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.”
It was only when O’Donnell joined the Munster academy in 2005 that he began to think he could follow the same path. There being no rugby in the family tree, and coming from Cahir, hurling and Gaelic football were very much O’Donnell’s first sports, and rugby only came about when several of his class in Coláiste Dún Iascaigh were invited up to Clanwilliam when he was 14 by the club’s youth development officer, Robbie Campbell, at the behest of the Munster regional development officer John Lacey.
“I would have played hurling and football and had no interest in rugby, really. I saw it on television, I suppose. Munster were getting big at the time so I decided, ‘look, I’ll give it a crack’.”
That first training session still makes him laugh. “Paddy Callaghan was the coach and he was a huge man and he told me to pop him the ball. I spun it hard into his chest and he looked at me and glowered: ‘Do you know what a pop is?’ And I went, ‘I haven’t a clue what a pop is!’ So at under-16 I said I wanted to play in the forwards and that’s how it ended up.”
His father Tom, a butcher in Cahir, and his mother Mary, whom he enthusiastically talks about her gradual understanding of the game’s laws, have become devoted fans. The second eldest of four, so too his brothers Gearóid, John and Ciarán.
Quinlan readily recalls first laying eyes on O’Donnell, and the power and speed which first had him used on the wing and then made him the team’s primary carrier across the back-row. O’Donnell’s interest in rugby was accentuated by the Saturday tea-time slot which Munster regularly filled back in the days when it was on RTÉ.
“Munster were getting so big and the Six Nations as well and I was just sitting in front of the TV, and you’re on the edge of your seat. I loved when George Hook put Munster or Ireland down because then you felt they actually could win, you know. He’s a great pundit but he’s a habit of going the wrong way,” he noted with a smile.
O’Donnell was spotted by Munster youths coach Tom Mulcahy, who also developed JJ Hanrahan, Dave Foley and Paddy Butler, at a trial playing for East Munster Youths, and Mulcahy subsequently put him forward for the Irish Youths. Those games, away to Scotland and Italy, with Seán O’Brien amongst his team-mates, were also a platform into the Munster Academy.
He studied sports science at UL Bohemians, and after a year as a dual status player there and with Clanwilliam, furthered his rugby education in the hard school of the Ulster Bank League. “Bohs aren’t afraid to put young players in, and I just got exposure as well. Once you realised it wasn’t that much of a step up to AIL it gave you more belief in yourself.”
By his own admission he needed it too. According to Quinlan, “his game sense has improved with more game time, and he reads the game better now. When he first came into the squad he was trying to do everything”.
“Yeah, that is fair,” admitted O’Donnell and recalls that first Munster cap against the Scarlets in ’07. “I remember not knowing what was going on and thinking ‘is every game like this?’
“I have just played 20 minutes and I’m flagged because I was hitting every ruck, and I suppose you find that with AIL. And as it goes up the levels you’ve got your jobs and you’ve got your roles and you fit into your defensive systems or you fit into your attacking systems and once you know those it’s a lot easier to play and you read the game better. You can see things happening. But if you’re dashing around like a madman things will pass you by.”
Last season constituted a breakthrough of sorts. “There were times when you get frustrated and I suppose you do lose confidence a small bit when you’re waiting for so long, but I got a couple of good games last year and deep down you know you can still play rugby. Something got you there, to this point in the first place. I didn’t carry as much ball as I have this year, just the way the game plan has changed and I’m getting a bit of ball in space and scoring tries as well, which helps.”
Far from complaining about his versatility, he expresses no preference for one position in the backrow himself. “Actually, I don’t know which one I prefer at the moment,” he said after pausing for thought, “because each one of them is so different. Seven you’re doing work, and six is more ball-carrying. That’s fantastic, lineouts and ball carrying, it’s very set-piece and defence. It’s a key defensive one as well and then number eight is a great one for ball-carrying as well.”
For the time being, he’s happy to continue looking, listening, learning and playing, with ex-backrowers as coaches in Rob Penney and Anthony Foley, and the standard-bearers who have moved on, such as Jerry Flannery and David Wallace.
“Fla’s work ethic last year and Wally’s work ethic when they were injured was phenomenal,” he admitted, with genuine awe.
Tomorrow is a significant game in his career. He knows he has 50 caps, but not many in the Heineken Cup, and establishing himself as a Heineken Cup player is his next target. But having had to be patient, O’Donnell is also modest.
“I haven’t established myself as a Munster player yet and I still have to prove a lot, to a lot of the Munster fan base and to the coaches, to just continuously bring that out and that’s where being professional is. That’s what you have to do week in and week out and that’s what makes these great players great.”