Saturday 16 February 2019

'I love this place too much to mope about'

O'Callaghan determined to do all he can to regain place in pecking order

Donncha O'Callaghan is up for the challenge of regaining his Munster place. Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Donncha O'Callaghan is up for the challenge of regaining his Munster place. Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Donncha O'Callaghan was determined not to be one of those guys. He remembers those guys, even hated them a little.

He was the colt with ill-advised bleach-blond hair once, the kid looking to earn his stripes alongside men who didn't want to be there, experienced players who felt they were too good for the 'A' team, for whom playing a match with the up-and-comers was somehow beneath them.

Last Saturday at Donnybrook, the man who has won 94 caps for his country, played in four Lions Tests and won two Heineken Cups was led out on to the astroturf by Jack O'Donoghue, fully 15 years his junior as Munster 'A' took on Leinster ahead of the big game at the Aviva.

He could have thrown his toys out of the pram and sulked his way around Dublin 4, but instead he played his part in the first win of a Munster double over their old foes, even berating a younger colleague for not running under the posts when scoring a try.

Smart

"I remember playing for the Ireland 'A's and there were a few senior guys down and they were like a wet blanket around the place," he recalls of his early career.

"Even Munster 'A' down in Connacht, there was a few senior guys down and didn't want to be there, I half-hated them because f*** it, this was my shot, my window.

"The big things with those games. If you're tuned in and smart and you see the opportunity, I know our coaches watch them closely and put a lot of weight on them, so it's not like they're not going to have a look at me.

"Part of you thinks am I taking the spot of a younger guy but ... f*** it, I'm ruthless enough to do that too."

O'Callaghan is 35 now, but he doesn't feel it. He knows questions about his age are inevitable, but he points to his gym scores and says the challenge is in the mind.

He has had to deal with slipping down the pecking order at provincial level, while he is currently off the radar internationally.

This season, he was captain in week one and started in week four but was left out altogether against Leinster. Tonight, he will hope to get into the European reckoning by impressing off the bench against Scarlets.

While he acknowledges the battle on his hands, he refuses to accept his place in the pecking order and hopes to force his old team-mates on the coaching staff into recalling him in the weeks to come.

"I love this place too much to be one of these guys that mopes around. I've no doubt in where I am in my career, but I think there's loads left in me, the coaches believe in me too," he says.

"When called upon I have to be right. It's more of a mental challenge than physical. Gym-wise, fitness-wise my scores are high, that's not the bit that will challenge you. I found the 'A's enjoyable."

It makes it easier that the man making the decisions is someone O'Callaghan trusts intrinsically, a former comrade who he has known for a long time.

The lock made his international debut alongside Anthony Foley and won two European titles in his company too.

"Axel has been coaching me since I was 18 years of age," he says. "He's one of these guys who has been coaching me off the pitch in how I live my life, things like time-keeping, standards that you have to keep - little things that aren't acceptable around here.

"So, I'm well used to him and, in that, you build a respect for each other and mine for him is through the roof because it isn't until you're in the heat of a big match and you see the whites of a guy's eyes, that you know what a guy is going to do.

"He's Munster to the core and I love that about him."

The same goes for the other men who make up the all-local coaching ticket that is guiding the province this season. Over the past two seasons under Rob Penney, the second-rows were asked to re-invent themselves; often popping up out wide.

O'Callaghan or his long-time partner Paul O'Connell embraced the challenge but never looked entirely comfortable and, at this remove, the Corkman admits it may have been more hassle than it was worth.

"If I'm to be completely honest, yeah - 100pc," he says when asked if it was uncomfortable. "I grew up playing this kind of rugby since I was eight, it's what I'm good at.

"It was ambitious and a test of your skill-set and I didn't want to be the one sitting in the corner, I embraced it and tried to play it.

"It wasn't like I wasn't willing to challenge myself and get better at it, when I played under Rob I wanted to be the best at that.

Stretching

"Axel will say, 'How many tries did you run in on the wing?' but there's different ways of stretching teams and I like the idea of fellas having their heads on and playing what's in front of them. That suits me.

"It's wrong to run it down; around here fellas will play any type of rugby that gets a result. You have to adapt."

Still, the teething problems brought criticism from unlikely quarters.

"It was tough; I got a bit of dog's abuse off our own crowd when you're out on the edge," he remembers.

"They'd shout, 'You're a second-row not a winger, get off the wing!' and you're thinking, 'Jesus, I know that voice, that could be a relative!'

"That's not to say that the goal wasn't to get better at it, that's all you ever want to do; to come in every day learn and improve and I do think we improved.

"There was times we played that system and we were very good at it, but maybe the game management could have been different."

Over the course of Penney's time in charge O'Callaghan slipped in and out of favour and there are others who would have looked to move on.

You look at his old team-mate Peter Stringer pulling up trees with English Premiership pacesetters Bath and wonder whether a change might have been good at some stage.

However, it is quickly apparent that it wasn't for him.

"Playing big matches is what it's all about and all you want to do," he muses.

"I don't get that tingle anywhere else, I love playing for Munster, I love playing for Ireland and I love playing for Con. They're my teams and there's part of me that has to have an emotional attachment.

"And I know you'd get it if you went away, you'd be playing for your family and yourself, but I fully believe in the standards and values that we have here and it's how I conduct myself, even off the pitch, I have a lot to be thankful for here.

"I'll be honest, it just wouldn't do it for me, I love here too much.

"Part of me wishes you could, I don't mean it to be a dig off Strings, he's a competitive fecker, I'm not saying Munster doesn't matter (to him), but playing here, playing in green - that's why I play rugby and I don't think I could get that anywhere else. I couldn't get that emotional attachment everywhere else."

Last November, the veteran inked a contract that will run until June 2016 and he is determined to make the most of what time he has left.

"Everybody asks, 'How's your body?, how's your body?'" he says. "It's not my body, my body's in incredible shape, it's not your body that will get you, it's your head."

O'Callaghan won't be found wanting for attitude as he fights his corner and refuses to accept the pecking order as it stands.

He's a long way from done and he's determined to prove it.

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Beale set to miss series over 'offensive' texts

Dashing Aussie star Kurtley Beale is likely to be stood down ahead of his side's November series, including the game against Ireland, as the Australian Rugby Union begins investigation into alleged offensive texts.

ARU chief executive Bill Pulver said the allegation was Beale distributed "inappropriate and deeply offensive text messages and images to a number of people in June, referencing an ARU staff member".

Pulver would not say who that staff member was, but it is understood to be Wallabies business manager Di Patston, with whom Beale had a heated argument early in the flight from Johannesburg to Sao Paolo in Brazil last Sunday week en route to Argentina.

Meanwhile, the IRFU have admitted that a culture change is required to address the ongoing concussion problem in a presentation to the Joint Committee on Health and Children at Leinster House.

"The union is providing leadership to change the culture within rugby," said Dr Rod McLoughlin, the IRFU head of Medical Services.

"The culture that we aspire to, is one in which concussion is considered a serious injury, actively monitored for, recognised and proactively managed with player safety the ultimate consideration.

"We are working to achieve this vision and culture change by concussion education."

Irish Independent

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