'This season was great. I wasn't even expecting to get one cap'
Conan O’Donnell has his eyes on Junior World Cup and further progress with province
Published 13/05/2016 | 02:30
Conan O'Donnell is part of a new wave of talent to have emerged from Summerhill College, formerly the second school of rugby in Sligo - Sligo Grammar were always the benchmark.
In fact, Summerhill had no senior team when prop O'Donnell was in fifth year, before he went on to captain their Senior Cup side the following season.
But since then they have gone from strength to strength, and now it's not all about Gaelic football, soccer and basketball.
Along with O'Donnell, Stephen Kerins signed up with the Connacht academy, and they were followed by Jack Keegan and Cillian Gallagher from the side that lost last year's senior final.
O'Donnell, Kerins and Gallagher are all part of the Ireland U-20 set-up and will look to make their mark in the summer when the Junior World Championships come to England.
But for O'Donnell, who turns 21 on May 23, he is in a race against time as he looks to recover from a toe injury in order to reach his second JWC.
The versatile tighthead, who can also play at loosehead, is only finishing his first year in the academy, after previously coming up through the ranks and featuring in the sub-academy.
And with eight senior appearances under his belt already, he certainly isn't regretting the day he decided rugby was the sport for him.
"My brother was playing rugby at the time. Mum got him a gumshield and it was left on the table, and I was like, 'Is this for me?', thinking is she going to bring me playing rugby. And she said, 'Oh yeah it is', just so I wouldn't go off crying.
"Then when my brother came home I told him mum bought me a gumshield for rugby. And he started freaking out saying that was his. But then I begged mum to let me play after arguing with my brother. And the following year I signed up for Sligo," he says.
O'Donnell picked up the game when he was eight and along with Gaelic football - his father Cathal played for Sligo, Donegal and Limerick - the Kevinsfort native kept up both games.
And while Summerhill didn't compete at the top level on the rugby field, O'Donnell impressed with Sligo RFC.
He trained with the Connacht development squads from U-15s onwards and he began to get noticed by the likes of Jimmy Duffy and future Ireland U-20 coach and Connacht academy boss Nigel Carolan.
O'Donnell gave up Gaelic football as he became more serious about his rugby but for 2015-'16 it was all about Connacht Rugby. He never expected it to go so well and with a wealth of knowledge and experience around him, O'Donnell put his head down and learnt from the best.
"It was a great experience for me this season. I wasn't even expecting to get one cap. I am just delighted to be getting these opportunities.
"With Finlay, Whitey, Rodney and Loughs all having Irish caps under their belts it's great. I have a chance to learn from them, they can take me under their wing and show me a few of the dark arts to get through scrums at this level more than anything.
"I get on great with Finlay, he's a very nice guy and he always looks out for me. And what he's done this year is really inspirational," he says.
Bealham, who is now a mainstay of the Connacht senior set-up and played for Ireland against Italy in the Six Nations, only broke through last season.
He is further evidence of what hard work and determination can do for a player, and just how good the Connacht academy can be. And O'Donnell loves working with Carolan, who is also his coach with the Ireland U-20s.
"I have known Nigel for the last few years. I know his game-plan and what he is about. I like the way he wants his team to play, he allows players to get on the ball and I like his way.
"I want to try and keep on improving next season. With the appearances I have got this season, I know what it takes to compete at that level. I want to keep working on everything and just get better.
"I was delighted to win U-20 Player of the Year this season. There was great competition for it this year. I was just delighted that I was able to win, and I'm so thankful for the opportunity I have been given," he says.
But there's still a lot to do this term. Normally Connacht players would be on holidays at this point, but after their huge Pro12 semi-final, there is potentially a final to look forward in Edinburgh.
Not only that, with a summer tour to South Africa, many of the Connacht senior squad will look to boost their claims for inclusion.
O'Donnell hopes to have similar aims in seasons to come, but first and foremost he wants to return from injury and ensure his doesn't miss out on the JWC.
"Hopefully I will be back in time for the U-20 World Cup. Going to Manchester for a month, people think it's a nice holiday. But I was over in Italy last year and there is no holiday about it.
"You are studying your opposition every day and the games are very tough. Last year was very sunny, so the heat took its toll on you.
"There was only four days between each match.
"The toughest part was looking after yourself and being 100 per cent for every game."