O'Leary happy to deliver under the spotlight
Once-sidelined star now a key component in Irish machine
GIVEN how far he has come in the last three seasons, it is strange to think back to a time when Tomas O'Leary couldn't get his game at scrum-half in the All-Ireland League.
If you wandered into Cork Constitution's Temple Hill home six years ago, chances were you would see O'Leary blowing on his hands to keep them warm while waiting for possession to work its way out to his touchline.
Having turned his back on a Cork hurling career that, those who know about these things reckon, would have made him one of the stars of the game, the scrum-half was pursuing a career in professional rugby and being relegated to the touchline on a wing and a prayer was not part of the grand plan.
Indeed, there were days when O'Leary could only make the bench (where he sat next to fellow Ireland squad member Mike Ross) as Con started the highly talented former Ireland U-21 scrum-half Pat McCarthy and had considerable talent in their back three in the shape of Derek Dillon, Cronan Healy, Dave O'Brien and Ronan O'Donovan.
O'Leary, who played scrum-half behind Jamie Heaslip on the Ireland U-21 team that was beaten by New Zealand in the final of the 2004 World Cup, had pace, strength and footballing ability but McCarthy's pass was markedly superior.
Something had to give and O'Leary took the bold decision to leave Cork's most powerful club and cross the city to rivals Dolphin (ironically reversing the journey made by McCarthy a few years earlier).
It was a career-turning point. Dolphin's head coach David O'Mahony was a former Munster, Leinster and Ireland scrum-half while his assistant, Paul Buckley, was another former No 9, good enough to win an All-Ireland League medal with Con in 1991 as understudy to Michael Bradley and with years of AIL experience under his belt.
O'Leary's pass, the most vital component of a scrum-half's armoury, was all over the place, varying between wayward scud and wounded duck. O'Mahony and Buckley got to work. Hours were spent working on O'Leary's technique -- thousands of passes flung out until, gradually, his distribution began to improve.
It coincided with O'Leary beginning to make waves in the Munster set-up where he received further expert guidance from Garryowen coach and former Scotland scrum-half Greig Oliver.
Progress was steady, if not spectacular. Peter Stringer was still the acknowledged No 9 for province and country -- although O'Leary was blipping on the radar enough to earn his first cap off the bench on the pre-2007 World Cup tour to Argentina when Stringer and the rest of the big guns were left at home.
However, the next major turning point did not arrive for another 11 months when Declan Kidney sprung a major surprise by picking O'Leary ahead of Stringer for Munster's Heineken Cup showdown with Gloucester in Kingsholm.
O'Leary held his place all the way to a Heineken Cup medal and has not looked back since. Kidney has continued to back him since he took over as Ireland coach, establishing O'Leary as first-choice No 9 and has been rewarded with massively influential displays on the way to last year's Grand Slam and a successful November campaign.
His pass is unrecognisable from the one he laboured with four or five years ago. It may not be quite as rapid as Stringer's (few are) but O'Leary's delivery is swift and direct and no longer used as a caveat against his obvious all-round talent.
The speed that once saw him designated as a winger makes O'Leary extremely dangerous on the break and he has the strength to back it up, power which also makes him, arguably, the best defensive scrum-half in the game -- a regular burier of back rows.
Such were the quality of O'Leary's displays last year that he was an automatic selection for the Lions tour and the ankle injury that robbed him of that career-defining experience has driven his performances for Munster and Ireland this season.
The 'unknown quantity' tag is gone and O'Leary goes into this Six Nations as a marked man, a key member of a Grand Slam-winning side that is being lined up by their European rivals, starting with Italy this Saturday.
"You can never be content and rest on your laurels," reflects O'Leary, assessing the individual and collective challenges ahead. "I'm happy to get the start and it's up to me to give a decent performance which keeps me in the team. There's major competition at scrum-half in Ireland and it drives me on to improve my own and game and to stay at the top and get better.
"We're looking to improve our performances from last year. We're not really thinking about the Grand Slam last year. We're trying to improve and build for the future. Confidence is high, there's a good morale there."
The Italians will unquestionably target the Irish scrum, having tormented the All Blacks in this area at the San Siro, and this has direct implications for the scrum-half as a retreating scrum limits O'Leary's capacity for unleashing the punishing breaks for which he has become renowned.
In the recent Heineken Cup win over Northampton, the Munster scrum -- which included four members of Saturday's pack -- came under incredible pressure and O'Leary was not seen as an attacking force. However, the 26-year-old is not overly concerned, confident Cian Healy, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes and co can provide a solid platform.
"The scrum isn't a concern for me. The boys have done a lot of work on it this week, the Italians have a very strong set-piece but I think we do as well. Northampton was just a very tight game. There was no major line breaks by anyone. I'm not going to make breaks every time I play.
"If we lose this game we're on the back foot straight away. It's a massive game for us and we're not treating it lightly."
O'Leary is the most improved Irish professional player of the past six years and one of the major success stories of Kidney's coaching CV.
No more waiting in -- or on -- the wings.