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O'Donoghue leading the charge for Munster

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Jack O’Donoghue. Photo: Sportsfile

Jack O’Donoghue. Photo: Sportsfile

Jack O’Donoghue. Photo: Sportsfile

Hard to get away from the hurling today. Equally hard to see many days in Jack O'Donoghue's sporting life getting much better than an All-Ireland for the county and a winning start for Munster to the Heineken Champions Cup campaign. It would have been rude to ask him to set the odds on it.

Certainly if you are in the Harlequins camp at Thomond Park this afternoon you wouldn't be making yourselves favourites. Even allowing for the rapidly decreasing value of the PRO14, the mood you get from seven from seven is more about the number of things that are working than the quality of the opposition. Factor in the return of the Ireland contingent, having seen off Scotland with room to spare, and it's a decent combination. O'Donoghue is happy with the way he helped mind the shop when the front of house lads were away.

"Yeah, in the last few weeks I think I've probably grown a bit more in terms of my leadership and that," he says. "Probably in the past couple of seasons you'd have almost stepped aside (when the international contingent returns) whereas now it's kinda like: 'This is what we've been doing.'

"They're two different systems in terms of the Irish system and the Munster one, so I think it's important to know when the lads come back that they're coming back into our system and how we do things rather than letting them come back and dictate everything. It's all positive. The lads were more than happy to come back and get in on the action of the atmosphere and the buzz around the place."

O'Donoghue has been leading the charge from the start of the season. Involved in every game, putting in a range of quality performances, this is a hugely admirable position to be in given the recovery he had to go through in 2018/19. On the Munster website you'll find a video charting his slow progress after rupturing ACL and MCL in a horrific twist against Leinster in the PRO14 semis two years ago. The graphic detail of the moment was probably more than we needed.

The scale of the climb back up to elite performer was forbidding. Talk of rebuilding the athlete better than he was before sounds glib, but the evidence suggests otherwise. He's flying. And the journey wasn't lost on him.

"Yeah, it's quite emotional but it's also quite motivating. I was watching it on TV - they were showing a match and it was on after - and I got really motivated by it because I know the hardship I went through in that period of time and it almost puts what you're doing now into perspective in that, this isn't . . . you're on your own, you're rehabbing on your own, but when you're out on the pitch, there are 14 other lads that you can turn to for support. Yeah, if you knock on the ball or you miss a tackle, you just wipe it off. There are 14 lads who will pat you on the back and say, 'Next one, it's grand.'

"It's about being able to stop and having time for someone (injured) like that and chatting to him and making sure that they feel involved in the wider group because it's a long stint. Being able to put an arm around him and say: 'Look, you'll get through it.'

"And just keep the motivation going because you do find times where it's going really well and then all of a sudden it plateaus and then some days you might have a bad day and it's: 'Where's the next peak coming?' So when someone might feel low, that you can put the arm around them and give them the confidence to go again."

O'Donoghue will be on the bench this afternoon. It tells you something about the form of the free-scoring Gavin Coombes that he is starting at six. With Tommy O'Donnell and Chris Cloete hovering in the background Munster are well served. So O'Donoghue will feature in the last half hour unless events overtake them. It would be a luxury if Munster's doesn't miss a beat, and the Waterford man is arriving to finish the job.

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"We can't get too loose against this opposition," he says. "We've played some incredible rugby this past seven weeks. We started slow. You could kind of see the shape appearing in the first two rounds and then we had that week off where we had a really good 'regen' week here and we worked on our shape a lot and then you saw it clicking with lads.

"We'll still have the confidence because we have it in the bank to be able to play that way but we probably won't get as many opportunities against the likes of Quins and Clermont, so our accuracy probably needs to be higher - even going back to Zebre.

"We did still miss opportunities, when we got into the 22, to come away with points and that's probably where we need to step it up another level going into the Champions Cup."

Munster: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, D de Allende, K Earls; JJ Hanrahan, C Murray; J Cronin, K O'Byrne, S Archer, J Kleyn, T Beirne, G Coombes, CJ Stander, P O'Mahony (capt). Replacements: R Marshall, J Wycherley, J Ryan, F Wycherley, J O'Donoghue, C Casey, B Healy, R Scannell

Harlequins: M Brown; N Earle, L Northmore, B Tapuai, C Murley; M Smith, D Care; J Marler, S Baldwin, W Louw, H Tizard, G Young, J Chisholm, A Dombrandt (capt), W Evans. Replacements: E Elia, S Garcia Botta, F Baxter, R de Carpentier, T Lawday, S Steele, J Lang, R Chisholm.

Referee: P Gauzerre (France).

TV: BT Sport 2, KO 5.15pm.


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