Jack O’Donoghue reaches a crossroads of sorts but with a clear plan to push on
Versatile Munster backrow is desperate to add to his two Ireland caps in the coming years
Jack O’Donoghue during Munster’s training session at UL on Friday. Photograph: Inpho
Jack O’Donoghue is in his sixth season on Munster’s first-team squad, and he’s played 118 games, so it’s easy enough to forget he’s still only 26. He confesses he forgets himself, but he’s also impatient. There’s so much still to achieve.
O’Donoghue broke into the Munster academy in 2012, a year after their last trophy when beating Leinster in the Pro 12 grand final at Thomond Park.
“The most frustrating thing is the lack of a medal around my neck,” he freely admits. “That is certainly the most motivating factor for me personally and I’m sure for the lads as well. To get back to being successful with Munster and winning silverware would be incredible.”
The glory days of 2006 and 2008 are ingrained forever, particularly the former. O’Donoghue, then a newly engrossed rugby player, had his communion on the day Munster beat Biarritz to win their first Heineken Cup.
“I begged my mum to skip my communion and begged her to go to the Millennium Stadium – like arguments with her. But no, I had to do the communion.
“I remember the day so well, having a big family party after the communion in our house and sitting down to watch the match. That day stands out as a huge memory.”
O’Donoghue was also a 14-year-old fan in the Ricoh Arena when Munster beat Saracens in the semi-finals in 2008, roaring on as Alan Quinlan scored in front of him. This added more resonance to playing the same opponents in the same ground at the same stage 11 years on, albeit another semi-final defeat has further fuelled those unfulfilled ambitions.
Reflecting on 2006 again, O’Donoghue adds: “I’d say that we could probably relate to the relief those lads felt should we win one. The shackles would be off then and we could properly go out and play.”
In the short-term Munster’s battlegrounds have been drawn and are familiar. Leinster once more, and then Connacht, at the Aviva, with perhaps a semi-final and maybe a final to come. Conceivably, ending that nine-year trophy drought might only be four games away.
Munster haven’t beaten their old rivals in Dublin in six attempts dating back to October 2014 and, at face value, have more to play for than a Leinster side who have already secured a home semi-final.
Both squads returned to training last Monday prior to which O’Donoghue had been confined to his house in Limerick and admits he found the adjustment tough initially.
“It’s made me admire long-distance runners and athletes who do a lot of training on their own. Mentally it’s very tough.”
As good as seeing his team-mates for the first time in three months this week was, so too was returning all the gym equipment. “My girlfriend, Olwen, wasn’t too happy with it taking over the sun room either!”
O’Donoghue also took some inspiration from Peter ‘Green Fingers’ O’Mahony to build a small vegetable garden featuring peas, carrots, courgettes and berries, and an olive tree.
But home, per se, will always be Waterford, where he is a trailblazer as the first man from the Déise to play for Ireland since Ben Cronin in 1997.
By rights, rugby should never have featured in his story. His is an equestrian family, through his mum Caroline and his dad Nelius, and he grew up on a stud farm in Woodstown, about five minutes from Dunmore East, so he enjoyed a healthy balance of countryside and beaches growing up.
His maternal uncle, Francis Connors, was a well-known showjumper and his grandfather, Mick Connors, had an equestrian farm. O’Donoghue competed at showjumping events most weekends until he was 14 and family treks to the RDS for the Horse Show were a ritual.
“As kids we’d be gone at 7am or 8am in the morning and they mightn’t see us until 8pm or 9pm that day. We’d have friends competing in stuff and Francis, without fail, would have a few horses there.”
Naturally, hurling was the main sport at both his schools, St Mary’s in Ballygunner, and De La Salle. “I still love hurling and I’d still love to go back and play a game. I had my eyes on the county minor team but by then I also had my eye on the Munster Under-18s.”
He has an older brother David [now living in Vancouver] and a younger brother Nick, and after David began going to Waterpark to play on their under-12s O’Donoghue soon followed suit.
Waterpark won the Under-17 All-Ireland title in 2010 and O’Donoghue captained them in retaining their Munster title the following year. That gripped him and also helped him into first the Irish Under-18 (club) team and then the Munster academy.
