O'Callaghan: We're fighting for our lives but we love it
DONNCHA O'CALLAGHAN grew up in an environment of knockout rugby.
From going to big Munster Senior Cup games in Musgrave Park (like the 1989 final when Kenny Murphy's last-minute kick for Cork Constitution denied Shannon the title) to the early days of the All-Ireland League, which saw the Munster clubs' 'knockout' attitude proving too intense for their fancied Leinster and Ulster opponents.
O'Callaghan's own progress through Highfield, CBC Cork and Cork Con was founded on the same do-or-die principles and it was something the second-row had in common with his Munster team-mates from clubs such as Shannon, Garryowen and Young Munster when they came together at the start of the last decade to launch their European assaults.
Thus, next weekend's must-win Heineken Cup assignment in Toulon is familiar territory for the 31-year-old, who is having a productive season and was Man of the Match in Saturday night's win.
Munster are flying along at the top of the Magners League, but European campaigns are what defines their season and, though the pressure stemming from a potential pool exit for the first time in 13 years is beyond intense, it is a situation O'Callaghan relishes.
"We're playing for our lives," said O'Callaghan. "It's a massive week, cup-final rugby. A win always puts you in good form and there was a lot of things that went really well, but our coaches will be really harsh and go through the areas where we need to improve. We'll change tack now; Europe is what it's always been about for us.
"Once you saw how this pool was made you knew it would come down to one or two games and this is it -- two games to go (Munster play London Irish in their final pool game on January 22 at Thomond Park) and it's all on the line," added O'Callaghan. "This is where you test yourself, this is where you want to be. People say we're not playing well, but tables reflect what we're doing. There's a huge standard expected with this team and players take it on."
Munster's difficulty in the scrum away to the Ospreys in their last pool outing was the difference between victory and defeat and, although an inconsistent performance by referee James Jones was frustrating on Saturday night, the home side put in a decent scrummaging performance.
"It's something we're putting huge focus on," he agreed. "We're not happy the way it's been going; we're doing an awful lot of work on it and the big thing is that you take personal responsibility for it.
"You don't look to blame refs or calls; it is what it is at the moment and you have to have your timing right. As well, you have to dust them down, when things don't go your way you have to be mentally tough and go back at it, which probably wasn't the case against the Ospreys when we had a disappointing scrum and backed it up with a poor one again (against Connacht). We didn't do that (against Glasgow), which is pleasing."
The stakes may be a lot higher than the Munster Senior Cup, Schools Cup and crunch AIL games O'Callaghan grew up watching and playing in, but the prerogative is the same: win or be damned.
"This is what we love lads. The last two weeks with everything on the line. Cup final rugby, love it, reared on it -- bring it on."