No more Mr Nice Guy as Tommy O’Donnell sets out to prove a point
Appetite whetted by his first Irish caps backrower is hungry for success
Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell was disappointed to lose his place on the Irish bench after the Wales Six Nations match. photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Tommy O’Donnell has changed in the last year or so. The first thing that strikes you is that he has bulked up, particularly around his shoulders, after using 10 enforced weeks out from the game this season to add a few kilos, mostly to keep sane as he puts it. And having been given a first few tastes of playing for Ireland, there’s a new-found hunger that is palpable.
Until a year or so ago, one former Munster player wondered if O’Donnell was a little too nice for his own good. Innately pleasant and polite, it would always be stretching things to say “No More Mr Nice Guy”, but after winning his first couple of caps on the summer tour, and then sampling the Six Nations on home soil off the bench against Scotland and Wales, like so many others forced to watch on the outside, O’Donnell is desperate for more like never before. He now believes there’s more silverware in this Munster squad, and more international games in him.
Of all the Munster hard-luck stories during the Six Nations, O’Donnell’s is probably the unluckiest. He didn’t appear to do too much wrong in his 13- and 16-minute cameos against Scotland and Wales, but the meticulously demanding Joe Schmidt raised some defensive issues with him after the latter game.
Thereafter, although O’Donnell has also played across the back row and Jordi Murphy has similarly been focusing more on open side this season, he missed out to the latter for the remainder of the tournament.
There’s no point in beating about the bush. That must have hurt bad.
“I thought it went pretty well,” says O’Donnell of the Welsh game. “I didn’t really see it coming and I would be lying to say I wasn’t disappointed. I really didn’t think I had played that badly, but obviously Joe decided he wanted to freshen up the bench and John (Plumtree) felt that Jordi could offer something, so you have to respect that. John gave me a couple of things to work on, so that’s what you have to do, go away and work on them.”
“Joe decided that’s the way he wanted to go and at the end of the day he’s the coach, he decides. You can’t let it eat away at you. You have to move on and clear your head because that’s what he’s looking for as well.
“He’s looking for players that can do that, that come in and out of the squad and that take the good with the bad. That’s what makes a good rugby player, like you don’t dwell on the past.”
On the plus side, he knows there’s plenty of rugby left in the season, hopefully another three months, with Munster competing at the sharp end of two competitions.
That he’ll then be 27 by the time the tour to Argentina comes along increases his impatience, and today is a big game for him and a few others to showcase their ability to the watchingIrish brains trust.
“If you want to make an Irish team, you show what you’re worth against Irish players, against your significant others, the guys you’re competing against. I suppose it really is the equivalent of the old Possibles versus Probables, isn’t it?”
He wouldn’t go as far as his coach to effectively put Munster in the Possibles category, but the billing has a ring to it.
It’s also a hugely important league game in its own right. “I think it’s really starting to occur or dawn on teams how important finishing in first place is. It’s not taken for granted that you’re going to win your semi-final, but getting a home final is huge.”
His frustration over how this season panned out is probably accentuated by his rapid progression last season. While he has been knocking around the Munster squad for seven seasons (in 2008-2009 and 2009- 2010 he made four appearances off the bench) as a utility back-rower who admitted to considering a move to Connacht at one point, he does have 76 provincial caps to his name.
But last season was a breakthrough, establishing himself as the Munster openside with good breakdown and continuity skills, but with the X-factor of real pace in open play.
“I can’t put my finger on what I did right, just what exactly went right and kept going right,” he admits disarmingly.
“Sometimes that happens for you, it just kind of flows. I was really looking to keep it rolling this year but injury and stuff stopped it. But I think I’m back. In the Gloucester game and the Ireland A game I thought I played very well and Edinburgh as well. They were big, high-intensity games so I just want to keep that going.”
Last season culminated in him being the Munster Player of the Year and making his Irish debut as a sub against the USA, before a try-scoring full debut in the win over Canada. Accustomed to being a regular starter for Munster, O’Donnell actually admits to being “a small bit disappointed” when only handed the number 20 jersey for his Irish debut, although that said he still has it and always will.
