Sunday 15 September 2019

Different perspective gives O'Donnell renewed hope after injury

Tommy O'Donnell. Photo: Sportsfile
Tommy O'Donnell. Photo: Sportsfile

Sinéad Kissane

Tommy O'Donnell was leaning against a pillar with his friends at Murrayfield last Saturday when he saw a bus full of familiar faces. It was a few hours after Munster's win over Edinburgh and thousands of fans had waited for the team.

O'Donnell had made his own way to the Scottish capital, booked his own flight from Dublin and, for the first time, experienced what it was like being a supporter at an away European knock-out game.

When the Munster team bus crawled past, a few of O'Donnell's team-mates spotted him in the crowd and saluted him. He waved back. He then watched as fans followed the bus out of Murrayfield.

Viewing it from a different angle gave O'Donnell a new perspective. Bad luck and injuries have tagged O'Donnell. Last October, he injured his ankle against Gloucester and returned in December.

When he injured his shoulder against Exeter in January he initially thought it was a stinger but when he took off his jersey in the dressing-room at half-time he knew it was the same injury he got last year, but to the other shoulder.

"At that moment it's heart-breaking," O'Donnell says. "You kind of feel like you failed a small bit because you worked so hard to get back from the other injury.

"There's an awful feeling that you've let down coaches and team-mates and yourself by getting injured. You know that with every tackle you make there's a possibility you might get injured but when it happens you blame yourself straight away."

O'Donnell knew the drill. Surgery. Twelve weeks out. Rehab.

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"It was a Grade 5 AC joint injury. It's where the three ligaments of the AC joint were completely gone and if your collarbone separates from your acromion, it's just kind of floating there.

"The rigours of the sport, especially in the back-row and how attritional it is, it's the kind of injury that needs to be surgically put back in place and stabilised."

O'Donnell's career has been jack-knifed by injury so many times that you wonder if there was any point he became so sick of it that he wanted to give it all up?

O'Donnell laughs.

"Yeah, it's probably in that aftermath, it's in the shower after the initial injury and it's probably in those quiet moments that a negative thought would naturally drift in, but then you reset."

"And then there's moments like last weekend when you realise to be anywhere involved with Munster is a special place."

The dangers of playing in the back-row are increasingly coming with a health warning. The full horror came last Saturday at the Aviva with the horrific injury to Dan Leavy.

"It was just such an unlucky injury the way it happened, there's nothing more you can control. Your heart does go out to him," O'Donnell says of Leavy.

"I really wish him all the best with it."

O'Donnell knows what it's like for an injury to wreck a World Cup dream.

In Ireland's first World Cup warm-up game against Wales in August 2015, O'Donnell was carried off on a stretcher and brought straight to hospital in Cardiff with a dislocated hip.

How much pain can one man take? O'Donnell doesn't view it all that way.

"How often do you see a dislocated hip in rugby? When you sit down in front of the hip specialist and he's shaking his head going: 'You're very lucky you didn't take any bone with it. You're lucky you're on crutches here and you're not lying down on a stretcher.'"

There were so many positives that I took out of that. You realise you get to fight another day".

For those of us on the outside we might wonder how O'Donnell copes with injury setbacks. But we also never know what any player is dealing with privately.

In January last year Tommy's eldest brother, Gearoid, died at the age of 33.

As a child, Gearoid was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a "genetic degenerative disorder" and he became wheelchair-bound.

"When he was first diagnosed he was told he would possibly live until he was 16 or 20. And he managed to just knock it out of the park and got to 33.

"He had a defiant attitude that he wasn't going to let it stop him. It's left a huge hole in our lives but he was just a fantastic person - the way he fought and you have to take inspiration from that."

His brother helped shape O'Donnell's positive approach. He hopes to be back playing by the middle of May and if Munster are still playing O'Donnell wants to contribute in any way he can.

He hasn't given up hope either of giving Joe Schmidt something to think about this summer.

"I will be doing everything I can to put myself in the frame (for World Cup selection). I'll be 32 and never having gotten to a World Cup so I'd be lying if I didn't say I would love to go to a World Cup.

"But it's down to getting myself back playing well, in good physical condition and being able to contribute to an Irish team that have massive ambitions."

Life doesn't just take, it also gives. O'Donnell's wife, Elisse, is expecting their second child in June.

With the season far from over and the summer to come, there's plenty for O'Donnell to hope for.

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