Hot prospect ready for leadership role as icon moves on
Waterford native eager to secure starting role and fill O'Connell void after stellar debut season
Published 28/08/2015 | 02:30
The mural reads: 'Tall and proud, Munster to the bone, but Toulon don't forget, he's only on loan'. Occasionally, traces of his voice can still be heard around the gym in UL, but Munster must now plan for life without Paul O'Connell.
Since 2001, he has been the heartbeat for club and country while he also marched tall for the British & Irish Lions. However the 35-year-old is on his way to the south of France after he leads Ireland into battle at the World Cup, and opportunity knocks for the next generation of Munster players to fill a considerable void.
Jack O'Donoghue graduated from the Greencore Munster Academy as the Academy Player of the Year last term and has some striking similarities with O'Connell.
The Waterford-born 21-year old is a natural leader, as he demonstrated when handed captaincy of the Ireland U-20s in their remarkable run to a fourth-place finish in the 2014 Junior World Championships in New Zealand.
The No 8 has gone on to complete his third year in the academy since. Head coach Anthony Foley gave him ten starts for the seniors last year and he repaid the faith with three tries.
And on the back of a sensational debut season O'Donoghue hasn't wasted a minute to put himself in peak physical condition for another crack at it.
With a development contract and bags of talent, he doesn't want to stagnate.
"It is going to be a big season for me. With the World Cup on, Munster are going to be missing some of their internationals," he says.
"It gives you a chance to prove yourself and show what you can do for the coaches. When that happens you try to earn your place while they are away and then hold onto it when the internationals return.
"Pre-season is never nice for anyone but I had a main focus for the season and that was putting on a bit of size and weight - I think that helped me get through it with a positive outlook.
"It helped me develop as a person and as a player as well. It was my first proper pre-season in the last few years because I have always been coming back a month or so behind everyone else when I have been with the U-20s in the World Cup.
"I have gained about three kilos from when I first came in at the start of pre-season. It's different because you have the chance to lift weights six times a week with no games on the weekend.
"It is definitely benefiting me in the long-term. I saw a big difference in my weight and I am moving really well carrying that weight."
O'Donoghue began his rugby career as a ten-year old with Waterpark RFC after his older brother David turned his head.
In Waterford, Jack and his brothers had played a number of sports and now younger brother Nick is using Jack as his inspiration - he lines out for the Munster U-17s.
Jack could have chosen the conventional hurling route, having attended the hurling stronghold that is De La Salle College and played club hurling with 13-time Waterford SHC champions Ballygunner.
O'Donoghue was a teammate Barry Coughlan and Philip Mahony from the current Deise side.
And for a long time he was able to manage the workloads from both codes until he reached minor hurling level, by which time he was a burgeoning talent for the Munster U-18s.
Something had to give and he chose the professional game without losing focus in school.
He never gave up on his studies and in his first year in the Munster senior set-up off the field O'Donoghue will have to keep his head down and concentrate on his final instalment of a Pharmaceutical and Industrial Chemistry degree in UL.
"It is quite time-consuming because it's a course that requires a lot of lab work. There are a lot of compulsory hours that have to go in, but I have been managing it pretty well so far," he says.
"The lecturers in UL have been very accommodating to me. So I have to give them some credit for helping me through it. It has been manageable and I will hopefully get it done this year."
If he achieves all of his lofty targets it could be a manic year for O'Donoghue both on and off the pitch as he bids to pick up where he left off last season.
Soon he could even be making the breakthrough onto the international scene just as seamlessly as he did with his province.
But for now he wants to keep his feet on the ground and although he could be the future of Munster, O'Donoghue is fully aware that O'Connell's boots won't be filled any time soon.
"We will definitely miss Paul around the place here because he is such an influential player and member of the squad," he says.
"Even if it was just a case of sitting down and getting a few tips, whether it be for the lineouts or scrums, Paul was always great for giving advice.
"Paul was always a man that the younger lads in Munster could look up to and he would give you confidence in your game.
"His personality will be missed big time around here."