Thursday 19 October 2017

Growing old gratefully

Donncha O’Callaghan is now the oldest swinger in town at Worcester – and he’s loving every minute of it. Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images
Donncha O’Callaghan is now the oldest swinger in town at Worcester – and he’s loving every minute of it. Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

Age may have not changed Donncha O'Callaghan as much as the changing times have.

This is the only life he has known, one that began as a boy among men and which will finish, some day, as a man among boys. The circle of life. Where young and old are one and the same and often it can be hard to tell the difference.

Back home in Cork, his best friend Cian Bradley came to the house for his boy's sixth birthday and the sight that greeted him at the door made him wonder if he'd somehow got the wrong address.

"He and a few of the lads, we're all the one age, they were ripping into me about my clothes and my hair," says O'Callaghan - 38, going on 19.

"They said I looked like a reject from the X Factor. 'What the f**k's going on with the skinny jeans and the All Stars boy?'"

From a boy to a man and all the way back again. The best way not to get old is to stay young.

He started this life with a schoolbag flung across his shoulder, waiting to hook up with the Cork Con lads at Kent Station and him only a gasúr.

And sometimes there'd be long trips to some place up north. He roomed with Philip Soden once; a team-mate, for sure, but married and with kids.

Carnage

Donncha would hit the bed at eight o'clock so as not to witness any unfolding carnage from the squad's night on the tiles.

That boy in a man's world is a man himself now, married to Jenny and with kids; now he is the oldest swinger in town at Worcester.

Time has not changed his world, but the world is slowly making the change for him.

And so you adapt. He's in the WhatsApp group. He's on Snapchat. He wears "their" clothes. You can't fault a lad for trying.

"Take Ted Hill. He's 18. An English underage back-row star. Hard as nails. I can't talk to the guy," he says.

"Any time I volley something over, nothing comes back. One day, his dad came by the club and I had an unbelievable chat. He was a police officer in the north back in the '80s, he had reams of tales, checking under his car, all that.

"I was trying to involve the young fellah, but he was half embarrassed that his old man was having a great chat with one of his team-mates. That is where I am now.

"Sometimes I go into the coach's room just to have lads my own age I can chat to…"

If that sounds melancholy, it is not supposed to. He is not seeking support from Help The Aged just yet.

He did live on his own last season, when his family couldn't settle, but now he shares with Matt Cox, he of the excessive Tinder habits, who once tried to coax our hero to a double-date as some smooth-talking wingman; mercifully, Cox eventually found love.

"My first year was pretty depressing. I moved in with him then and he's daft as a brush, but with a heart of gold.

"Because he is friendly with the squad, by association I was included in way more stuff - bowling and cinema group, food on a Tuesday.

"Before, half the lads might have thought I was a spy for the coaches, but then they hear you bitch and moan and they realise you're down the track as much as they are."

He absorbs stuff. Another team-mate, Luke Baldwin, had to bring him shopping. 'You can't wear jeans with a flare,' he tut-tutted. 'Ridiculous.'

"You have to embrace it," says O'Callaghan.

Some stuff struggles to cross the generational bridge.

"I used to love grabbing the mic and singing someone off on the bus. Now it's all done on Twitter because they'd rather get their followers into it than have it as something that lives on from the bus.

"If you offered them a win bonus or more followers, they probably would take the followers because it's all about social media.

"If we get a 10 or 15 minute break, I'd be asking them is there any way we can put the phones away and chat? But they tell me they are!

"'We're having a ball here man, on our WhatsApp, you're the one out of the loop!' We do get out, though. There is still contact. They're good people.

"I don't think they'd survive without the phones. I remember they took the phone off a Munster young fellah and put it in the boot during a drive to Cork. Twenty minutes down the road he had to get them to pull over. He was going crazy."

He's still mad for this sporting life, though. Worcester may have underachieved, but he did not. Player of the season and ahead on the most crucial stats.

They asked him for another year. As always, he sat down with Jenny.

'If you were to pack up and come home, would you be going mad wanting to tog out with Con?'

'I would.'

'Well, push on where you are.'

Jenny knew he wasn't done yet.

"You could definitely step away, but I love it so much, it means everything. It came down to Jenny. She said 'I don't want you to finish rugby with a regret'.

"Winning and losing still hits me. I have to personally check with myself if it still hurts as much.

"Fellahs were nearly happy with a Leicester game that we lost narrowly and I'm going 'are you for f**king real?' If I ever found myself there, I would hate myself.

"If we were rubbish, you could get on with it. But we're not. The big disappointment is you're not pushing on. And I've always had that need to do better.

"Defeats still stink. Jenny will send me a message: 'Leave it there until Monday morning, we only have 48 hours together.'

"That's me, though, and when that goes, it's all over. It has never damaged me, though. If anything, it drives me, it's the fuel for the fire to go again.

"The ones with Munster did, I felt ashamed and there were times I wouldn't want to leave the house and meet anyone.

"It was irrational. I'm at a different point in my life. Family and life teaches you that."

Visits

Munster was his family once. Still are; they just live apart now. When he comes home, he always visits.

It was a long week last October where few could help themselves going to places they thought they would never go again, physically and emotionally.

"I'm the agony aunt for a lot of them still, I'd never want that to go. It's amazing. That's where I am from, that's what I am all about.

"I can never park it. It's my identity. I have seen the weight of expectation on them. 'Don't worry about legacy. Just play.'

"That Glasgow game? It was like watching your younger brother knock someone out. I would have done anything to play in that game.

"I was so proud. I went into the dressing-room. I shouldn't have. It's no place for me. I've had my time. I didn't know what I was doing. That's the special place.

"I was hugging (Jaco) Taute and just thanking him. They were reflecting us, but they were apart from us. You know you're not needed anymore. Part of it was us holding them back. Telling them to do it this way, as opposed to them telling us where to go and doing it their own way.

"It was special. We have to have that emotion. It isn't until you go away that you appreciate it."

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