Monday 17 June 2019

'Playing Super Rugby is probably the best thing that ever happened to me'

Former Connacht prop O’Donnell looking to make name for himself after door opens in Japan

Conan O'Donnell. Photo: Kenny Smith/Sportsfile
Conan O'Donnell. Photo: Kenny Smith/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'cConnor

On Thursday, May 2 Conán O'Donnell received a message on Facebook that changed the course of his rugby life.

Having been released by Connacht at the end of the season, the Sligo prop was on the look-out for a new opportunity and his agent Karl Hogan was casting his net far and wide.

Word reached Cory Brown, O'Donnell's old academy coach at his home province who now works for the Japanese Super Rugby franchise, the Sunwolves, who were short a prop.

O'Donnell didn't hesitate and as Hogan sorted the particulars, he packed up his life in Galway and headed for the airport.

Within a week, he was coming on against the Brumbies in Canberra and spending a week in Sydney before moving to his new home in Tokyo.

He made his home debut against Quade Cooper and the Melbourne Rebels two weeks ago and after defeat to the Brumbies at home, his side travelled to Cape Town where they face the Stormers today, before next week's clash against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.

At that stage he'll have clocked up more than 40,000km in six weeks.

"It's probably been the most bizarre three weeks of my life," the 23-year-old chuckles down the phone from his hotel room in Tokyo.

"It all happened pretty quickly, I had to jump at the opportunity really because it might never come around again."

His debut came quicker than he expected.

"I arrived on the Tuesday and met the team," he recalls.

"The jet-lag was there, so I went down to the training ground and did a bike session to flush out the travel and then in that session one of the props got injured so I got to play that week.

"I just learnt all the lineouts and did as best as I could. It all fell into place, I wasn't expecting it.

"I was just running off adrenaline and didn't think about it. It was class. I loved every minute."

Although the Sunwolves did manage to win on Australian soil in March, the Japanese franchise have struggled and O'Donnell's three appearances - all from the bench - have come in heavy defeats to the Brumbies (twice) and the Rebels.

"It's a lot quicker, but I haven't played enough minutes yet to find out exactly how fast it is," he says.

"Maybe the games haven't been as tight as I'd like them to have been, so it's hard to get a gauge.

"It's very cool playing against the likes of Quade Cooper (Rebels), even David Pocock was on the sideline when we played the Brumbies. I'm just relishing it."

The move has been a change, but O'Donnell says he has assimilated well.

"I thought it would be a bigger culture shock, but the team is a lot of lads from New Zealand and a few Australians so there's a lot of English speakers on the team, the Japanese lads would have really good English as well," he says.

"The biggest culture shock is the toilets, there's loads of buttons to play with on the side and you wouldn't know what half of them do.

"The first time I went I didn't know how to flush the thing!

"A few lads who I played with in Connacht have already messaged me asking how I went about getting over, I suppose it was just luck. But I would recommend it, it's not just the rugby but the chance to see the world and travel around. I'd never been to Tokyo and it's pretty cool."

A member of the 2016 Ireland U-20 crop that produced James Ryan, Andrew Porter and Jacob Stockdale, O'Donnell made his Connacht debut as a teenager in 2015 and made eight senior appearances for his home province.

However, he couldn't force his way into Andy Friend's thinking last season and as the end of the campaign approached he was told that his services wouldn't be required for the next campaign.

"I'd been with Connacht since I was 15, coming through the set-up under-age… I suppose it happens, I wasn't happy it happened but I won't hold a grudge against them," he says.

"If the opportunity ever came up again to go back I'd snap at it.

"A few AIL teams were on to me within a few days of it happening, but I told them I wanted to give it another crack because I feel like I'm good enough.

"I wanted to keep going at the pro game and find somewhere I could get game-time.

"That was the main thing, because there's so much talent and depth in Connacht in the front-row that I found it hard to break in and wasn't getting games or even getting on the bench.

"It's opened my eyes. When I was evaluating everything I realised how much more I could do.

"I could have gone to Australia, New Zealand, England... there are so many opportunities everywhere and I wouldn't have had the courage to leave unless I was let go, so I'm kind of grateful it has happened in that regard.

"Playing Super Rugby will only contribute to you being better as a player, it probably is the best thing that ever happened to me. I landed on my feet."

As of now, his journey ends in Buenos Aires and he's yet to tell the Sunwolves where his next destination will be. He has his boots and is willing to travel.

"I'm doing my best to play my way into something, I've already learnt that something can just pop up like that," he says.

"I'm hoping to get a long-term contract, this is only to the end of the season but hopefully I can play my way into something and we'll take it from there. I'll go wherever it takes me."

Irish Independent

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