Saturday 24 March 2018

Tommy O’Donnell: Lying on the turf in Cardiff I didn’t think the Six Nations was possible

Declan Whooley

Declan Whooley

Ireland and Wales clash for the 124th time this weekend, but one player, the game has even greater significance than most.

Eight months ago Tommy O’Donnell lay stricken on the Millennium Stadium as a dislocated hip suffered against Wales not only ruled out his participation in the World Cup, but threatened to derail his international career that was only in its infancy.

This Sunday the Cahir native will face the same opposition at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday as Joe Schmidt plots a third successive championship crown and will take his place in a new-look back row beside debutant CJ Stander and the evergreen Jamie Heaslip.

Did the player himself, even in his wildest dreams, think he would be fit for the Six Nations opener?

“I didn’t think it was possible at all,” he admitted.

“When they [medical staff] first gave me a date, it was middle of March, April before I’d be back on the pitch. You put Six Nations out of your mind.

It was just about getting back and playing. That stood to me as I came back at a good enough level that I was able to put my hand up for selection and that’s the way the cards are after falling that I’m able to start.

The 11th international cap of his career has kept him going during his rehabilitation. The long days away from the pitch – he admits the Munster Strength & Conditioning staff have become his “best friends” – have helped put perspective on life as an international player.

“It does give you is a sense of how hard international caps are to come by. Some players are lucky enough to get a run of games. I obviously have been unlucky in that regard, probably a bit late to the table

“It makes you savour these caps and relish them. When I was lying on the turf in the Millennium Stadium I didn’t think this was possible. When I walk into the dressing room and see my jersey there it will make it even sweeter.”

The presence of his provincial team-mate and one of the in-form players in Irish rugby in Stander is an added bonus and the Tipperary man says he is beginning to settle in the new surroundings.

“I think he deserves it after the two seasons he’s had. He’s definitely been on form and well able to shoulder the burden as he’s proven this season.

“He’s starting to get to grips with it. When you come in first as a new player, lots of new calls and lots of new plays, he’s ready to go at the weekend.”

Warren Gatland’s decision to leave the chop-tackle king Dan Lydiate on the bench has sparked greater debate over the battle of the back-row. The trio of Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Toby

Faletau, which was given more gametime at the World Cup, has some observers tipping an away victory given their prowess at the breakdown.

The inclusion of two fetchers in Warburton and Tipuric will provide their opposite Irish numbers with food for thought, but O’Donnell believes it will be a collective, rather than individual effort which will be decisive.

“It’s very hard to individually match-up with the way the game has gone, with move sand the way the game flows,” he argues.

“It’s very hard to match-up against one player, especially with a backrow of that quality. They are very physical and very quick to get on the ball. I expect to see all three of them at some stage and get to know them well enough over the 80 minutes.”

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