Thursday 19 September 2019

'I didn't know if I would ever play again' - Ireland flanker on horrific World Cup warm-up injury

Tommy O’Donnell arrives to Carton House for Ireland training yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Tommy O’Donnell arrives to Carton House for Ireland training yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

It's the week of the first World Cup warm-up game and naturally there is a giddy excitement around the corridors of the Ireland team hotel.

An extremely tough part of pre-season has been banked for the long road ahead and the mere sniff of a match-day this weekend has players ready to seize their moment.

Amongst the optimism, however, are cautionary tales.

This time four years ago, Tommy O'Donnell was handed a chance to lay down an early marker when Ireland travelled to Cardiff, only for his World Cup dream to be cruelly ended by a serious hip injury which would leave the Munster flanker out of the game for a long time.

O'Donnell endured a nightmare period out, including last season when he missed most of the campaign due to a shoulder problem.

It looked like his chance to play at a World Cup had passed him by again, especially after failing to feature for Ireland since the 2016 Six Nations.

Later that same year, he missed the tour to South Africa as he was getting married before other young, exciting rivals burst onto the scene.

Earning a recall from Joe Schmidt, therefore, was welcomed by a player desperate to make up for lost time.

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"I suppose you do draw on the similarities and you do kind of look back at where I was physically for the last World Cup and how I am faring physically for this one," O'Donnell reflects.

"But you have to put it down to a freak accident. It could have happened in the first warm-up game, it could have happened in the first game of the World Cup.

"At the time, I didn't know if I was ever going to play again.

"So, to rehab and to be back on the field within 16 weeks... there were a lot more positives, rather than thinking, 'Oh I missed out on a World Cup.'

"Well, it's four years later and I'm still playing rugby. If you were to give me those two situations, I would much happier be in this situation."

That was the reality facing O'Donnell after he dislocated his hip that day against Wales. To then suffer another serious injury earlier this year was the latest setback for a player whose resilience is held in high regard within the squad.

"When an injury happens you're like, 'Oh f**k,'" the 32-year-old admits. "You feel you've let yourself down, you've let the team down.

"I was very hopeful to play the last couple of games with Munster. I was available but I hadn't any games under the belt since January, so selection didn't go my way.

"I was hopeful to get the call off Joe and eventually it did come. Once you get into this environment, you're just trying to show up at every training session and put as good a marker down as you can."

That kind of attitude has brought O'Donnell back into the fold and while he needs a couple of big performances to force his way into the final 31-man squad, he is up for the fight - starting against Italy on Saturday.

"Tommy has got some X-factor," scrum coach Greg Feek enthuses.

"That injury, I think it took him quite a long time to come right and it is almost like he has timed it right in terms of that. I can't speak highly enough about what he has been through to get to this point."

O'Donnell firmly believes that coming out the other side of those dark days has made him mentally stronger and now his sights are very much set on making an impression in Japan.

"It's not just about getting on the plane," he adds, bullishly.

"Because of the quality of this squad and there's players with massive ambitions, so there's a lot more to achieve. If I manage to get on the plane, it wouldn't stop there. There would be much more to achieve."

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