Rising star Jack O'Donoghue blazes trail for Déise in red of Munster
O'Donoghue thriving after taking unconventional route to the top
Published 09/01/2016 | 02:30
Munster's success over the past decade and a half has been made by men drawn from across the province. The twin hubs of Cork and Limerick are well represented, but Clare, Tipperary and Kerry have made their mark on the province too.
The missing link has been Waterford, but now the Déise can stand tall behind one of their own in a red jersey. Not only has Jack O'Donoghue made the grade over the last year, he is tipped to become a key leader for the province in the years to come.
The back-row forward might have stuck with tradition and given hurling a go. A full-back for Ballygunner and De La Salle College, he played Harty Cup, represented his county at underage and played alongside a number of current county stars.
Yet rugby was the bigger draw and he was part of a successful Waterpark RFC side under the tutelage of George Anderson. They won Munster and All-Ireland titles at underage and the big No 8 began to gain recognition on provincial and national representative sides.
When the time came to choose, he went the non-traditional route and gave the professional game a shot.
"I played for Waterford underage and, when I was a year underage, I went for Waterford minor trials," he recalls. "I didn't make it, but the trials would be on a Sunday and I'd be play a club rugby match, come straight off covered in muck and go over to the hurling pitch in Carriganore and have to play a hurling match then.
"It didn't really benefit me, so when I got on to the Munster U-18s and then the Ireland Clubs side, I thought this was a good opportunity for me and I just put the hurling on the back-burner.
"I played a bit of minor club, we won the title and our last interpro match was up in Belfast and I was trying to organise my mum to rush me down from there to Waterford for the match. I didn't make it in the end and, after that, I kind of said, 'Look, I can't be doing both' and I put all my eggs in the one basket.
"It ended up working out for me, I stuck with it and put in a lot of hard work and I've reaped the rewards.
"You're here today, playing alongside great players. I got a chance to play alongside Paul O'Connell and players like that and they were my icons, my role models. That makes it worthwhile.
"It was tough to turn my back, because the majority of my friends were in the hurling club and to decide one day that I'm not going to play... I probably have drifted away from a lot of those friends.
"I wouldn't be in contact with a lot of them, I might get to see them the odd weekend when I go home to Waterford and we might meet up for a drink. Where I am now, it was all worth it. It was tough, but you know you have to work harder with the route I took, but it was worth it."
Just 21, O'Donoghue has already pulled on the red jersey 22 times since making his debut against Zebre at the start of last season.
He first came to wider prominence alongside Leinster's shining star Garry Ringrose as a member of the Ireland U-20 side that reached the semi-final of the 2014 U-20 World Cup. A big ball carrier who coped comfortably in the battles with bigger teams like France and England, he instantly stood out as a thoroughbred who was destined for big things. He used the momentum from the New Zealand displays to force his way into the reckoning for the first team at the province, scoring a try on his first start against Cardiff and earning enough trust from Anthony Foley to be named on the bench for the Guinness Pro12 final last May.
"The coaches here maybe recognised the talent that I had and a few months later I came off the bench against Zebre and that's where it clicked with me," he says. "'This is it, this is your career, this is make or break'. When you're at that stage, when you're playing Pro12 you either have it or you don't. There's no hiding, because you'll get found out and that was when I realised I could just go for it."
This season, injuries to Peter O'Mahony and Tommy O'Donnell have provided an opening and O'Donoghue has slotted in in the unfamiliar role of openside flanker, starting 10 games already. Having a former international No 8 as a coach has helped with his progress, as has the confidence that regular games have given him.
"Having Axel as head coach is ideal, someone who played in your position, who was such a skilful player and who has a great mind for the game and can read it so well; having one-on-ones with him, getting tips here and there about little things that can improve your game, was massive."
Yet his breakthrough has come at a difficult time for the province. He played a full part in lifting the gloom last weekend against Ulster, but the run of five defeats in a row that preceded that win was a difficult place in which to learn your trade.
"The toughest one was after the Leinster game; just looking around the dressing-room and the look of disappointment and disgust on the older players did it for me," he explains. "To see how upset they are, there's so much passion and pride in the dressing-room that to lose five in a row, to have the Munster fans questioning you, the coaching staff and stuff, was really tough to take.
"Each week, we went in with the mindset that this is going to be the week, we worked so hard and to not get the result made it tough to bounce back.
"Coming into the Ulster game, we knew it was going to be massive. You'd the crowd cutting you to bits, it was such a hard-fought game, we came from behind and kept working and a lot of people questioned our attack and we showed some good attack, our defence was outstanding.
"That result is not worth it unless we go again this week and back it up."
Having played so well, particularly in defence, at Ravenhill, O'Donoghue will be disappointed to be relegated to a bench role against Stade Francais this evening. Foley wants more consistency in his game and the player himself will look to use the Ulster display as a benchmark.
"It's the minimum requirement," he says. "Everything has to be above that performance, you can't just be happy with that game. You can't be saying, 'Remember Ulster, I did that', you have to analyse it in detail and look at what you can do better coming into Stade. That's the bar."
There's a determination behind the baby-faced features, but there's clearly a sizeable brain there too.
O'Donoghue is in the final stages of a degree in Industrial and Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the Univerisity of Limerick. Juggling the two has been tough, but he hopes to graduate in May.
You suspect the qualification will be put on the back-burner, however, with the way things are going on the pitch.
He wasn't involved in Joe Schmidt's extended gathering at Carton House last weekend, but time is on his side. While Niamh Briggs has been blazing a trail for the women, Waterford's last international was Ben Cronin who won two caps in the 1990s. Few would bet against O'Donoghue bridging that gap.