London providing a new lease of life for one of Munster's favourite sons

INTERVIEW: TOMÁS O'LEARY The London-Irish scrumhalf is enjoying the hectic challenge of life in the Premiership

INTERVIEW: TOMÁS O'LEARYThe London-Irish scrumhalf is enjoying the hectic challenge of life in the Premiership

Tomás O’Leary is reinventing himself at London Irish alright. He turned 29 on Monday and, as a birthday treat, his agent, Niall Woods, somehow obtained two tickets to the premiere of the Bond movie Skyfall; a 50th anniversary of a British institution at the Royal Albert Hall no less.

The boy’s doing good.

“I managed to get two tickets through “Crow” to the Bond Premiere in the Royal Albert Hall. That was pretty cool, that was pretty slick. Like, you wouldn’t be doing that in Cork!” O’Leary went with his girlfriend Julie. “She’s obsessed with Bond. It was an awesome experience. We didn’t chat to any of the stars or anything, but it was pretty surreal strolling past Daniel Craig and the rest of the cast on the red carpet. Cool show too.”


All of which adds to the feel- good factor of his new life in London, or Richmond to be exact where O’Leary has an apartment.

“It wasn’t exactly a hard transition,” he says with a chuckle. “Coming into the summer here was nice and chilling out in Richmond is pretty easy. It’s exactly what I needed like. I’m glad I did it.”

London Irish, who host the champions Harlequins in the televised match tomorrow afternoon, have had three pre-season friendlies, six Aviva Premiership games and couple of wins in the Amlin Challenge Cup, and O’Leary has started all of them, “It’s been a hell of a long time since I’ve done that, probably back to school days or whatever because with Munster and the competition and then player/management schemes, you just don’t do that. It’s just what I needed to just get back playing rugby and forget about all the other side of things.

“It’s freshened me up big time and I’m starting to enjoy my rugby again which for the last year and a half, or two, I wasn’t enjoying the game. It became more of a chore and the harder I tried, the more of a hole I dug for myself. It’s totally refreshing and I’m just happier again.”

The ways his career turned in the last couple of years you wonder did he kick a black cat, and while under a ladder for that matter. Having been a central figure in a Heineken Cup triumph and a Grand Slam in 2008 and ’09, O’Leary was picked for the Lions tour of South Africa. Three days later he suffered a broken ankle in a Munster-Scarlets League game as Musgrave Park.

Ever since, whatever could go wrong did go wrong. The following season a broken thumb and a persistent back problem were compounded by a freakish accident in training with the Irish squad which resulted in a nasty, complicated eye injury.

There was also the emergence of Conor Murray, at first with Munster and then with Ireland, as O’Leary lost form and missed out on the World Cup. “The injuries don’t help and my form wasn’t great. With the injuries, with the limited game times, you automatically try harder with the chances you get and probably put a bit more pressure on yourself than you need to. Maybe it was just me trying to force it.

“I think over here I’ve been a lot more relaxed away from a little goldfish bowl back in Ireland. In Cork everyone knows you. Ireland is a small country in which rugby has become huge, and everything associated with that. Everyone has their viewpoint, the fans, me, your mates, your family, you’re constantly surrounded by rugby.

“It’s grand when it’s going well for you but when it’s not going well you can’t escape from it. Especially in the build up to the World Cup I did feel there was, I wouldn’t say an outcry, but the public didn’t want me playing for Ireland and that’s hard to deal with too. So I just wasn’t enjoying my rugby. I’d had a brilliant few years with Munster winning Heineken Cups and brilliant years with Ireland with the Grand Slam but it just got to the stage where I just wasn’t enjoying my rugby.”

Missing out and having to watch the World Cup was even harder to take than the injury which robbed him of his Lions’ spot. “An injury is out of your control to an extent, but you only have yourself to blame for your own form. You can have a cut off the coach or the management, and say ‘they should have picked me’ but essentially it was down to my form. To be fair they probably had the right to drop me, but I still think to this day Ireland would have been better off in the World Cup with having the option of me even if I hadn’t played well in those two games. But I definitely have no qualms with them not picking me because it was probably fair enough in the end but it was pretty soul destroying at that stage.”

Having rejected a new Munster deal, his proposed move to Perpignan hit a few snags, whereupon London Irish showed a keen interest. “It was great to feel wanted by a club again,” he recalls, not least when he met Brian Smith in London the day after Ireland were beaten 30-9 by England and O’Leary had a less than distinguished final half-hour off the bench in the most recent of his 24 caps. “He was really positive and he was mad to get me over to London Irish which was a great shot of confidence for me. After that I really had no interest in pursuing the Perpignan thing anymore. I was happy that this was the club for me.”

As for those rumours about his eye? “It’s not as good as it was but it’s grand like. I’ve no problems with it. My back is grand. I have to continually stay on top of my rehab but I’ve played 11 games in a row and there’s been no problems. I’m more body aware than I was when I was 26/27 . . . .”

He says he would have been “very, very surprised if I had been selected” last Wednesday for the November Tests, admitting that Paul Marshall is now probably ahead of him as well as Eoin Reddan and Conor Murray.

“I’d love to get back playing with Ireland but I think my main priority at the moment is just to continue enjoying my rugby, and keep training hard, keep trying to keep improving, and if further Ireland caps come then brilliant. . . . I have big ambitions to play for Ireland again but if it takes ’till the next Six Nations, if it takes till next summer, if it takes till the year after, then it’s going to take that long. . .”

For a player trying to rebuild his career, being part of a rebuilt squad feels like a good fit. He wants Irish to be challenging for trophies and a three-year deal was a statement of intent by club and player, all the more so as it means O’Leary may not earn his tax rebate if he doesn’t finish his career in Ireland.

“I wouldn’t rule out going back to Ireland if the chance arose but I wouldn’t rule out staying here for the next five or six years either because so far I’m really enjoying it. Having worked with a really talented squad at Munster there’s certainly a lot of lads here that would match that talent, and it’s exciting to be a part of.”

O’Leary believes compared to the Pro 12, the Premiership is more intense week on week, “whereas at home from my point of view, being involved in the international set-up you were rested even sometimes when you didn’t want to be. That’s not any slant on the Rabo,” he adds, nor on the quality of the leading teams, but he admits: “I found it hard to motivate myself for a lot of the Rabo games for the last year or two. Going away to wherever, with 2- 3000 in a 50 or 60,000- seater stadium ain’t exactly exciting. It’s up to you as a professional player to overcome that but I suppose human nature creeps in and the bigger games have bigger crowds and a better buzz, which naturally excites me.”

Being Irish, at London Irish, means additional attention on himself and Ian Humprheys. “There are a lot of Irish people going to the games and there are a lot of second, third generation Irish at the games. “They’re all mad proud about their Irish roots . . . And behind the scenes, there’s a lot of Irish people involved.”

In his first pre-season game at Sunbury, against Nottingham, he was struck by fans approaching him with thick Kerry accents, telling him how glad they were an Irish player had joined the club in the wake of Bob Casey’s retirement. “It was pretty cool to hear that.”

All in all, everything is pretty cool in Tomás O’Leary’s world.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times