“Down in Waterford you don’t really hear of the Munster academy. Success for us was getting onto the East Munster Cadets and I remember training in Tipp town or Cashel. You’d finish school, and have a bowl of pasta or do your homework in the car, and then train with East Munster. A lot of people from schools’ backgrounds don’t realise the uphill challenge which most club players have.”
On joining Munster’s academy, for all his natural athleticism, he was “a scrawny kid back then” and had ground to make up on his peers.
“They were more skilled and they were also further developed physically. My first weights session was a complete embarrassment. I was putting 40 kilos on the bar and they were warming up on 60.
“I knew I had a long way to come and James Cronin was very good to me. He would have come through a similar route [Ballincollig and South Munster] and he took me under his wing and looked after me. At the same time he gave me a bit of tough love.”
When O’Donoghue and Cronin hear some of their team-mates recall schools cup wins they retort by noting the ex-schoolboys never won a South Munster or East Munster title.
O’Donoghue made rapid strides and in his third season with Munster was named academy player of the year. Along the way he captained the Ireland Under-20s and Anthony Foley made him captain of the Munster As before throwing him into the senior team, a huge fillip given Foley’s stellar career at O’Donoghue’s position of number eight.
“It’s a terrible pity that we didn’t get to work with him for a lot longer but he’ll always be a massive influence on my career, just the tips I used to get off him. I owe him an incredible amount and it’s something I won’t forget.”
He also owes a huge debt to his mum for the years of taxi-ing. “She’d drive me to training in Limerick, wait in the car for two hours, and then drive me home.”
Versatile and durable, as the games mounted (85 in the next three seasons) O’Donoghue made his Test debut in the November 2016 win over Canada and played against Japan the following summer, while becoming the second youngest Munster player to reach 100 caps behind Rory Scannell.
He was Munster’s starting seven when his career was cruelly stalled by anterior and medial cruciate ligament injuries in the 2018 Pro 14 semi-final against Leinster.
“I find it tough to watch sometimes,” he admits, “but I remember lying on the ground and thinking ‘there better be something wrong after screaming like that on the pitch’. But from just one look on the doc’s face I knew it was going to be bad.”
When the news was confirmed, O’Donoghue admits he started crying. It would be a long road back to starting, as he puts it, “from scratch”.
He completed his master’s in business management and made it back in just under nine months, coming on against the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium. He immediately received a restart and had no choice but to charge into contact.
“It couldn’t have been better because [there was] no thinking about it – you’re just straight in the game. I’d been having arguments for weeks with the staff and coaches about coming back sooner but then sitting on the sidelines watching the hits there was that doubt. ‘Am I ready for this?’ But once I crossed the white line I was like a baby foal running around the place. I was just delighted to be back and to put that tough period behind me.”
Johann van Graan also quickly restored O’Donoghue to his starting backrow, as had been the case again this season until the coronavirus pandemic struck. But he didn’t even make Joe Schmidt’s pre-World Cup training squad or indeed Andy Farrell’s first training squad.
Ambitions to be fulfilled there too.
“I think this lockdown period has given me time for reflection. I haven’t achieved anywhere near what I would have wanted to achieve in my Irish career. You can say I’ve been unlucky with injuries but I just haven’t been a regular starter.
“A lot of the time I’ve been on the bench because I cover six, seven and eight, but that’s quite frustrating. Some people say it’s great to be able to play all three but I sometimes see it as a negative.”
This season he has again played across the backrow, but 13 of his 15 appearances were starts, which he welcomes, and it was at seven that Farrell brought O’Donoghue into his wider Six Nations squad.
“If that’s how they see me great, I’ll adapt to it. I’d like to see myself as a number eight again,” he says, citing his sole outing there against Leinster at Thomond Park over Christmas. “I just enjoyed getting back there so much. We’ll see. Arno [Botha] has moved and there may be potential to move back there.
“I want to get more Irish caps. It’s over three years since I was last capped and that’s a massive frustration for me. Definitely the underlining goal is to get a few more Irish caps and play in the Six Nations.”
At something of a crossroads in his career, that’s a bottom line too.