Tuesday 24 April 2018

'I've made peace with World Cup pain' - Tommy O'Donnell

Tommy O’Donnell thankful for Ireland chance after overcoming horror injury

Tommy O'Donnell has something to smile about after returning from injury (Photo: SPORTSFILE)
Tommy O'Donnell has something to smile about after returning from injury (Photo: SPORTSFILE)
David Kelly

David Kelly

Tommy O'Donnell has learned the hardest way that the perils of the future are soon enough pitted deep in untroubled memory.

His body and spirit have been assaulted, at times so viciously, that his mind has had to strengthen beyond all the imaginings of the young butcher's boy who once had nothing else but the future before him.

Life's lessons have tamed him but he has resolutely refused them re-admission as burdens; his mind can sometimes become a busy cloakroom of ever-shifting items but it will never become a dust-choked attic, stored to the brim with regret, recrimination or retribution.

This is a man whose World Cup hopes were shattered just as he had taken his first step upon the plane.

"You can't hang on to these things," he says softly.

When he was floored in screaming agony on the Cardiff turf, two Welsh beefcakes unwittingly dislocating his hip as they fell upon him, his muscles, toned so strongly so as to be unyielding, prevented any attempts to re-locate his hip.


And so the body he had spent weeks and weeks honing to perfect strength in readiness for the biggest moment of his career was now the very thing which was preventing any possibility of him escaping the pain.

"I've made peace with it," he says calmly.

And so he called around to his friends and sat, as comfortably as someone with a dislocated hip can manage, on the couch.

And he watched Ireland's World Cup enterprise founder, uncomfortably, from somewhere behind the couch. All this now in his rear-view mirror.

"If you dwell on the past, then you're going to be stuck there," he says solemnly.

If it all seems like group therapy then what are you going to do? When you learn to be in the place where you are now, it's hard to feign anything else.

O'Donnell is 28, and missing the World Cup coincided with his contract running out at his current employers - and, in case you don't read newspapers, not every Irish player is getting what they want from their employers these days.

Temporarily disabled and legally lapsing into unemployment can focus the mind. This is the place where he is.

"Is missing the World Cup a source of regret? For me, no. Not at all. Because of the nature of the injury and everything like that, I made peace with it very quickly," he says.

"It comes from how we should be as players. If you make a mistake in a match then you need to move on with it. If something happens like that, a big moment or an injury, you need to move on with it.

"I think that's how you have to go about your career and that's how you keep setting goals for yourself and moving on."

Some might mis-interpret the acceptance of his World Cup fate, all the absence of regret, and assume it is tinged with a huge dollop of relief. Not so.

"No, I think the lads learnt a lot. No matter how the World Cup went, I think it would have better to have been involved in it and to learn from that experience," he says.

O'Donnell learns from everything. When Munster ruled Europe, O'Donnell was a fresh-faced Academy kid in thrall to a back-row of Lions legends. Trouble was, so were James Coughlan, Paddy Butler, Niall Ronan, Peter O'Mahony. . .

The more he enthralled, the more they got busier. Connacht beckoned -then coach Eric Elwood had coached him to a Grand Slam wit the Ireland U-20s - but O'Donnell stayed in line.

"I just backed myself and stayed and obviously it worked out okay," he said, admitting that few could have foreseen Denis Leamy, Alan Quinlan and David Wallace slowly succumbing to injury.

He has had to back himself again, albeit the IRFU's faith in their product was vital; it's not the easiest thing to sign cheques when the product is sitting on the shelf.

"I was very confident that I'd be back playing soon enough," he says. "Munster saw that and we were happy with the review we came to."

Everything keeps moving, even the now never stands still. Two years ago, O'Donnell should have been the breakthrough star Jordi Murphy became.

Now O'Donnell is in an Ireland squad ahead of Murphy, who started the World Cup quarter-final.

Last February, he started the Six Nations in Rome when Sean O'Brien was dramatically scratched before the off; O'Donnell raced home late on for a giddy gallop. But the stand-in would stand aside.

"You just learn to deal with it. I have learned that. It is all about your mental resilience, your resolve. Just because you played well and were not selected does not count against you. That performance was banked. If you have played well, you just need to go out there and do it again."

He's happy merely to have the chance to show his form but, barely a month into his comeback with Munster, who have shown precious little of it, he appreciates that his opportunity may have to wait.

"I need some form," he agrees. "That's the thing, I have built well over the last couple of weeks and I just need to take that onto it wherever I am selected or whatever opportunity comes or whatever role I have.

"If I have a job to do, it is important I do that to the best of my ability. It stood me well the way I have prepared in the last couple of games, the way I have gone into different camps with Ireland. That is the way I have approached it and it has stood me well."

He could think to the end of the championship, when there will be fatigue and injury to others which might give him a chance. Little use, though, in thinking you might be ready for the end if the race if you're not ready for the start.

"I don't want to get too far ahead in thinking because I'm only a couple of weeks back from injury and I think I need to focus on myself as well," he re-affirms, from experience.

"It happened me before I came back, had a couple of games and all of a sudden you're sliding off because you stopped focusing on those little details.

"At the moment I think I'm just wholly focused on week to week and being better, focusing on techniques.

"There are lots of things for us to be working on to be good at, whether it's rucks or tackling, and we need to be the best across all of those in the Six Nations if we're to retain it."

Tommy O'Donnell was speaking as Ulster Bank announced the extension of their partnership with the IRFU. Ulster Bank will be the title sponsors of the All-Ireland League until 2018 as well as Official Community Rugby Partner to the IRFU, which also includes the Club International.

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