He has only played 32 games in top grade, 11 of which came this year, but Andrew Johns rates Sean O’Sullivan “one of the smartest players in the NRL”.
“If you put all the NRL halfbacks in a room and quizzed them about the game, I reckon one of the smartest would be one you barely think about: Sean O’Sullivan,” the eighth Immortal wrote in a column for The Sydney Morning Herald earlier last month.
“His footy IQ is off the charts. I have no issue in labelling him one of the most intelligent players in the NRL.”
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He is not the only one that thinks it though. Panthers teammate Brian To’o also reckons O’Sullivan is “one of the smartest footy heads” he knows. Book smart though?
“When it comes to like reading, he can only read like picture books,” To’o told foxsports.com.au, laughing.
“I think it’s just footy. In real life he’s just a bit of a dummy.”
On the field though, it is a different story entirely. After all, you would not have the master coach Wayne Bennett coming after you if you did not know a thing or two about running a footy side.
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And O’Sullivan has had to do that a bit more than he would have first expected this year, taking on one of the hardest jobs in the NRL — filling in for Nathan Cleary.
Penrith may have taken out the premiership last year but stumbled mid-season when Cleary was sidelined during the Origin period. Now, Tyrone May was hardly the ideal replacement but with Matt Burton also on the way out, the Panthers needed a solid fill-in.
O’Sullivan though was more than solid and is past being just a ‘fill-in’, now finally rewarded with a chance to really kickstart his career and as the halfback of the NRL’s newest franchise.
“It’s his overall package really that is impressive about Sean,” Panthers great Greg Alexander told foxsports.com.au.
“An underrated runner of the ball, which you need to be as a halfback. You need to be able to run the ball and Sean is not just that halfback that kicks or passes but he does those two things very well.
“Sean is a very accomplished halfback. He’s shown that this year, how he can just slot into Nathan’s jersey and help Penrith win. He’s had enough first-grade experience now to be a regular starter.”
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It did not always come easy for O’Sullivan though, who was immediately called on to replace Cleary early in the season as he worked his way back from off-season shoulder surgery.
O’Sullivan can still think back to the season-opening clash with Manly, the pre-game nerves and the one message from Cleary that has stuck with him to this day.
“I just remember the first game against Manly, I was a little bit nervous,” O’Sullivan told foxsports.com.au.
“He [Cleary] just kind of said: ‘There’s no point being nervous, you’ve done the work, everything’s happened, it’s time to let your training kind of go into the game now’. That’s something that’s stuck with me, you build all these reps that training and the game is just the finished product.”
O’Sullivan may be one of the smartest players in the NRL but there is always more to learn for this student of the game, particularly from a player of Cleary’s calibre.
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“Just the way that he communicates with his team is so good and his work ethic on and off the training paddock is unbelievable,” O’Sullivan said.
“I can’t thank him enough for his guidance and just how he’s helped me this year, just having Nathan being able to just to talk to at all hours, he’s been awesome.
“When I’m coming in, I’m not trying to be Nathan, I’m trying to be myself. I think I’ve found my role in the team now and I’m slowly starting to understand what first-grade football looks like and what it looks like for a full 80 minutes.”
Taking bits and pieces from Cleary’s game while staying true to his own, that has been the key to O’Sullivan’s success. The two are even sporting similar haircuts.
Although ask O’Sullivan and he will tell you it was actually Cleary who took after him instead of it being the other way around.
“Nath actually copied me,” he laughed.
“I’ve had this for a little bit. The boys gee it up. But you see, mine is more of a V, his is more kind of out, he’s got a bit of a flick. We’ll let him keep his and I’ll have mine.”
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Forget the subtle difference in fades though, O’Sullivan will be well and truly forging his own identity next year as the halfback of the NRL’s newest franchise — the Dolphins.
While not necessarily one of the bigger names in the league, there will be pressure given the position O’Sullivan plays and he will no longer be part of a star-studded roster like that at Penrith.
But from playing down a man after Cleary was sent off to steering around an Origin-affected squad, not everything has been straight-forward for O’Sullivan during his time at Penrith.
Those challenges have readied him for this moment, the biggest in his career to date.
“I think I’ve definitely dealt with that [the pressure] a little bit better and the whole experience of just playing with such big names at this club, leading them around is something that I’m going to be able to take into next year,” O’Sullivan said.
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“I think I’m pretty comfortable with that now. I’ve learned so much in my game that I can take over there.
“I was talking about how to play 80 minutes of NRL footy. Eighty minutes of NRL footy is different to playing 80 minutes of NSW cup. Just learning what you need to do to put your team in the best position to win is something that I’ve come leaps and bounds and I’m very thankful.”
For Alexander, even in O’Sullivan’s limited opportunities with the Broncos and Warriors he has shown glimpses of his potential and if there is anyone to unlock it, it is Bennett.
“He’s been around the game long enough to know exactly what needs to happens and no doubt this season has helped him with Nathan unavailable to start the year through Origin and now at the back-end, he was able to string five games together and was able to do a great job,” Alexander said.
“I think this season he’s had here at Penrith, he’s had a little bit of everything — losing, playing off the backfoot, dominating sides — it’s all rolled under the experience banner.”
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Ivan Cleary said earlier in the year it would be “bittersweet” to see O’Sullivan leave, having proven a crucial part of Penrith’s premiership push — even if most would not realise it.
After all, if it was May or even rookie Kurt Falls lining up in the halfback jumper, Penrith would not have won the eight of 11 games they did with O’Sullivan filling the void.
“He shows leadership,” To’o said.
“He’s very confident when he talks and speaks and it kind of branches out to the boys and gives them a bit of confidence and be vocal with him as well.
“He loves to do what he does best, which is control the team and make sure the boys are doing their jobs. I can’t wait to see him do his thing with the Dolphins.”