Tomás O'Leary on leaving for Montpellier just 24 hours before 'leader' Anthony Foley was lost
IF Tomas O’Leary didn’t know where he was or what to make of things on Sunday night it was perfectly understandable.
The Grand Slam winner described the week building up to his Montpellier debut as mad, emotional and tough and even then you got the sense that he wasn’t quite covering it as he prepared for a match by going home by attending Anthony Foley’s funeral.
He spent his 33rd birthday flying to his new home and watching the emotional events unfold at his old one.
After two games at the start of this season, Rassie Erasmus decided he didn’t fancy the former Ireland international and handed Cathal Sheridan a route back into the professional game instead of including the experienced O’Leary in his European squad.
Rather than sulk and spend the rest of his time with the province on the fringes he sought out a new opportunity.
That’s how he ended up playing against Leinster in the closing stages of a tumultuous Champions Cup clash on Sunday afternoon alongside players he’d barely met.
After the game, his new team-mates took him for dinner and he’ll start looking for somewhere to live over the coming days before his wife Julie and son Jamie join him. Then, normality will come on the Mediterranean. After the past week, it will be a blessing.
“It was a mad week really, I knew I was coming over here last Friday. I came over here last Saturday and then on Sunday I got news from the lads about Axel,” he recalled.
“I went back for the funeral, so I didn't really have a chance to settle. It was a really emotional week, a tough week and then coming back here to play the lads - at least it was a bit of a distraction after a tough few days.”
His new club had no issue allowing him to return to Killaloe to pay his respects to Foley.
“Axel was my first No 8 when I came into the professional game. He was our captain and our leader,” he said. “He never asked us to do anything he wouldn't do himself.
“Then he became a team-mate and a friend, went on to coach me as well and I think the thing that stood out to me was his loyalty to everything Munster, his belief in everything Munster and all of the lads was unwavering. He was the epitome of everything Munster stands for.
“It's a total shock, I still can't believe it really happened. It's mad.”
Rugby restored a sense of normality for O’Leary on Sunday and he is excited about what he can achieve in the coming weeks in the south of France.
He is officially on loan for four months, a so-called ‘medical joker’ signed as cover for the injured Benoit Paillaugue.
The scrum-half wasn’t prepared to elaborate on Erasmus’s decision to omit him from the Champions Cup panel, but says he bears the South African no ill-will.
“He came in and I was involved in the first two games but, look, it's just a decision by him and I've no qualms with that. It's his call,” O’Leary explained.
“When I didn't get into the European squad I was a bit frustrated and I had a look to see if there was anything else out there.
“Montpellier were looking for a No 9 for four months, so fair dues to Munster they let me go. Even when Cathal got injured they could have stood in my way, but they were great to let me go and I appreciate that.
“It's great to get back involved in European rugby and hopefully be involved in the Top 14 in the next few weeks, to get back playing some rugby and at this stage of my career that's all I want to do.
“We'll see what happens with it.
“It's a lovely part of the world, a fantastic team. They won the Challenge Cup recently and are sitting pretty in the Top 14, top three or four.
“It's a great opportunity for me, at this stage of my career it could be a whole new experience. It's something I'll look back on fondly.
“Watching the lads on Saturday was pretty emotional alright, but this was too good an opportunity to turn down and I want to grasp it with both hands.
“Leinster did extremely well to come up with a bonus point and that could be important come the end of it.
“You have to applaud them for that, but you can see the power that we have in our side, the fire-power. That's the difference between French rugby and rugby in Ireland, the sheer size of some of the lads that they're able to sign.
“Hopefully it will be good to play with them as opposed to against them for a bit.”