Saturday 29 July 2017

O'Leary not yet ready to wind down the clock

Tomas O’Leary is enjoying his experience in France Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Tomas O’Leary is enjoying his experience in France Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Wednesday morning in Montpellier and Tomás O'Leary's hands are splayed as if he is trying to seize the very sun itself.

Except he wants for nothing more.

He is alone now, but briefly. Julie and little Jamie are back in Cork for a week; he will see them again after tonight's bit of business in the RDS is done.

And after their brief jaunt home, tomorrow will find them, well, home.

A home from home; for the moment at least, even if not for all time.

And, as he surveys the unblinking blue horizon, it is more than enough for a 33-year-old whose best days are behind him but who longs to bask in the sunshine rays of golden years.

"I'm really enjoying the experience here," says the 33-year-old veteran of Munster's two Heineken Cup successes and Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam glory.

"It's the little things that are different every day, the smells, the noises. It feels like a new lease of life.

"Hopefully I can stay playing for a little bit longer in France, whether here or anywhere else. I don't mind waiting until the summer.

Foresee

"If not here, I'd love to have two or three years with a club, buying into the whole thing. I can foresee myself doing that. I would jump at it if it motivates me. I won't be going back to Ireland, I've no desire to play in the UK again.

"If I keep playing, it will only be over here. The lifestyle is great and the experience already feels fulfilling, that combination on and off the pitch."

Life off the field now also encompasses a new career - Told and Co, a luxury watch manufacturer, albeit wife Julie is the true brains (and beauty) behind an operation entering its third year.

If it all seems like O'Leary is, excusing the obligatory pun, winding down, perhaps he is guilty as charged.

Since absorbing the reality that his Ireland and Munster career was ended with a swish of a pen in September, O'Leary stopped chasing the past and chafing at the future; time, instead, to chill in the present.

For those of us lucky to have travelled, languid Montpellier, minutes from the Mediterranean, is not the worst place to catch one's breath.

"It's a more relaxed culture," he says lightly. "The spotlight on rugby players at home, the media attention, is so much now. If Connacht or Leinster or Munster lose a game there are questions straight away, it's like a crisis. You don't really get that here.

"I've been truly privileged to be part of Munster teams who achieved some special things. I'm a Munster man, always will be. I loved my time there and achieved so much.

"But I'm at a different stage of my career now, and my life, and I think my rugby will benefit from being a little more chilled out and relaxed. But I'm so happy with my career. I've nothing to be bitter about."

Had things worked out differently, O'Leary might have pitched up in France even earlier than he did; a move to Perpignan fell through before his first leaving of Munster; a stint in London Irish represented a stuttering substitute.

He would, of course, prefer to stay at Montpellier but he has made life unwittingly hard for himself.

Signed as a medical joker, he literally adopted the mantle 30 minutes into his debut when damaging knee medial ligaments while effecting a poach in Paris against champions Racing 92.

Eight days into his new job, he faced eight weeks in rehab.

"Not ideal," he grimaces. And yet unlike Ian Rush's experiences all those years ago, it didn't feel like a foreign country to him.

Clatter

Even with a Cork twang, most locals could understand his Leaving Cert French; and in work, a clatter of Springboks - World Cup-winning coach Jake White houses a dozen in his squad - effectively sees English used as much as French anyway.

Age and experience has hardened him; in 2009, he was in pole position to start a Lions tour in South Africa until a freak injury smashed both his ankle and his tour dreams. "In rugby you get injuries," he says. "It's part of the trade." And part of the trade-off.

He knew that when he returned to Munster, Conor Murray still blocked his path as he had done before he left for London; Rassie Erasmus had not marked him down in his future plans.

And so, like Peter Stringer before him, reputation meant nothing and, instead of battling blithely against reality by sitting on the bench, he has sought to extend his shelf life elsewhere. "I may not go on as long as Strings," he smiles, "but I'm in no rush. Being in France, you don't rush most things." Montpellier are in a rush, though, and they are intently plotting a twin title push.

"In our huddle after beating Bordeaux, the guys mentioned this and asked had we ever qualified for the last eight. The answer is no so we want to qualify and must beat Leinster.

"There is a lot of focus on Racing perhaps giving up on Europe but they were out last week, we have everything to play for.

"Leinster are playing well. If you go back to the start of the season, everyone was worried about the future of club rugby in Ireland but they and Munster have both turned the corner now.

"They have belief, they always have the players and skill-sets but it has seeped through to other players. They know they can live with any top team. The internationals always had that belief."

O'Leary views all though a different prism now, colours brimming with golden sunshine and the red claret he recently shared with former pals James Coughlan and Paddy Butler after the recent clash with Pau.

Time passes slowly, but fulfillingly.

Irish Independent

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