I understood why I was left out of Irish squad - O'Donnell
Published 01/09/2016 | 02:30
Of all the omissions from Ireland's summer tour to South Africa, Tommy O'Donnell's absence was arguably the one that raised the most eyebrows.
The Munster flanker's international career has been somewhat stop-start since he made his debut against USA three years ago but with the injured back-row trio Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Josh van der Flier all missing the three-Test series against the Springboks, on the face of it at least, it seemed like an ideal time for O'Donnell to seize his opportunity.
Joe Schmidt instead opted for Ulster's uncapped Sean Reidy, and behind the scenes, O'Donnell fully accepted the coach's reasoning.
By his own admission, O'Donnell's career hung by a thread after he dislocated his hip in a World Cup warm-up game against Wales last year, so for him to have even been in contention was an achievement in itself.
However, 18 months ago, O'Donnell planned his wedding day and having consulted with the IRFU and basing his plans off previous summer tours, he decided on a date.
Unfortunately for the 29-year old, that date was June 24 - the day before Ireland's final Test in Port Elizabeth.
Schmidt had made up his mind that he wanted all 32 of his travelling squad to be available for all three Tests, thus leaving O'Donnell out in the cold.
"It was mostly down to the wedding, the way the tour fell, and if somebody went down, he'd (Schmidt) have to bring someone out who he'd told 'go away and enjoy your holidays', so it made sense from his point of view," O'Donnell explained.
"I understood completely, and it allowed me to be at home and be fully committed to the wedding, rather than arriving home on the Monday, and the wedding being on a Friday.
"My situation was a lot different last year because I knew the wedding date going into August and I'd spoken to Mick Kearney (Ireland manager) and he said 'look, that might be moved' and then I had what was potentially a career-ending injury so I said, 'I might not be in a position to be in an international jersey, let's park the wedding date for a while'.
"I didn't think I was going to be involved in the Six Nations. In fairness, I spoke to Joe after the Six Nations and he was very understanding. He said 'look, you have to get married, you have to pick a date'.
"You know, you can't just change it a week before or six weeks, so he was very understanding, and in his selection he explained that, and that was fair enough.
"We sat down and picked June 24. Going off the last few tours, we thought they (Tests) would start the first week of June. With venues etc you have to pick a date, and given we picked it 18 months ago, it was just unlucky really."
Unlucky timing it may have been but there is no doubt that not travelling to South Africa was a massive missed opportunity.
O'Donnell was instrumental in Munster's late-season rally to ensure Champions Cup rugby but he has never been a regular in Schmidt's eyes and with such high-profile absentees, he had a chance to stake his claim.
O'Mahony and O'Brien are nearing a return to action, Van der Flier has made his comeback, Reidy has been capped and Jordi Murphy showed a return to form.
Munster's season begins against Scarlets on Saturday and while first and foremost, O'Donnell is eager to recapture his end-of-season form, he knows that a huge Autumn Series lies ahead.
"It's probably one of our biggest autumns with the four games, so it's going to be tough," he said.
"Competition is rife at the moment and there's plenty of competition right across back-row, so lads will be putting up their hands.
"Everyone will be coming off the summer fresh and it's definitely something to aim for.
"You keep an eye on the other Irish provinces and see how they're doing in the table, and if it's on TV and you catch it.
"You recognise when the lads are playing well and it definitely puts pressure on you to play better, so that's an emphasis."
As for this weekend, it is all about hitting the ground running under Rassie Erasmus and O'Donnell is confident that Munster are in a good place:
"We're not nervous, it's excitement, looking forward to getting going again," he said.
"There's young players putting their hands up and they'll be anxious to go well and bring on that form they showed in pre-season."