O'Donnell looks to get ahead of pack in battle to fill Ireland's No 7 void
OF ALL of the players who take the field at Kingsholm this evening it is Tommy O'Donnell who perhaps has most to gain.
The Munster openside is in a battle for the No 7 jersey left vacant by Sean O'Brien's injury trouble with Chris Henry and Jordi Murphy and his appearance as the starter for the Ireland Wolfhounds this evening suggests he's slightly behind the latter in the race, but ahead of the former.
Trying to guess the thinking of Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt can at times be a fool's errand but logic dictates that as the Ulsterman started in O'Brien's place back in November before coming off injured against Samoa he remains the man in possession. However, it is O'Donnell who looks the closest thing going to the Tullow Tank – a hardened tackler, big ball-carrier and demon on the deck who was his province's best player in their win over Edinburgh last weekend.
That said, Henry was outstanding for Ulster at Leicester, while Murphy was rested after two recent man-of-the-match displays, but still came on in the second half – at centre for a short stint – and scored another try.
Losing O'Brien was a curse, but while he is irreplaceable in many ways, the back-row is one area where the back-up is strong.
Against the England Saxons this evening, a big display from the former Tipperary minor footballer from Cahir could tip the balance.
"It's a case of go out and impress," the 26-year-old, who won two caps during last summer's tour of the United States and Canada, explained.
"I haven't had an opportunity to play with Joe as the coach yet so I really need to nail down what my role is and just go out and show what I can do in this system.
"Coming into this season I was thinking that I had to build on last year so I went into this summer training with a view to the autumn internationals and then once that was pushed back I was going to build towards the Six Nations.
"You have to keep backing yourself and thinking that you are good enough and you don't want to tread water. I want to be the best No 7 in Munster and then put my hand up for Ireland selection.
"Sean's injury really intensified the battle between myself, Chris and Jordi, who has been hitting great form as well. He has had some great games at Leinster. It's a great position for Ireland to be in at the moment that we have got four No 7s but losing Sean is obviously a big loss in terms of what he brings. It really is an opportunity for whoever gets the nod."
Last year in the same fixture he was given an opportunity but couldn't take it. At the time, he was at the start of a run of form that saw him go from fringe player to one of the first names on the Munster team sheet and, with a short run-in, he wasn't able to impose himself on a game that got away from Ireland in the scrum.
This time, despite injury denying him a tilt at more caps in November, he feels ready for the challenge.
"A year on I am a lot more confident. There is no room to sit back, last year I was a bit more over-awed," he admitted.
"Last year in Galway I was on a five-day turnaround so I had less time to learn the terminology. It was my first time in camp, this time I've been in camp a couple of times, I know the terminology, I know what to do. I know the work that needs to be done, I just need to take the opportunity.
"I think I am very close to full fitness. I have moved on from the injury now at this stage. It was disappointing. Once I was told 12 weeks, that was it, that was what I went for, and I think I got back in 11.
"It's all credit to the staff in Munster that I got back in time and I think I am getting back to the fitness I was at last year. Paul O'Connell always says that it takes three to four starts to get back to that match intensity and Edinburgh at the weekend was a very good performance. No game has really been the same since I've come back but I think I am coming back to full fitness."
He is timing his run well and a big display alongside Rhys Ruddock and Robin Copeland this evening could tip the balance his way.