“No I won’t be giving that away! I don’t think you should give away your first jersey, no.”
He has a decent strike rate for a back-rower with Munster (10 tries in those 76 games, of which 43 have been starts) and he’s not going to lie, he enjoyed his first Irish meat pie in his sole start to date.
“The ball was off nine, it bounced behind me, so the game kind of stopped, and when I picked it up it just happened. I got a soft shoulder on the way and I went from 30 yards. You could see the try line, no winger coming across and like ‘okay I’ll just go for the posts’.”
“It was a great way to cap off the year,” he adds. “It’s amazing how a season can change, because I was really struggling to make it for the Munster side and then all of a sudden, bumph, and you didn’t look back.”
Penney’s Canterburyesque wide-wide game has had more than its fair share of critics, but O’Donnell for one has benefitted. “I really liked the way we were playing. It allowed you to get the ball in space and allowed you to really hit the ball. A couple of moves we had really suited me last year.”
He summered well in America and Nice, began pre-season on July 20th with renewed enthusiasm, but a week after his return off the bench at home to Edinburgh, did his knee in his first seasonal start away to Zebre. “It was pretty innocuous. I carried off nine and your man just went low on my knee, my foot stuck in the ground and my knee went backwards. Just like that.”
When Sean O’Brien’s shoulder went in the Leinster-Ulster game on December 29th, it suddenly created what seemed a footrush between O’Donnell and Chris Henry for the Irish number seven jersey in the Six Nations.
O’Donnell had just returned from a three-month absence with an eye-catching cameo off the bench away to Perpignan, manufacturing that stunning offload inside to JJ Hanrahan while being tackled into touch for the latter’s match-winning try.
He would put together five increasingly effective starts but Henry, more accustomed to Schmidt’s methods despite a curtailed November when O’Donnell was sidelined, also returned for the Ulster-Munster game after the turn of the year and played superbly in their wins over Montpellier and Leicester.
O’Donnell didn’t see the England game, as Munster were in transit that evening, but admits he leapt out of his armchair when Henry executed the choke tackle with the last play in Paris. “I don’t think he made a mistake through the Six Nations and that’s what Joe is looking for. He’s looking for players that will do the job, and not give away penalties and just be a nuisance. That’s what he (Schmidt) was looking for and that’s exactly what he (Henry) did.”
His mum, Mary, and two of his aunts, Anne and Patricia, travelled out to Houston, but couldn’t stay for the Toronto game. His first home games were a different matter, all the more so as they were in the Six Nations. Mary, his dad Tom, girlfriend Elisse O’Grady, brother Ciarán (his other brothers, Gearóid and John couldn’t make it) were among the full allotment of 12 tickets he eagerly procured for those games.
“You don’t realise how big the Six Nations is until you leave the Shelbourne Hotel and there are crowds of people there all the way along into the stadium. And the national anthem is fantastic, it really is.
“I think I did well emotions- wise because I was subbing. You didn’t get caught up too much in it so I really got to stand there and enjoy the Six Nations and enjoy being on the field.”
Hence, this will be his first start at the Aviva. O’Donnell has been on the losing side in his two previous appearances against Leinster, both at Thomond Park – as a replacement two years ago and starting last season – which makes this, as he puts it, another carrot.
“It’s a team battle at the end of the day. You use your selection or whatever to motivate you but don’t make it individual. You have to beat Leinster as a whole, 15 versus 15. I’ll have my assignments to do when I go out there and try hitting 100 per cent, and that’s all you can do. Everything you do, do it to the best of your ability.”
“They just know how to win games. They’ve got good quality. They’ve got good players. They’ve a lot of players after tasting international rugby so it’s a real challenge for us. But I don’t think we should fear them. I think we should really look forward to it, and to playing top-quality rugby on a great pitch in a great stadium.”
For O’Donnell and everyone else this evening, it’s perfectly pitched alright.