O'Donnell takes another giant step in a burgeoning career
The most surprising thing about Tommy O’Donnell is he’s all of 25 already and in his fourth season as a professional. Declan Kidney granted him his League debut as far back as September 2007, yet it was last season before he made his Heineken Cup debut and today he starts his second game in the competition. Such is the lot of a talented young Munster backrow when there’s a posse of Lions and internationals ahead of you.
But today, finally, he’s there on merit, though being so naturally humble, he’d be the last on earth to say it himself. He’s also naturally quick and powerful; O’Donnell can play across the backrow; hence 30 of his 55 Munster caps have come from the bench.
He’s tough too, and he also has a good shape at the breakdown, somehow making him look smaller than his 6ft 1in frame, and given Irish rugby doesn’t produce a conveyor belt of genuine opensides, you’d have thought there would be a case for developing him further there.
Alas, ala fellow backrowers Rhys Ruddock and Dominic Ryan at Leinster, O’Donnell should have played more rugby, and is perhaps another case of how Connacht might have been utilised more beneficially.
The backrow in that Heineken Cup-winning season was Alan Quinlan, David Wallace and Denis Leamy, and along with James Coughlan cementing the number eight slot, Niall Ronan and latterly Peter O’Mahony and Paddy Butler have intensified the competition amongst the loose forwards.
“There was a queue of Lions in the backrow. I was tempted a couple of times to leave. There were offers from Connacht and Eric Elwood,” he admitted during the week, an offer made all the more attractive by having played under Elwood in the Irish under-20 Grand Slam-winning side of ’07.
“That’s probably one of the highlights of my career until now. That was when I got to see Eric as a great coach, a great motivators of players. You can see the players who have gravitated to him at Connacht. They know what he’s like and they know that when you’re playing well he’ll give you a chance.
“I was close to going but something just said stick it out,” he explained. “I’m not saying what will happen in the future but I just thought that, ‘I’m good enough to play here’, and I should really give this a chance and fight it out and luckily as things fell last year I got a chance. I’m not thankful for the injuries to the lads ahead of me but once you get a chance you have to take it.”
Therein lies the rub. O’Donnell would probably have more rugby under his belt now but, almost uniquely in Irish rugby, and inspired by their boyhood heroes, it is the bond between the bulk of indigenous squads and their native provinces which contributes to them punching above their weight collectively.
Quinlan, having travelled the same route through Clanwilliam and the Irish Youths into the Munster set-up, was a particularly inspiring figure. He even offered O’Donnell a pair of boots but O’Donnell declined the offer, as they weren’t the same size. “He won titles with the club and he still helps out with the club; always goes back, and helps out with lineouts and stuff, and the Quinlans are very much a big name in Clanwilliam.”