Sunday 22 April 2018

The big interview: Tommy O'Donell - Tipp flanker is back and better than ever after injury hell

Holistic outlook to rehab meant Irish No 7 is ready for whatever the future throws at him

Tommy O’Donnell on the charge against Stade Francais at Thomond Park last weekend Photo: Sportsfile
Tommy O’Donnell on the charge against Stade Francais at Thomond Park last weekend Photo: Sportsfile

Daragh Small

Nobody could begrudge Tommy O'Donnell looking back on 2015 with rueful angst, but it's not the case for the Munster and Ireland flanker.

It was the year when his province got dumped out of the Champions Cup early, and lost a Pro12 final. And then injury put paid to his World Cup journey before it began.

The Six Nations triumph in between is almost forgotten, and the Tipperary native says he reminisces fondly from a personal perspective.

His game reached new heights for Munster and Ireland, and were it not for the dislocated hip he suffered in a World Cup warm-up, who knows where his hard work could have paid dividends?

Indeed, the 28-year-old openside's diligence off the field followed through to the most testing part of the year. O'Donnell flipped the six-month return to fitness prognosis on its head.

The injury occurred against Wales in the Millennium Stadium on August 8 and he feared for his career initially. Despite being told that he would not play again until February at least, he made it back for the interpro derby with Leinster on December 27.

O'Donnell said it was all about getting the simple things right in his rehab, and a positive mental attitude helped ease him through the arduous journey.

"When the doctors set the original date, they set a very vague six months because they weren't sure the extent of it. About six weeks in, once we got it scanned the second time, we saw that everything was starting to heal.

"I had it in my head that I could start pulling back the timeline. We were looking at the start of February. Once I started back running, with how everything progressed that really brought things on. Everything progressed very quickly from a little bit of pool running, to being back to the weight training.

"But it was tough, my fiancée Elisse was back to work. I was left on my own. I went back to Tipperary, and sat in with my dad in his Jeep as he was going around the farm.

"I wasn't fit for much, all I could do was stand in a gap and direct the cattle. But it was good, nice to be out in the country, and it was good weather which made it easier to help out.

"I built a little woodwork project as well. I enrolled in a welding course, and I am also attending NUI Galway, so that kept me fairly busy," he says.


O'Donnell is studying an online Science and Technology degree in the university as he continues to keep his mind occupied off the pitch. But he knows that it's important to switch off at times too.

After he picked up the injury, the 2013 Munster Player of the Year took some time out of the game to relax, and he believes that was massive in keeping himself mentally prepared for his return.

"I struggled with the thought of it for the day or two directly after I picked up the injury. But then you have to get on with it. I was eager to get up to Santry as soon as possible and see what it was.

"Once I came back I was relatively positive, it was easy to set up a plan from there. I wasn't too mad about doing a big load straight away. I wasn't going to go into the gym. I just took six weeks off and that really gave me peace of mind.

"After the busy pre-season, I really got the chance to enjoy the World Cup, because I was just tipping about enjoying relaxing and allowing the body to heal by itself."

O'Donnell knew he could not rest up for too long, but he approached his rehab differently to before: he focused on what would prepare him better for future struggles.

He wants to be better equipped to deal with potential disasters whenever they might strike. And with that in mind the nine-time-capped Ireland international built his new routine around his stabilisation muscles.

"We approached the injury holistically. Rather than focusing on getting really big, I focused on the little muscles, the stabilisers, the injury-preventers as well. We said we are not just going to focus on upper body. We are going to look at the whole body.

"We wanted to come back a better athlete, you would be more efficient, technically better. That's how we actually managed to do it. My running technique was actually better than before I was injured. In the gym, my mobility and strength were better as well."

The former Coláiste Dún Iascaigh student returned to action in Munster's demoralising 24-7 defeat at home to Leinster. But his first start was against Ulster and he made a massive impact on a great day for the province. However, he knows that Munster need to be consistent and build on last weekend's win over Stade Francais.

"The Ulster game went very well, it was a good feeling after the run of games that we had. It means we are still well in it in the Pro12, we are only eight points off and we have a game in hand on the other teams.

"It's obviously a tough league and it takes a lot to win it. We need to set out our stall early this year and get back to winning ways," he says.

"Munster fans are accustomed to seeing us win, and we haven't won a trophy in a while. There is a bit of pressure on us to win the Pro12. But it's not impossible.

"We are still well-placed to go on the attack over the Six Nations period. That will be a real telling sign of how we will do and I think we are well positioned to do so."

Irish Independent

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