Tomás O'Leary: Home is where the heart is
Tomás O'Leary talks to Cian Tracey about donning the Munster red again at Thomond and Irish Independent Park, and his ambition to play for Ireland again
Three years ago, Tomás O'Leary packed his bags and decided it was time for a fresh challenge. A run of injuries coupled with the emergence of Conor Murray resulted in the scrum-half rejecting a new contract at Munster.
A proposed move to France collapsed when negotiations with Perpignan broke down but when London Irish came calling with a three-year offer, O'Leary was determined to make the most of his time in the English capital.
However, earlier this year, he agreed a move back to Munster ahead of next season and O'Leary - son of former Cork hurler Seanie and a double All-Ireland winning minor star himself before committing to rugby - is relishing the opportunity of pulling on the famous red jersey again. And that isn't the only jersey that he is eyeing a return to.
The Cork native, first-choice No 9 in the Grand Slam campaign of 2009, won the last of his 24 Ireland caps when he came off the bench at Twickenham against England in 2012, but he is adamant that he still has plenty to offer Joe Schmidt and the national squad .
World Cup commitments mean that Murray will miss the beginning of next season for Munster - during which time O'Leary (31) is expected to be first choice - and he knows that he must take his opportunity in that window.
"Murray will obviously be away at the World Cup and if you look at all of the big French and English teams, they have cover in every position," O'Leary says.
"I need to be playing regularly but when you look at Bossy (Isaac Boss) and Redser (Eoin Reddan), they have won plenty of international caps in their 30s so hopefully I can sneak back in there."
O'Leary's time with London Irish hasn't all been plain sailing on the pitch, but off it, he has loved every minute.
"It's been a great experience for almost three years now. I've learned a lot and socially, it's been good to go outside of your comfort zones," he says.
"Rugby-wise, I suppose it hasn't really worked out. We've struggled a bit as a team but there's a great bunch of lads here and morale has always been good among the players.
"I guess the change in coaches hasn't helped much but the new board came in last year and want to run the club their way. The recruitment process has been ongoing and there has been a bit of a shake-up but I do believe that the club is headed in the right direction."
O'Leary describes the whole experience as "a highlight. I'm living in Richmond, which is a really nice spot and I've made some really great friends here," he adds.
The lifestyle in London compared to Cork is dramatically different and although he has enjoyed the anonymity that comes with being a small fish in a big pond, the electrifying atmosphere on a match day in Ireland isn't something that can be easily replaced.
As soon as O'Leary returns home, he knows that the passion of the fans will be on a different scale to what he has experienced with the Exiles at Reading FC's Madejski Stadium over the last three years, but he is prepared for that and is ready to thrive under the pressure a packed ground brings.
"When you're a rugby player over here, no one really knows you which is refreshing. You can go abut your business a bit more," he says.
"If you want to go out for coffee or go shopping, you don't have people coming up to you asking about last week's game or the next one. But in saying that, I have really missed the buzz of playing a big game back home. That's been the main thing that I've missed since leaving.
"The intensity of the support in Munster translates onto the players and when you're away from that, it really brings it all back home."
O'Leary is very much his own person; he takes everything as it comes. Returning to Munster was never part of some grand plan that he formulated years ago, but as soon as Anthony Foley came calling, it was an easy decision to make.
After injury (broken ankle) cruelly robbed him of his place on the 2009 Lions tour to South Africa, he is enjoying a new lease of life, and he has further intentions than just the two-year contract he has signed with Munster.
"There was no set plan of action when I left Munster. I wanted a fresh challenge and I was open-minded about what that was," he reflects on his decision to leave three years ago.
"I was a bit anxious to move on again at the end of my current contract with London Irish and when Munster said they were interested in having me back, it was a no-brainer really because I really miss the buzz of the big European games.
"I definitely won't be retiring in two years' time. It's a case of seeing how it all works out and that will depend on my form. I don't think I've changed that much as a player. My skill-set is still the same but I'm more experienced now so maybe in that sense I have (changed).
"I have a few more years left in me so I need to keep my head down and work hard."
O'Leary has made 42 appearances for London Irish but this season hasn't gone all that well. The club is languishing near the bottom of the Premiership - though safe from relegation - and they are out of the European Challenge Cup.
Meanwhile, another home-grown talent in JJ Hanrahan will follow O'Leary's footsteps in seeking pastures new in England, and despite the massive discontent from the Munster supporters about the Kerryman's move, O'Leary doesn't necessarily see it as a negative.
"It's definitely very disappointing to see JJ leave Munster but he wants to play at out-half and he sees himself having a better chance to do that in Northampton," O'Leary says.
"They're an excellent club and you only have to look at the likes of Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings to see how well they did from playing in England with Leicester.
"Hopefully he can get the game-time, develop as a player and then come back to Munster. I think that would mean that the choice he made was a positive one."
O'Leary has been out of his comfort zone for three years now and a lot has changed back home since he left. A new coaching ticket at Munster includes former team-mates of his, and on the back of the recent announcement that the province have signed All Black centre Francis Saili, O'Leary firmly believes that they are destined for the top.
"When you leave a club, I think you naturally separate yourself from it but I've always watched the big games on TV over here," he says.
"As soon as I knew I'd be coming back, I've kept a close eye on the Guinness Pro12 as well. They've been impressive in the league and are looking good for a play-off spot.
"I think the signing of Saili reflects the stature of the club. It's a massive statement of intent, being able to sign a player of his calibre.
"I was coached by Axel (Foley) before I left so I know what he expects of you. I've been chatting to some of the lads and they've said that the new coaches have slotted in seamlessly.
"It's exciting to be able to work with lads like Fla (Jerry Flannery) and Micko (Mick O'Driscoll) who I would have played with. There's a very good squad forming at Munster and I'm looking forward to being a part of that."
The set-up at Munster may have changed but O'Leary hasn't, and he remains as ambitious as ever to succeed. Munster's scrum-half options have been limited when Murray has been unavailable, so O'Leary's experience will be invaluable.
He's taken a slight diversion along the way but it's a case of home is where the heart is for the two-time European Cup winner.
As soon as Anthony Foley came calling, it was an easy decision for O'Leary to make