Sunday 26 January 2020

'I don't think you can take on that defeatist mentality'

With Tommy O'Donnell, problems like injury and omission are for parking. Then you move on

Tommy O’Donnell’s first memories of watching Munster date back to around the turn of the century when they developed a reputation as underdogs with the capacity to bite - they are back in the same kennel now
Tommy O’Donnell’s first memories of watching Munster date back to around the turn of the century when they developed a reputation as underdogs with the capacity to bite - they are back in the same kennel now
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

International rugby has not come easily for Tommy O'Donnell. What started in the summer of 2013 on Ireland's tour of North America has been fitful ever since. If he wasn't being overlooked by Joe Schmidt, then injury was saving the coach from explaining, for the benefit of the brave and the faithful, why the Tipperary man was getting close without getting his mitts on the cigar.

You could be forgiven for thinking that O'Donnell has cornered the market on bad luck. The tin hat on this came just a few months ago when events had conspired in a positive way for him: i.e. injury to others. He was in the frame for the three-Test tour to South Africa, an altogether bigger deal than the spin to the US and Canada three years ago.

As the planets were aligning, however, the flanker was acutely aware of a meteorite shower that might bury his tour before it had started. He was getting married.

Mostly these are events not planned in a hurry. And for a minority there are extra criteria, less easy to control. If you were a GAA star, your dread would be a Championship replay. In O'Donnell's case it was a tour schedule not set in stone.

He consulted those who knew more than he did. The consensus was that the tail end of June was a green light zone. So he motored along on that basis. And then the South Africans decided that the series with Ireland would stray into that territory. So long Tommy. Permission granted to feel distinctly sorry for yourself.

"No, he says. "I don't think you can take on that defeatist mentality. It was a clash of events. I thought I'd done my homework. I thought I'd been given that three-week window. If you went off previous tours, they've been finished by the third weekend (in June). I was speaking to (manager) Mick Kearney and he was saying, more than likely South Africa are going to push it back a week, so I was like: 'Okay, we could be in trouble there!'"

It had been at the back of his mind heading into Ireland's World Cup camp last year. Then it was parked by a horrific injury in the warm-up game against Wales in Cardiff. A whole new level of sympathy is reserved for those who, figuratively speaking, slip on the steps of the plane. And in keeping with the trend they are never run of the mill injuries: Geordan Murphy's complicated leg break in Edinburgh ahead of the 2003 tournament; David Wallace rupturing his knee under the weight of a Manu Tuilagi tackle just before the 2011 event. Then O'Donnell's dislocated hip last summer. When they start supplying oxygen to the victim, you can only imagine what he's going through.

"[Wales wing] Alex Cuthbert was jamming in so he came down at an angle and a prop came down straight so it was that perfect moment of knee being stuck in the ground, not going anywhere, and torque and hip having nowhere to go and obviously your femur is so strong," O'Donnell recalls. "I was blessed as well, because it popped out, rather than shattered the socket. It didn't harm the socket. It dislocated rather than going through the back of the pelvis."

Lovely. Remarkably he was back to full form and fitness for the start of the Six Nations last February. With Sean O'Brien and Chris Henry out, and Jordi Murphy's form having nose-dived, the door was open against Wales. It closed mid-way through the game with a concussion. He stayed in the squad for the France game, but by the time the England fixture rolled around Josh van der Flier's name had been added to those who Schmidt fancied more than O'Donnell. You wonder if the aggregate of all this is to have him charging around like a raging bull trying to make up for lost time.

"No, you set goals for yourself [but] I don't think you see it as catching up, because the way injuries, y'know swings and roundabouts roll around, it's like there's going to be a squad of 40-something players selected for an autumn series. There will be eight or nine changes from that when it comes around to the Six Nations so you just have to make sure that you're fit and ready for when those roll around.

"If it happens that you're not fit and ready, I don't think you get too down about it because another will roll around. As long as you have the ability to keep coming back from injury and keep achieving that peak performance and fitness, I think you'll always be there to put your hand up for selection."

Perhaps it helps that already O'Donnell has got good value from a career that was never on his horizon until his late teens. Had a rugby development officer, teaching PE in his school in Cahir, not introduced him to the game then it would have been solely GAA, a course he was already perfectly happy with.

The Munster bandwagon had already started to roll along by then. It was 2000/01 when he picked up the ball, and Clanwilliam - a half-hour up the N24 - gave him the outlet.

"It was more just pure luck that it happened," he says. "I'd still probably just be watching rugby and not playing it at all."

That he does it so well, despite the setbacks, reflects well on him, and his mental strength. A disciple of the 'losing teaches you lessons' school, he uses it cope with everything from injuries to being overlooked. And the only way is up. He presses the sports psychology button when he feels the need, but you get the impression O'Donnell has a good handle on what works for him.

And his presence is what Munster need at the minute. O'Donnell's first memories of watching his province was around the turn of the century, when they were building a reputation as underdogs with the capacity to bite. They are back in the same kennel now.

"I think so," he says. "You look at the couple of teams in our pool and how well they have done in the last few years. We go in as underdogs and we have to go in with a mentality that they are probably expecting to beat us, and expecting us to not be as good as we were a few years ago. You're taking on the French champions this weekend with all of their world-class players ... do what Munster teams of old did and just be a unit, and go do a job and be prepared to play a hard game of rugby and come away with a win.

"They have the highest number of off-loads in the French league so that shows you how dangerous they can be. We have to be very much wary of that. Although we have stay away from going toe to toe as much as possible, we can't allow it to descend into that much of an open game where their big athletic guys start getting a head of steam up and start looking for those off-loads. We need to find that measure of control there for this weekend."

And it's a special weekend. When we met it was a lovely autumn day and around Munster's new HQ in UL everything looked and smelled like it had just come out of the wrapper. What hadn't changed was the buzz that comes with the prospect of European competition.

"Yeah, there's the vibe of the fans travelling over, your family and close friends are looking to see what the travel arrangements are. They're checking Killester Travel, Ryanair flights. There's just that bit more emphasis on the travelling support. And you're taking on Rog. That's probably the thing the public are talking about ­- that Munster are going over to take on the famous son. Yeah, so definitely a Heineken week."

It's good that he's fit and ready to enjoy it.

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