'Everyone else was partying but I was in bed before 11pm'
Sligo prop's progress back on track along with his studies after injury setbacks
Conan O'Donnell has experienced all the trials and tribulations that goes with being a young professional sportsman in the 21st century. And he has come out on the right end of it, with plenty of promise and a bright future ahead.
The 21-year-old versatile prop has had to deal with adapting his game to a new position at the highest level. He has had to put on weight and take it off again, injury has come and gone too, but his grounding in the game could give him an invaluable edge throughout the rest of his career.
Anyone who attended NUI Galway recognises Corrib Village as the hub of student social life for many first years. And when an elite-level athlete experiences it first hand, and still maintains his rugby career, it suggests dedication and a willingness to succeed.
O'Donnell studies Commerce at the Galway university, and after four years he will tackle his final exams next month, before he begins a life of fully-fledged professional rugby.
"I will probably go away for a couple of weeks this summer, just to clear the head of rugby and then to have a fresh mind when I come back in July," says O'Donnell.
"You get so caught up in it that it messes with your mind if you get too entangled. You need the space away from it. I have been studying up until now as well.
"In first year I was living in Corrib Village and I was having to train in the morning. When you would be looking at everyone else going out, I would have to be in bed before 11pm getting ready for training the next day.
"And even sticking to a different diet regime, everyone else was partying when I was in bed. It helped me a lot mentally because I was able to resist that urge.
"I'm happy I did it but it was very challenging. Thankfully, my final exam is in May so hopefully I will have that out of the way, and I will have a Commerce degree in my hand. The world is my oyster then."
O'Donnell speaks with confidence, a self-assuredness garnered on the rugby field where he played 14 times for his country at U-20 level.
Since then he has forced his way through the Connacht academy where he has worked with some brilliant mentors like Nigel Carolan, Eric Elwood, Jimmy Duffy and Ambrose Conboy.
The results are plain to see. He has already registered nine appearances for the Connacht senior side, and that has come despite some injury-ravaged campaigns, and a switch from tighthead prop to loosehead.
"At the moment I am trying out loosehead, I have been loosehead most of the season. I am learning extra tricks every week, hopefully I'll be able to pick it up and get to where I need to be some day," says O'Donnell.
Chatting "There is a lot of experience, I am always chatting to Denis Buckley, even the tightheads, asking them what I can do better to help my game.
"But Denis would be a similar build to me. I have to compete with him and how good he is he is has really set the bar high for other looseheads. Hopefully I will be able to get to his level. With regards to changing over, the simplest way of saying it is the tighthead side you are pushing against two players, and on the loosehead side you're pushing against one. There isn't a lot more to it.
"When I was in tighthead I was a bit heavier than I am now. You need to be a bit more mobile around the pitch where I play now. And it was tougher to put on that weight than actually shifting it."
O'Donnell's dedication has also been rewarded at B&I Cup level for Connacht Eagles, where he has featured regularly, along with some big involvements for Athlone outfit Buccaneers in the Ulster Bank League Division 1A.
"It has been good. Last year I had a bad injury when I did my ankle, and the year before that I had injured my toe," adds O'Donnell.
"I worked hard and I am back on my feet. I have been injury-free all season so far, so it's going well, I can't complain.
"I had only played three games in about a year and a half. But I've played a lot this year so I am happy with the game-time I have got for Buccaneers.
"The AIL is just a level below professional rugby really. Along with that we have the B&I Cup. It's a good set-up at the moment anyway."
O'Donnell made his debut for Connacht during their PRO12-winning season in 2015-'16, and now the former Summerhill College and Sligo RFC clubman has finally reached his ultimate goal.
He signed his first professional deal with Connacht alongside fellow Sligo native Cillian Gallagher and Peter Claffey on March 9.
All three will become full-time players next season, and it's a dream come true, as they aim for minutes on the pitch in Kieran Keane's second term in charge of the province.
O'Donnell has not featured prominently this season but his one outing came against Munster at Thomond Park.
"I did get a cap this year so I am happy with that, after coming back from the injury that I had, I wanted to get at least one cap, and was thankful to KK for giving me that chance, especially in an inter-pro," says O'Donnell.
"I started rugby when I was six or seven in Sligo and I am delighted to this stage.
"I just want to keep working hard put my head down and hope for the best. I always focus more on what I'm doing in the present rather than the future."