Donncha O’Callaghan hoping obsession with fitness will help him emulate All Blacks hero Brad Thorn
Published 14/12/2012 | 05:00
Donncha O'Callaghan tells a story from a long, long time ago when he was just a little younger and a little dumber.
He arrived home from an away Heineken Cup trip and, instead of sleeping, he took to the roads running like Forrest Gump.
Wearing darker clothes than even Johnny Cash, at one stage he had to leap into a ditch to avoid an oncoming car.
O'Callaghan, a sub, hadn't even played a minute of rugby that day. He believed that being fitter and stronger than everyone else would make him better than everyone else.
He was wrong.
Older and wiser, he has absorbed some crucial lessons in a lengthy career that, mercifully, has been predominantly free of injury.
"The big thing for me, this sounds a bit corny, but the body is our business and we have to look after it ourselves," he says. No different to Jordan, then.
"It's a massive thing for me. I'm sure if you chat to my missus, she'll tell you some real stories. It's a bit of an obsession and I know that everything I put into my body, every way I look after it, is of massive value in keeping me in this profession. And that really matters to me.
"I want to keep going. Any time I see Shawsie (Toulon's irrepressible 39-year-old lock, Simon Shaw) running out, I'm like, 'go on ya beaut'. I love that and I want to keep going."
During the summer, he listened intently to Jamie Heaslip's awe-struck descriptions of how another famed veteran – Brad Thorn (pictured), not coincidentally another second-row World Cup winner – managed to comport himself despite advancing age.
"Yeah, he brought it to a whole new level altogether, didn't he? He would be a benchmark just from talking to the Leinster lads, he left an big impression and that's what you want to hear.
"Although it might be a bit different in these parts – I'd say our lads wouldn't mind if a few of the older lads fecked off!"
They may be waiting a while. O'Callaghan, with 33 and a half years, 203 Munster caps and 90 Ireland appearances behind him, shows no sign of slowing down.
Conscious that standing still equates to regression, like some sharks that must constantly keep swimming in order to remain breathing, O'Callaghan can't afford to slacken off. He may not vapidly pound the roads as in his youth or lift inanely over-sized weights, but when others may have slouched on the couch after last Saturday's terrifically tiring efforts, that option was utterly repugnant to him.
"I can't take two days off because if I did that I would be as flat as a pancake," he says.
"What's great for me is that the fitness lads know me well and they know exactly how to tailor my programme, which is great.
"I trust them instead of sneaking off for dodgy sessions in dodgy gyms where they can't find me. So I ring them and they meet me and do a bit of work with me."
As he surveys a landscape that has seen so many prominent players being forced to prematurely retire, his fitness is clearly not something he ever takes for granted.
"There are areas you could look at," he agrees. "I don't drink, I'm a bit obsessed with recovering and things like that. But there has to be an element of luck to it when you look at the knocks some guys have got."
And he has also been energised by the new coaching regime, even if some of the elder lemons in the bleachers curse at the sight of a second-row grubber-kicking down the tramlines or running loops.
"Yeah, absolutely, the game plan we're trying to play is infectious and the younger guys are enthusiastic about it all," he says. "Of course you look at stuff like that. But being honest, for me, I love it, I love playing rugby and last year was hugely disappointing for me.
"So I've wanted to go out and put in a massive performance. I'm doing something I love and it never feels like a chore. I bounce out of bed for training and I know how lucky I am."
Speaking of luck, O'Callaghan is still seething at the decision of Pascal Gauzere to sin-bin him in last weekend's tempestuous clash against Saracens.
"It's the first time I got a yellow card after getting the s**t kicked out of me," he says drily.
This week's return at Vicarage Road will be anything but saintly. Scores to settle. Reputations to uphold.
"You'd know them from internationals and stuff," he continues. "But when it comes to matches, there's no great pals act anyway.
"When you're playing for your team, you want to do your best. They're the exact same. I mean, I know Matt Stevens from (the 2005 Lions) tour. But I'm sure that wouldn't stop him from running over me for his mates.
"I'd be lying if I was to say that there isn't something lingering from last weekend. There always is a little bit of a hangover, guys saying or doing something. That's what makes the back-to-back games so good.
"I'd say they're licking their lips. They'll have looked at what we threw at them at the weekend and they'll probably be thinking it wasn't much.
"Going to a fortress like Vicarage Road is going to be a tough ask for us. But that's what we have to do and that's why this competition is great."