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Sligo prop becoming most travelled man in Irish rugby

After playing on six continents in 12 months, O'Donnell is self-isolating in New Zealand

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NEW CHAPTER: Conan O’Donnell of Counties Manukau is tackled during a Mitre 10 Cup match against Manawatu last October. Photo: Getty Images

NEW CHAPTER: Conan O’Donnell of Counties Manukau is tackled during a Mitre 10 Cup match against Manawatu last October. Photo: Getty Images

NEW CHAPTER: Conan O’Donnell of Counties Manukau is tackled during a Mitre 10 Cup match against Manawatu last October. Photo: Getty Images

In a bedroom of a house in Dunedin, the Bit O'Red are going strong. He may be the most travelled man in Irish rugby living 19,066km from home on the south coast of the south island in New Zealand, but Conan O'Donnell's sole focus right now is getting Sligo Rovers to the Champions League on Football Manager.

A week ago, things were a little different. Life was all about getting into the Highlanders' match-day 23 and extending his Super Rugby career.

In the last year, the former Connacht prop has played rugby in Ireland, Italy, the United States, Argentina, Japan, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand where he now lives and is currently self-isolating in an Airbnb with four squad-mates.

The entire Highlanders team are in quarantine because they were in Buenos Aires to take on the Jaguares on Saturday, March 14 - the day the New Zealand government announced travel restrictions and Super Rugby postponed its season.

By the time they made it back without playing the match, two weeks of isolation was mandatory. O'Donnell had travelled as an injury reserve, his contract with the club comes to an end in two weeks' time. After that, he is signed up to play in the Mitre 10 Cup (National Provincial Championships) for Counties Manukau in July and then he'll figure out what's next.

It's not a life that screams security, but the 23-year-old is relishing the travel and the experience.

"I'm pretty sure I've done two loops of the world, something like that," he chuckles down the line.

"It can be quite stressful, usually I don't stress at all - that's the worrying thing, you'd be two or three months without getting paid... after Mitre 10 I went two months without getting paid, before the whole Crusaders thing - you never know where your next money is and how long you've to budget for. You've to be very careful.

"It's tough being away from home, I'm a massive mummy's boy, so I find that hard at times. But I know it will benefit me in the future, that's why I aim to play Super Rugby. I know it's only short-term contracts, but it will stand to me and that's why I'm taking these risks.

"I'm signed for Counties again in July and I don't know what's next. I'll see where that takes me and whatever Super Rugby decide to do in between, hopefully I'll be involved."

Stepping

When we last caught up with him, he was playing for the Japanese Super Rugby side the Sunwolves and that stint was a stepping stone to New Zealand. The contacts O'Donnell made in the multicultural dressing-room in Tokyo stood to him.

When Counties coach Darryl Suasua was looking for a prop, Pauliasi Manu mentioned the Irishman looking for a gig in the Mitre 10. Suasua called agent Karl Hogan and a deal was done and O'Donnell was off to South Auckland.

"Pukekohe isn't the best place in the world, it's like the Tubbercurry of Auckland!" he laughs. "I really enjoyed the rugby, Mitre 10 is a great competition, it's (a format) Ireland should look to introduce as a stepping stone.

"The amount of players that break into the professional scene later here... I know some lads get contracted from AIL, but it's rare. In Mitre 10, you see lads making their Super Rugby debuts at 26 or 27. In Ireland, if you don't make it into the (provincial) academy, it's very hard to make it onto the professional scene.

"Mitre 10 is a very good bridge for that, a great standard and a very fast game. It's probably the time I've enjoyed by rugby the most. It's fast, there's a lot less margin for error. You don't play as conservatively as you do back in Ireland... Here, you can express yourself. It's fun.

"I probably prefer the playing style here, it suits my game a lot more. It's higher intensity, very physical, even though people say the Northern Hemisphere is more physical.

"My skills have gotten way better. The fact I could play 80 minutes for Counties has prepared me a lot better for when I came to Super Rugby. Game-time and exposure to that intensity is the big thing."

Super Rugby was the next focus and a pre-season contract with the Crusaders beckoned. Unfortunately, restrictions from the New Zealand union put paid to his ambitions to play for the champions, but there was a vacancy at the Highlanders and he jumped at the chance.

"I was there (at the Crusaders) for the whole of pre-season, I absolutely loved it. The fact they wanted to keep me on was a big confidence boost," he says. "The fact that I couldn't be kept on was annoying, but then I'm loving being a Highlander now."

The coaching ticket is full of former All Blacks, while Aaron Smith is one of a couple of current and former internationals in the dressing-room. O'Donnell has played twice, but he's soaking up information at training and says he was relishing things before the shutdown.

"I'm learning a lot from them, it's just annoying we weren't able to win more games. We let games slip from under us we should have won," he says.

"I love Dunedin. It's a mix of Galway and Sligo, that kind of student buzz about it. It's scenic, it's a small town and easy to get around."

For now, he's finding ways to occupy himself, while long-term there is no certainty about what comes next.

"I'm playing Football Manager, trying to guide Sligo Rovers to Champions League greatness. I got a big Lego Millennium Falcon, so that's been keeping me busy," he says.

Distance

"I'm just waiting for a text to let me know I can go to the coffee shop. We're not even allowed in the supermarket, we can go for a walk - but keep our distance from people. We've to keep our fitness up.

"My visa is until November, so I'll try and stick it out until then and then reassess what I'll do. Originally I was trying to get back to Ireland after this season, but I'm really enjoying travelling around, playing rugby in New Zealand - I kind of feel like it's too soon.

"It's unreal, getting released (from Connacht) was the best thing that ever happened to me because not just getting game-time and rugby experience, getting life experience.

"I'm having a great time, meeting lots of people. Maybe jumping from team to team isn't ideal all the time, but I've definitely enjoyed it."


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