My Sporting Passion: Rugby has given me more than I ever put into it

Actor Jason O’Mara on a lifelong love affair with the game both as a player and later a supporter

 Jason O’Mara:  “When things go well all the other disappointments, setbacks and losses fade away. So we learn from the losses and celebrate the wins. That’s when it’s not just a sport it’s a lesson for life.” Photograph: Mchael Tullberg/Getty Images

Jason O’Mara: “When things go well all the other disappointments, setbacks and losses fade away. So we learn from the losses and celebrate the wins. That’s when it’s not just a sport it’s a lesson for life.” Photograph: Mchael Tullberg/Getty Images

 

My introduction to rugby came as a child through my father. He brought me to several matches including a Leinster Schools Cup final involving Clongowes, where he had been educated, a school that later provided an impenetrable barrier to any whiff of silverware when I took up the game as a first year in St Michael’s College.

Despite my slender physique relatively speaking, I mostly played loosehead prop, light and fast with an insatiable appetite for tackling. I used to enjoy breaking from a scrum and sprinting to the far side of the pitch to collar a winger; I always enjoyed seeing the surprise on their faces. By senior level I lacked ballast and started struggling in the scrum.

I played in the senior quarter-final against Blackrock in 1990 as a flanker. That was a brutally physical game. ’Rock went on to win the cup that year and had several players like Shane Byrne who would later play for Leinster and Ireland.

I got a couple of provincial schools trials but didn’t get any further in the process. Besides, I was getting more distracted by acting.

A more direct involvement with Leinster was as an occasional ball boy while at school, something that led to an unlikely shared experience many years later.

I was shooting the Amazon TV drama The Man In The High Castle, a couple of years ago in Canada and I was doing a scene with the actor Glenn Ennis who told me he used to play rugby for the national team.

He won 32 caps as a number eight and had played a friendly for Canada against Leinster at Lansdowne Road in the 1980s, a match for which we soon realised I had been a ball boy. Hell of a coincidence.

I repeated my Leaving Cert in 1991 because I still wasn’t sure what to do with my life and was young enough to play on the SCT again. Concussion, back and neck issues meant that I ended up on the bench in a year in which we got to the final before losing 7-3 to our nemesis Clongowes.

“A memory I’ll cherish is being in Soldier’s Field, Chicago with David when Ireland beat New Zealand.” Robbie Henshaw celebrates victory after the game. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
“A memory I’ll cherish is being in Soldier’s Field, Chicago with David when Ireland beat New Zealand.” Robbie Henshaw celebrates victory after the game. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Those injuries resurfaced in a roundabout manner the summer before last. I was body surfing in Hawaii and got flipped by a wave landing on my head and messing up my neck. Soon after I saw a neurologist and he asked me if I played contact sport as a kid.

He told me he saw what he believed to be an old fractured vertebra from when I was much younger. So I basically broke my back playing rugby all those years ago at a time when the ‘magic sponge’ was a ‘cure all’ treatment. After a year of physiotherapy my back and neck are fine now.

Next level

Injuries had an inadvertent influence on my current career, nudging me towards acting and it ignited a passion. I took small parts in school productions of the Merchant of Venice, Macbeth and finally Hamlet.

An English teacher named Martin Kelly directed those productions and he really inspired me to believe I could take acting to the next level as he had done with my fellow actors Risteard Cooper and Peter McDonald who also went to Michael’s.

Rugby was usurped by acting as a primary interest to the point where I studied Drama in Trinity, but I remained a keen supporter. My earliest rugby memories, Ireland’s Triple Crown successes in 1982 and 1985, had a huge impact on me. I would go down with friends to open Ireland training sessions in Lansdowne Road and collect autographs.

The first inspirational moment I remember as a kid was Michael Kiernan’s famous drop goal at Lansdowne Road against England to win the Triple Crown in ’85. I was watching on telly but my dad came home from the match that evening with a big patch of mud on his forehead where the game ball had hit him. He said he’d never wash it off. My 12-year-old self thought that was epic.

This was the era of the great Phil Orr and I remember being at Lansdowne Road when he won his 50th cap against Romania. He was a brilliant loosehead prop and a Lion; plus his ’tache was the stuff of legend.

When I moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career I got involved with Santa Monica Rugby club because my son, David, then aged 12 wanted to play. By the time he was 13 I did a bit of coaching to help out which I really enjoyed. That was a great father and son bonding experience so I unexpectedly found rugby enriching my life again years after I stopped playing.

Santa Monica Rugby has a pick-up game on the beach every Sunday and I play religiously. Fathers, mothers, sons and daughters all come out; it’s a great workout and brilliant craic. I really miss it. We had to stop playing during Covid but David and I are looking forward to it starting up again as soon as the world gets back to normal.

My team back home is Leinster and prior to the pandemic I usually visited Ireland with David around New Year and would go to a Leinster match, typically an inter-pro. But even in LA I never miss a Leinster or Ireland match. I subscribe to a number of sports apps that allow me to watch all the Pro 14, European and international matches.

Due to the time difference I usually have to get up at 6.0am or 7.0am on a Saturday morning to watch them live, or I go to the Ye Olde Kings Head pub in Santa Monica that shows the big games to an ex-pat crowd and serves a decent fry up.

I was at Leinster’s victory over Saracens with my brother at the Aviva in 2018, an incredible performance that reflected the heights that Irish rugby reached that year. I have followed the Ireland team around the globe including watching them beat Australia in a World Cup match in Auckland.

A memory I’ll cherish is being in Soldier’s Field, Chicago with David when Ireland beat New Zealand for the first time in 2016. To have been there on that special day with my boy and witness Irish rugby history was very special and something I will never forget.

Progressive sport

Rugby taught me many positive things, most of them are obvious; working with others to achieve a common goal, sacrifice, discipline, goal setting, personal fitness, being teachable, developing physical and mental fortitude.

I’m also proud that while it has its problems, rugby is by and large an inclusive, progressive sport. It’s been thrilling to watch the women’s game develop globally over the years. I hope that Ireland’s women’s rugby can turn professional soon so we can keep up with England.

Rugby has given me far more than I ever put into it. An integral part of happiness is about finding joy in life, especially during these unprecedented times, and I hope rugby survives this terrible turbulence. I had joy playing it and had joy watching my son playing it.

You get wonderful moments as a fan like Eden Park in the 2011 RWC, or Soldiers Field in 2016 or Sexton’s drop goal in Paris in 2018. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
You get wonderful moments as a fan like Eden Park in the 2011 RWC, or Soldiers Field in 2016 or Sexton’s drop goal in Paris in 2018. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

When you lose, you learn to brush yourself off and go again. Then you get wonderful moments as a fan like Eden Park in the 2011 RWC, or Soldiers Field in 2016 or Sexton’s drop goal in Paris in 2018.

When things go well all the other disappointments, setbacks and losses fade away. So we learn from the losses and celebrate the wins. That’s when it’s not just a sport it’s a lesson for life.

Jason O’Mara will be appearing in the upcoming second season of Departure (Canadian TV drama series starring Archie Panjabi and the late Christopher Plummer) and the upcoming second season of Truth Be Told (Apple TV drama starring Octavia Spencer and Kate Hudson). He is currently in Canada filming a Netflix movie called Hypnotic that will come out later this year.

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