Saturday 18 November 2017

Back in the mix and gunning for a European starting spot

Versatile back-row determined to reclaim place in highly competitive position after injury

Jamie Ritchie, Edinburgh, wins possession in a lineout ahead of Dave O'Callaghan, Munster
Jamie Ritchie, Edinburgh, wins possession in a lineout ahead of Dave O'Callaghan, Munster

Daragh Small

With just four games under his belt in 2016-17, Dave O'Callaghan hasn't got to fully experience the ecstasy of Munster's imperious run through the Pro12 and Champions Cup, but as the wounds have healed he looks set to push for inclusion in the second half of the season.

And the next couple of months could be crucial for the Youghal native if he wants to make his first Champions Cup appearance since 2015 in a home quarter-final against Toulouse at Thomond Park.

That game will take place on March 31, April 1 or 2, and between now and then Munster have six league games where they will look to cement their place in the play-off berths.

It coincides with the Six Nations and Ireland players being filtered back into the province thereafter, but the versatile 27-year-old back-row wants to make himself a permanent fixture in the starting 15.

"I got an injury at a bad time just coming up to the start of the European stuff, a shoulder injury that put me out," he recalls.

"I am trying to get a few 'A' games, and in the next few weeks with the lads away I can hopefully play a few more senior games and get into contention again.

"It's especially frustrating being injured, watching the lads performing so well. You are delighted for them, but you want to be a part of it. I want to get a bit of game-time now and put my case forward before the internationals come back."

After a strong start to the season, which included Pro12 appearances against Scarlets, Cardiff Blues and Dragons, the Dolphin clubman scored a try in the 56th minute of Munster's 28-14 bonus point victory over Edinburgh at Thomond Park on September 24.

But that was his last action in the game and O'Callaghan went off with a damaged shoulder, and his season already in tatters. He suffered a similar fate last campaign against Leicester Tigers in Welford Road.

The former Midleton College student got a torn abductor against the English Premiership outfit, and that limited his impact to 18 appearances in 2015-16.

And his latest innocuous blow was another step back as he hopes to challenge for a position in arguably Munster's strongest line, in their back row.

"It was an unfortunate injury to pick up and the timing was poor again," he says. "When I went over the line whatever way the fella tackled me going over the line, he didn't even tackle me that hard, I tore a part of my labrum in my shoulder.

Slow

"I spent eight weeks rehabbing, it was a big time on the sidelines, it was a slow enough one and frustrating especially with all that happened in the meantime.

"But that is part of the game and I am feeling good now and it's a credit to the medical department at Munster for getting me back on time."

O'Callaghan has played 64 times for Munster and scored three tries since he made his debut in the Pro12 against Ospreys in October 2011.

He has featured for Emerging Ireland in the past, and last season his impressive displays had him on the verge of an Ireland call-up until injury caught up.

But now the slate is clean and he comes back into a Munster squad packed full of potential.

Munster may not have won a senior trophy since they claimed the Pro12 title in 2011, but the two-time European champions look to be on the verge of greatness once again after a string of impressive displays.

Along with some brilliant contract renewal news this week, the announcement that JJ Hanrahan is on his way back is a huge boost, and two other bright talents in the form of Chris Farrell and James Hart will also play their rugby for Munster in 2017-18.

"It's great that we have such quality there already in the backline, and to bring JJ Hanrahan back is fantastic. He is such a quality player and we have so many options there with Tyler Bleyendaal, Rory Scannell and Ian Keatley," says O'Callaghan.

But Munster are already playing inspired rugby, and out-performing all pre-season expectations. Last weekend's 22-10 Champions Cup victory over Racing 92 secured a home quarter-final, and Munster look favourites to make the final four.

O'Callaghan, who is studying for his QFA exams as he attempts to continue down the line of working in finance in the future, is confident his side can build.

"It was definitely great to beat Racing last weekend," he says. "It was no easy feat, you could see that they really came to play. They were probably hurting quite a bit from the result over there and they certainly came to play. It was another great performance from us.

"There is no reason why we can't go all the way in Europe this season. There is a very long way to go but we are playing very well and it's coming to crunch time.

"In the quarter-finals we won't be looking any further than Toulouse. They are a side that have so much history in the competition. In the last few years they are coming back into a European juggernaut that we expect, and they are a star-studded side. We won't be looking any further than them.

"Our form has been good in the Pro12 too, and we have such a good squad with depth, you will see guys going away this month for the Six Nations. But we can still put out a very strong side and that's a credit to the depth that we have and hopefully it continues."

Irish Independent

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