Circumstances have pushed Dave O'Callaghan into Munster's front line and he's making the most of it, writes Brendan Fanning
Two months ago, as Munster were preparing to ramp up their season with the trip to Lansdowne Road to face Leinster, flanker Dave O'Callaghan was thinking how nicely things were working out. True, on the horizon he could see South African CJ Stander putting in an impressive last lap for the Stormers before coming to Ireland, but he would worry about him when he arrived.
"I'm not following it much either to be honest," he said of the Currie Cup at the time where Stander had generated a legion of close followers from Munster. "You don't want to be watching a player – like concentrate on your own game. When he comes I'll deal with it then."
What he hadn't figured was on dealing with a threat much closer to home. With Paul O'Connell still out of the picture, and Donnacha Ryan safely tucked away beside Donncha O'Callaghan in the second row, it gave the new boy from Youghal a bit of room to impress. And that's exactly what he had been doing.
His senior debut had come a year earlier in a season that gave him eight starts plus a run off the bench in the Heineken Cup, away to Saints, when he had got on the end of that runaway win in the Stadium mk.
This term he was in from the start, there every week and looking more comfortable with each game. A run-on start was looming in Paris against Racing in the Heineken Cup. And then Lazarus O'Connell reappeared. Donnacha Ryan shifted to six. O'Callaghan was on the bench.
The following week, for the visit of Edinburgh, he wasn't even in the 22. Rob Penney reckoned that day on Paddy Butler offering him more off the bench. With Stander due a fortnight later, the window that had opened was closing fairly fast, and we didn't reckon we'd see the back-rower this side of his 23rd birthday, in January. He wasn't altogether sure himself.
"It was a hard situation and obviously I felt hard done by but when Paul O'Connell comes back it's hard to argue there, isn't it?" he asks. "The thing with Rob (Penney) though is that he's straight up and he explained to me about wanting to go with Paddy (Butler) on the bench in the Edinburgh game. He rotates a lot and gives fellas rest and he keeps fellas fresh. It might be you one weekend or someone else another weekend so it's not the end of the road. You're gutted not to be starting but you know you'll get another chance down the line if you're playing well."
Given the critical nature of Paul O'Connell's injury issues, the road for O'Callaghan was always likely to have a few twists and turns. The lucky break for him – and in professional sport, injury to a rival colleague is just that: fortunate – was the early exit for CJ Stander in only his second game.
So the door opened again and O'Callaghan barged his way through the gap. And with that, the prospect of starting in a European tie in Thomond Park came into clear view.
When O'Callaghan was in Midleton College, a rugby lightweight on the schools scene, he was good enough to be playing with the provincial and national sides. He reckons that being handy and athletic and from a small school was actually a bonus, as the selectors were drawn to the novelty value in the first place. He was good enough to hold their attention in the second.
That bit of attention began to conjure up images of being in red on those massive Heineken Cup days in Limerick. Once he got a place on the Munster sub-academy, it would have been unprofessional not to think that way. After school, O'Callaghan started a commerce degree in UCC – he's still tipping away at it – and played AIL with Dolphin where his attitude and effect won him respect all round. They knew they wouldn't have a hold on him for too long. And equally they won't have been surprised by his performance last weekend.
O'Callaghan had 100 per cent tackle completion, comprising eight individual hits and three assists, the third highest on the day. In addition to a lineout steal, he won two turnovers at the tackle.
The enduring memory though is of him struggling to get up after a stinger injury – staggering almost – only to see Mouritz Botha running at him. Whereupon he through himself into the middle of the South African's road, and succeeded manfully in his impersonation of a speed bump. "Yeah I remember looking up and thinking – not that f***er now! It wasn't ideal. With a stinger you think: 'Jesus I'm in bad shape here,' but you can kind of shake it off."
It helped that he was surfing an adrenaline wave from start to finish. We forget sometimes the impact on new players of being a part of Thomond Park games for the first time.
"That was really big for me last weekend," O'Callaghan says. "The fans. Having them behind us was like having another player. Anything like a big hit and they were right behind you. I was definitely feeding off that. The lads had been talking about playing Heineken Cup in Thomond Park and to experience that at first hand was something else."
He expects the shoe to be on the other foot today. Clearly he hasn't sampled the wet-blanket effect of Vicarage Road, one of the classic kips on the circuit, for while it will be hard going it won't touch Thomond for atmosphere.
"It was a different feeling last Saturday – like it had to be done, if you know what I mean. But we're wary of this weekend now so it was: 'Lads, let's not fall in love with ourselves here – the biggest job of our season is now'. We're wary of that and I like it. I like the way we underplayed it a bit after the game. It's good."
It's good just to be involved.