they’re playing this week and we’re not; you’re not doing yourself any favours if you’re not trying your best and training to help them guys get ready.
If you switch off, you are letting them down when you go to play because it’s not going to be realistic in training. You’re doing yourself in at the same because it’s shows you don’t care. You as well not be running against anybody, that sort of way.
What do you think could be done better to get guys from other sports into rugby?
I actually have a friend who’s a Youth Development Officer who would go to different schools in Magherafelt and the surrounding areas – high schools and schools that haven’t historically played much rugby. Some of them would dabble in rugby but they wouldn’t necessarily come to play or anything. There would be some kids who want to come out and try it.
I don’t know, it’s a hard one because they are getting people out there to introduce to schools and that. Some kids they grow up in backgrounds and communities where rugby hasn’t been a part of their lives. To be honest with there’s not many ones from certain areas… I think there’s maybe two kids now from Swatragh now who are playing rugby at the club but it’s because they’ve got family from this area. Usually with small towns like Swatragh, your family’s with the club, you’re all about the club, that’s great. There’s probably something better can be done but it’s really hard to know what exactly can be done to introduce more young players to the game.
A lot of guys in the Ireland set-up come from those different sports – or at least have played a variety of different sports including Gaelic and hurling before they settle on rugby.
I have thought about it before, my dad always said to me about it, but I think sometimes the problem is a lot of the town parishes with Gaelic clubs, the nearest rugby club is often a while away.
In Magherafelt just as an example, in the summer-time when Gaelic is just coming to an end but rugby is just starting up, guys come out with us on Tuesdays and Thursdays or even a Wednesday if the sun’s really good for touch rugby. They’d still come out and play a bit of touch because it’s just a bit of simple running and it’s a bit of craic more than anything.
But the likes of Swatragh there, the nearest rugby club would be Magherafelt or Coleraine and some of the boys wouldn’t be bothered driving up the road just for that there if you have no interest. I suppose just geographically it wouldn’t interest some people but if it was close by, I can see the appeal as there is definitely a set of transferable skills between the two sports and, of course, both help with fitness.
You want to play what you see on TV – the more rugby coverage (or coverage of any sport), the more people want to play and aspire to the people they are watching on TV.
Coming off the World Cup, there is such a big build up and so much rugby on TV. When young people are watching some of the best teams in the world you think rugby’s class, maybe you want to try and play it then.
The bigger the player pool in Ulster, the better chance you have of producing a conveyor belt of players like some of the top teams – Leinster, for example. What expectations do you have for Ulster in the next couple of seasons?
We sort of laid down a mark there last year. Dan came in there and he’s done brilliant since he came in. To be honest we were in a bit of a bad shape towards the end of the season before last with the way things were. Any man who came into that job, it would a hard thing to be walking into, but he actually completely turned it around.
The way he loves to invite culture amongst us like, to bring us together and that collective spirit is what he tries to drive. You’d probably hear from anybody else that it’s worked. It showed last year, any play we had, everybody was together, it was that sort of togetherness in everything we did. Even when we did have a bad loss against Munster, we did it together, we accepted that together and we came back the next week. We trained together, we looked at it and said what we could have better. It wasn’t just the coaches saying what went wrong here, it wasn’t a bollocking – we were able to answer the question ourselves.
That culture wasn’t around Ulster in previous seasons.
No there really wasn’t because like, you could tell by the way things were going on in the media, you would hear things being said, it was getting negative but last year was completely turned around. I only played 2 games with seniors and maybe a couple AIL games when I was injured but I was still part of the meetings and I was still hearing what was going on and it was brilliant to be part of that last season.
It’s good there’s more competition for places now.
Exactly, like I say it’s very competitive but not in the form where you’re trying to get ahead at anyone else’s expense, but you just have to be able to drive yourself and put your best foot forward to put your hand up for selection.
Speaking of drive, what are your ambitions in rugby?
I definitely want to try to get more caps on the belt anyway. I definitely want to be able to establish myself in the team. Last year I was very grateful to get a couple of runs out. I was just unfortunate with the run of injuries I had beforehand. If I had to set a goal for the future, I would definitely say just to try and put my best forward and get into the team. It is going to continue to be competitive but at the same time the ambition is still to get on to the team.
Favourite movie or documentary?
I’m not one for documentaries now. Movie – I’d say Gladiator.
Any hobbies or obsessions that you explore outside of rugby?
I’d like to think I’m handy at DIY stuff to be honest like more than anything. I try to be a mechanic but I’m not mechanically gifted, so I try to do DIY jobs at my house, at my mother’s house. I try my hand at it, and I fail miserably. My most famous one recently was a fence post hit me in the head one day when I was doing a bit of fencing, but I survived that!
Best and worst thing about being a rugby player?
You get a Boojum card, and that’s probably the worst one as well to be fair!
The best thing about being a pro rugby player, probably is one of those clichés again, is the travelling and getting to meet people and stuff. It’s great at the local club and everything, you get to meet the local people and they’re great and generous in their ways but then you go up to Belfast and Kingspan’s the exact same. You travel to other clubs across the country and it’s the exact same, it’s crazy how open and how nice people are. There are guys I met from 2 years ago when I first started that I would still be texting the odd time to see how you get on. It’s weird like. For example, Caleb Montgomery who’s away there at Worcester Warriors and we’d be texting each other like ‘have the cold sweats started for the pre-season yet?’, stuff like that.
Is there anyone in the squad you’re particularly friendly with?
Funny thing is everybody’s roughly the same age except for Mikey Lowry, he’d be the baby of the squad now, everybody’s roughly the same age so we just click together. I would say probably just McBurney or the Rae brothers, even big Al O’Connor.
There are a few family connections.
It’s cool – two McCalls, two Raes, two O’Connors. It’s crazy so it is.
I saw your YouTube video, what’s your relationship like with Stephen Ferris now?
Haha. Oh aye, 100%. I didn’t know what way it was going to go; it was a bit of a dare. I pulled a dare card and I had to do a funny video on a health device he had been promoting and I hadn’t a clue what it was, I actually thought I was taking a turn because I couldn’t actually say the word, I thought I was just seeing things.
They explained to me what it was, and I was like ‘oh brilliant’. And it was Trimble’s idea. It was great, I got sent a video of it the other day.
He seemed to like it now. Even the company took it really well. They were writing back to hundreds of posts and everything – might be offered a marketing job with them when rugby is finished!