Wednesday 18 September 2019

'Will I have to tell my son to get as big as possible?' - Donncha O’Callaghan issues stark warning on concussion

Donncha O'Callaghan. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE
Donncha O'Callaghan. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Such is the rarity with which you hear current players speak openly and honestly about concussion and its dangers, Donncha O'Callaghan doing so on national radio last week felt hugely important.

Perhaps it is because the veteran lock is nearing the end of his career that he is happy to discuss what continues to be a serious issue or rather it is more likely that O'Callaghan is doing so because he wants to ensure that the sport is in a good and safe place when he soon retires.

Starting his professional career with Munster in 1998, it's fair to say that the Cork native has seen and indeed been involved in plenty of changes in rugby but the way it is currently going has him concerned.

O'Callaghan suggested last week that two concussions a week are being suffered in an average training week alone because of the size and power of players nowadays.

It's a staggering revelation, especially when you consider that doesn't factor in the intensity of a match-day and the inevitable bumps and bruises that come with that.


Despite the fact that O'Callaghan threatened to open a pandora's box by admitting that concussion was as prevalent in training as it is at weekends, it is a discussion that he knows must be had.

"They are, they are," he says when asked if players are too afraid to talk about concussion.

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"Honestly, body-wise I feel great. But the game is changing. Everyone is talking about it this season but over the last three years, the physicality has gone through the roof.

"You just look at the athletes, you look at the game, the rule changes, the physicality. You have to look at everything within the game. For me, it's just looking at all of them as opposed to one or two elements.

"Look, that's the reason I'm playing this weekend. If Darren Barry was available, I wouldn't have been selected. But he took a bang on the head and that's what's happening in the game nowadays.

"The big ones for me last weekend were; you look at Robbie Henshaw and Leigh Halfpenny, their tackle technique is perfect but they are still being run over by these big men.

"I've been to Ireland matches and you just see the skill of the game. Even as a dad, as Jake's father, I think, 'Am I putting my kid into this game?'

"It's beautiful to watch a fella playing a skill game and learning skills as opposed to... what do I tell Jake now? 'Get as big as you possibly can and run over each other?'

"I'll tell him, if he's a forward, he's not playing ball! But I don't think there's any fear of that with three sisters."

The end point is now very much in sight as O'Callaghan prepares for life after rugby and he wants to do so while still being able to carry out the daily, mundane tasks.

The 38-year-old has seen plenty of team-mates suffer because of the sport and for all of the special moments that rugby has given him, he is mindful of what comes next.

"I suppose you look at my own crew and guys like Denis Leamy who is after getting a hip op.

"We have four small kids and I want to be able to run around with them and have fun. I don't want to be the fella that's stuck in goal in a game of five-a-side. I want to finish the game fit, healthy and well able to be active.

"Jenny (his wife) said to me the other day, 'Six more months and you're done Donners.' I'll be honest, I got a little panic attack.

"I'd like to stay involved some way and I have a few options. I think you learn from the guys who have stepped out of the game, how they do it.

"I've got so much out of the game and I love it so much that it would be wrong for me to step away but I want it to be in a giving back capacity.

"I've been spoilt by the game, I really have. It's shaped me and if I can pass that on, then great."

The last two years with Worcester have offered O'Callaghan a different kind of challenge. Long gone are the days when he was competing for top honours with Munster; instead now he finds himself trying to help keep his team in the Premiership.

That said, now club captain at Worcester, O'Callaghan is thriving in his new role both on and off the pitch.

"Younger guys are sponges," he enthuses.

"They just want to get better and do well. Unfortunately for us, you can't protect them within the environment like other teams who have massive foreign talent around them.

"We need them to be top-end players straight away and that's a massive ask. But I think you'll get a maturity out of them way sooner."

It seems almost inevitable that O'Callaghan will end up in rugby after he retires. He hasn't decided yet if he will turn to coaching but speak to anyone within Worcester and they will tell you how well he is working with the younger players in the squad.

"I don't know, if you asked me right now, I would say I would run a million miles from it (coaching)," he admits.

"You don't know the work that goes in on that end of it. It's not that I'm shy of work but I just feel that it's massively unthanked. I think sometimes we look at every foreign coach at home before we look at our own.

"There is incredible talent under our roof. I think to credit Leinster, I think they have got the model absolutely right. With Leo (Cullen) there and supported by Stuart (Lancaster).

"Now you're seeing that happening again throughout the provinces. I think it's really good we have got to get it to the point where we empower our Irish coaches and have them lead the way because they are fantastic.

"I think everyone is learning from the Pat Lams, the Stuart Lancasters and even the Joe Schmidts. We're lucky that the talent and the coaching is through the roof."

On Saturday, O'Callaghan got a chance to play on Irish soil, perhaps for the last time as a professional, and it was an occasion that he relished, despite Connacht emerging victorious.

"It was great, I couldn't believe the welcome (I got), honestly," he adds.

"You'd expect that in Cork and Limerick but up here, it is just really special. It really is.

"It's mad, when you go away, you become massively proud of being Irish and to come home like that is just really special.

"I got my 50th cap. I only found out after it and to have it in Galway, at home, just makes it really special."

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