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The Welsh Premiership winger who’s starting in a European Cup final just three years later

Tom O’Flaherty will complete a remarkable journey from the Welsh Premiership to the Champions Cup final when he steps out at Ashton Gate on Saturday afternoon.

Three years ago, he was playing for Bridgend at semi-pro level.

Now he is about to figure in the biggest game in European club rugby, having been selected on the wing for Exeter against Racing 92.

By any measure, it’s been a meteoric rise.

So what’s his story?

Well, he was born in Brixton, grew up in London and played his rugby for Dulwich College and Blackheath before moving to Wales to study at Cardiff University.

After making his mark at college level, he got his chance with Cardiff RFC towards the end of 2013, scoring four tries in as many matches.

Then came the move to Bridgend, where he was to become a firm favourite, touching down 18 times during 25 appearances in the 2014-15 season.

That campaign culminated in the Ravens lifting the SWALEC Cup, with O’Flaherty claiming the match-winning try against Pontypridd in the final at the Principality Stadium.

He spent the following season in France, combining a university placement with a stint in the rugby academy of French Top 14 side Montpellier.

But he returned to Wales for the final year of his studies, taking up joint registration with Bridgend and the Ospreys.

His regional debut came against Harlequins in the Anglo-Welsh Cup in November 2016 and he had further outings against Cardiff Blues and Glasgow that month, while he also came off the bench versus Bristol on his familiar Brewery Field stamping ground.

In his first four games for the Ospreys, he scored four tries, including a double as a sub against the Blues at the Arms Park.

He was a talent who didn’t go unnoticed and, in 2017, he was snapped up by Exeter, with their head coach Rob Baxter describing him as having “bags and bags of potential”.

“He isn’t the biggest guy in the world, but he is elusive and genuinely looks like a real competitor,” said Baxter at the time.

“I think he is someone who potentially could be quite exciting in the Premiership.”

He wasn’t wrong, with O’Flaherty going on to establish himself as a first-team regular at the Devon club as he racked up the tries.

Now 26, the winger looks back on his time in Wales fondly and as a formative experience.

“I really did enjoy playing in my first couple of years at university and at Bridgend,” he said on the Premiership Rugby website.

“You don’t have a care in the world and you’re having a good laugh with your mates and nothing was too serious.

“I’m more than happy the way it’s panned out for me because getting that uni experience is invaluable. You make friends for life and you have some of the best years of your life.”

Reflecting on his spell with Bridgend, he said: “The Welsh Premiership was quite a physical league at times and, as a youngster, I suppose it just toughens you up. You learn to become more physical and fill out.

“I went away to France then to continue studying my degree. I played for the Montpellier Espoirs, which is basically like A-League for Montpellier, and I managed to balance that alongside studying and having a good time.

“Then, when I came back, the Ospreys got in touch in my final year at university. That was when I thought this could be a career.

“At the time, you don’t really think of them as defining moments, but then looking back those sort of moments are the ones that get you noticed by other clubs.

“Being in that Ospreys environment taught me a few good lessons. It went quite well for me there and gave me a springboard and ultimately for the Chiefs noticing me as well.”



Tom O’Flaherty runs in for a try for the Ospreys against Cardiff Blues in the Anglo-Welsh Cup in November 2016

Looking back on those university years in Wales, he added: “I enjoyed the whole experience in general really.

“Cardiff is a great city and at that stage of your life you’re living away from home, but you don’t have any responsibility.

“I’m happy I managed to fully immerse myself in university and then afterwards pursue rugby professionally. Varsity was a great time.”

As for the challenge he faced on moving to Devon, he said: “Once you arrive, it’s a case of knuckling down and working because there is a lot of talent around you and to get into the team it was quite a thing, especially at a club like Exeter.”

When O’Flaherty left Bridgend, there were warm words from their then director of rugby Wayne Hall.

“We gave him an opportunity to show what he has to offer, which he took with both hands,” said the former Wales hooker.

“It’s with a heavy heart that we see him move on, but an opportunity like this doesn’t come around every day and we would like to extend our thanks to Tom for his efforts in a Bridgend jersey and wish him all the very best in what is sure to be a bright future for him.

“There’ll always be a warm welcome at the club for him.”

It has indeed proved to a bright future which will culminate in O’Flaherty appearing on the left wing for Exeter in Saturday’s Champions Cup final against Racing 92 at Bristol’s Ashton Gate.

He will be joined in his club’s match-day 23 by replacement prop Tomas Francis, who could become just the 12th Welshman to win the European Cup.

Francis would follow in the footsteps of Tony Rees (Brive), Ieuan Evans, Richard Webster, Nathan Thomas (Bath), Allan Bateman, Andy Newman (Northampton), Rob Howley (Wasps), Gareth Thomas (Toulouse), Gethin Jenkins (Toulon), Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon) and Liam Williams (Saracens).

There will be further Welsh interest, with Nigel Owens taking charge of his seventh European Cup final, while countrymen Craig Evans and Ian Davies will act as touch judge and TMO respectively.

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