Thursday 29 January 2015

Forgotten Exile Tomas O'Leary sets sights on World Cup recall

Grand Slam-winning No 9 rebuilding career at London Irish - but hints at Munster return

Published 28/08/2014 | 02:30

Tomas O'Leary at the launch of a new marketing partnership between Setanta Sports and London Irish. Photo: INPHO/Cathal Noonan
Tomas O'Leary at the launch of a new marketing partnership between Setanta Sports and London Irish. Photo: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Like many in this country, Tomas O'Leary left Ireland when his job prospects were diminishing and hope was expiring.

And, like so many of his ilk, London proved a haven for a player still in his prime who needed the "head space" required when one suddenly discovers that other people no longer feel you are still in your prime.

The breath of the old sod can never be extinguished, though.

A few weeks back, he watched the epic All-Ireland semi-final between Limerick and Kilkenny played out in the biblical downpour and he felt as moved as he had ever done since leaving Cork two years ago.

After the final whistle signalled that every man had spent himself, O'Leary raced to the spare room of the Richmond home he shares with wife Julie. There, he grabbed a couple of hurls. "Right," he said to fellow Corkonian Julie. "Off we go!"

And so the newly-wed pair - they tied the knot in Aghadoe only last month - pucked a sliotar around one of the leafiest of London suburbs without a care in the world; on days like these, it seems as if he could stay in this place forever.

On the other hand, there's always the lure of home and, particularly Munster, even if he fell out of favour there before he opted to join London Irish; that the sides meet in Waterford tomorrow evening will be a poignant occasion for the 2001 All-Ireland winning minor hurling captain.

"I've a year left on my contract," says the 30-year-old Grand Slam winning scrum-half. "We'll see how the year goes and what might happen. I definitely won't rule anything out.

"I had some great years there and it's just that I needed a change for my head space, to do something new. Would I go back there? Never say never.

"I just wanted a different experience. I had some unbelievable days with Munster but I needed a change of scenery.

"Things are a little different over here but you get used to the subtle differences. The slagging is different. You cut through fellas at home, it's brutal.

"But here you've to explain it a little. They soon get used to it. It's good to get away from the bubble of Cork. It's hard to avoid people at home.

"Listen, it's lovely having that support, but it's nice to have a break from it. Over here, win or lose, nobody will recognise you walking down the street. You could have had the worst game of your life and nobody will notice you."

Even as he talks so vaguely about the temptation to perhaps return to Munster some day, the realisation that any prospective No 9 would have to shift Conor Murray from his current eminence is startlingly obvious.

"To be fair to Conor Murray, he's miles ahead in the No 9 department, he's far and away Ireland's No 1. I haven't spoken to any of the new coaches in Munster but who knows what can happen."

It was Murray's remarkable rise to prominence in the 2010/11 season, firstly under Tony McGahan at Munster and then with Declan Kidney's World Cup panel, which ever so tortuously terminated O'Leary's one-time pre-eminence for club and country.

From hero to zero. He still finds it difficult to fathom why, still wonders was it something he did, or something he didn't do. Nobody quite got around to telling him.

Fringes

On the fringes in 2007, he was effectively first-choice for the 2011 competition. Or so he thought. Injury didn't help, nor a laboured, overly conscious attempt to force the reckoning in a warm-up game against England. And then the bombshell.

"Essentially I was more or less first choice going in to the World Cup and then not to go at all wasn't easy," he says quietly. "But you have to move on. I guess I went from first to nothing. It's three years later now.

"Obviously I would have loved to have gone to New Zealand. I suppose now, it would be the opposite end of the spectrum to go from zero to a World Cup. I don't expect it. Never say never. But it's a long shot."

It was a stark contrast to his breakthrough in the professional game; albeit it could be argued in hindsight that his own career progression faintly mirrored what would eventually would be his decline.

After all, O'Leary was faced, like Murray, with the prospect of stepping into the shoes of a legend when he slowly usurped the status of Munster stalwart Peter Stringer.

Kidney, the man who would clinically cull him from World Cup contention in August 2011, promoted him without prior warning ahead of the Heineken Cup quarter-final away to Gloucester in Kingsholm.

It was to prove a masterstroke; particularly since Gloucester had based an entire fortnight's pre-match planning upon the assumption that, as he had done unerringly for so many seasons, Stringer would start.

His career accelerated thereafter; a Heineken Cup win begat a Grand Slam and then a Lions selection which he sadly forfeited when breaking his ankle in a league match.

All now in the rear mirror of his professional life.

He knows the unwritten rule of rugby exiles; play away and pay with your international career. "Unless you're Johnny Sexton!" the 24-times capped player smiles.

He hasn't spoken to any of the Irish coaches since leaving nor have they spoken to him. Only his actions can prompt any words.

"If you're really, really good enough, they'll pick you. It's obviously harder away from home. I'd have to be really putting together a run of seven or eight matches to even register on their wavelength.

"And if a player is playing well, they would have a look. It's in the very back of my mind that it may happen. But my major focus has to be the day job first. After that, you never know what could happen."

London Irish have traditionally been the club of exiles; the green was diluted considerably in recent times but with the backing of Cavan millionaire Mick Crossan, attempts have made to restore some Celtic custom. Tom Court, another cold-shouldered Grand Slam winner and Connacht's exciting centre Eoin Griffin have linked up this summer with other familiar voices such as Conor Gilsenan, Fergus Mulchrone, Eamonn Sheridan and Jamie Hagan.

"We've a lot more strength in depth too," explains O'Leary, "especially in the pack, and we could challenge for Europe if everything goes our way.

"We were the only side to beat Saracens away last season so we know we have the ability. Tom is a great addition and I think Eoin could do well enough to break into Ireland contention."

Of course, when O'Leary was a kid, he dreamed of wearing the red of Cork, not of Munster. Julie works in London too but is from west Cork so the prospect of his sporting career going full circle is not entirely unfathomable.

"Ah, I think after being a rugby player for so long professionally, I'd be out of touch. But it's funny, out there pucking around there recently, you still think you've got it, you know.

"If I came home, I'd probably end up back playing for the club. Playing inter-county would be a pipe dream."

So too the prospect of ever going to a World Cup. And yet these are the dreams that must sustain him.

  • The Setanta Sports pack in Ireland carries the BT Sport channels - the only place to watch live Aviva Premiership.

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