Jack O’Donoghue growing more comfortable with Munster leadership role

Backrow says side must put missed opportunities behind them in second leg with Exeter

When Munster trailed 10-0 at half-time and still faced another seven minutes reduced to 14 players at the start of the second half of their Round of 16 first leg against Exeter at Sandy Park, their hopes of keeping their Heineken Champions Cup tie competitive for next Saturday's second leg at Thomond Park (kick-off 3pm) did not look promising.

Hence, to leave the south coast of England with a 13-8 deficit was a relatively positive outcome, albeit as the days have past Jack O’Donoghue admits to still having “mixed emotions”.

“I’m incredibly proud of the lads about the fight they brought, and to be able to dig in and keep Exeter out at the end, but frustrated with the opportunities that we left out on the field and we didn’t start the way we wanted to.

“But, on review, we know exactly what we have to do and we’re going out there on Saturday and it’s knock-out rugby for us now, and we are going to give it our best.”


This is set up for another Anglo-Irish, epic, Thomond Park European occasion with a quarter-final place at stake.

“It’s going to be a massive occasion. Just thinking about it, you get that buzz, you are going to feel the crowd, but we can’t let that get the better of us. We have to stay on task. We have to know exactly what we have to do and we have to stay calm and stay composed, so that when the whistle goes we really go after them from the start.”

Last Saturday was a proud day in O’Donoghue’s career. The 28-year-old Waterpark product captained Munster in the Champions Cup for the first time and an abiding memory was the way the Red Army inspired the team.

“The way Munster fans travel to games and the lift they give you during a game is incredible. For me it’s just a stepping stone in where I want to go in my career and challenge myself from a leadership point of view.

“I stepped up when Pete [O’Mahony] was away and then having to step in when Pete was withdrawn last weekend. It’s almost become second nature to me at this stage and it’s important that it doesn’t take away from my own game, that I can just step into that role naturally when needed.”

For a spell toward the end of last Saturday's game, until Jason Jenkins replaced John Hodnett, O'Donoghue had virtually become one of the team's veterans, packing down behind locks aged 24 and 22, alongside two 23-year-old backrowers and with two 22-year-old halfbacks behind him.

“I’m not that old,” he stresses good-naturedly, before adding: “It’s really exciting because the energy those younger lads give you when you’re on the field and the skill set that they have, it’s so enjoyable to play alongside them.”

He talks of feeding off their energy and leading by example as much as through word. Last Saturday, O’Donoghue’s 10 carries were only exceeded by Chris Farrell and his 13 tackles only bettered by Jeremy Loughman, while he also contributed to three alert turnovers.

Indeed, not the least impressive aspect of the way Munster dug deep in time-honoured fashion – and not for the first time this season – is that they did so despite missing seven or eight frontline players, with a stomach bug in the squad adding to the disruption.

Perhaps the added responsibility of leadership has contributed to this being O'Donoghue's best season so far. He has already played in 18 of Munster's 20 games, starting all but two of them, and before being rested for the Leinster game had started nine-in-a-row – playing the full 80 in the last eight of them. His eight tries have already comfortably exceeded his previous seasonal high of three, making him Munster's second highest try scorer this season behind Simon Zebo on nine.

O'Donoghue attributes his form to fine-tuning aspects of his game during the pre-season, which were as much mental as physical, and the product of working with Munster's sports psychologist Caroline Currid.

“Caroline coming in is a massive help to talk about the mental side of the game and when things are maybe going badly in a game and how you can swing that around to a positive.

“It is a huge part of the game now at the moment, that mental side of the game and it’s something that probably I hadn’t really tapped into much. As I look back on my career, it’s certainly something that I think is very beneficial to younger players coming through, because you see yourself on a nice steady rise, and then maybe you might plateau at a certain stage in your career.

“For me, that could have been my injury,” he says, when his career was cruelly stalled by the anterior and medial cruciate ligament injuries he sustained in the 2018 Pro14 semi-final against Leinster. “Then trying to kick on again and reach the heights that maybe you had before your injury and it’s something that I probably hadn’t tapped into, until the pre-season just got gone.”

Whatever he's done, it's clearly worked and O'Donoghue must be in contention for Ireland's proposed five-game tour to New Zealand in July.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times