Tommy O’Donnell pays tribute to Anthony Foley as he prepares to bid Munster adieu

Talented backrow will play his final game at Thomond Park on Friday night

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Tommy O’Donnell will play his 187th game for Munster in what will be his last competitive appearance at Thomond Park against the Cardiff Blues on Friday night. Adding in his 13 caps for Ireland, O’Donnell says there are just too many special memories, too many memorable wins, to pick one.

However, when pressed to single out one, the backrower pauses for a while before settling on a match that was, well, much more than just a game.

“I suppose it’s hard not to go past the Axel game, just the raw emotion that was there that week and that day,” he says in reference to the 38-17 win over Glasgow at an emotionally charged Thomond Park a week after Anthony Foley’s shock passing in their Parisian team hotel six days previously.

Coming a day after Foley’s funeral in Killaloe, even turning up was an achievement, but as O’Donnell also recalled: “I think you could have put any team in the world against us that day and we would have got through.”

Despite Keith Earls’s 18th-minute red card Munster led 24-3 at half-time and afterwards the entire squad returned to the pitch and sang Stand Up and Fight, a post-match winning anthem normally reserved for the dressingroom.

“There was a lot of emotion leading up to it, there was a big Shannon vibe there, ‘There is an Isle’ was playing, the way the game went, a red card just didn’t faze us and we kept going. That probably stands out as a huge moment just because of the emotion, and the performance, of the week really.”

Now, after reflecting fully on his 14 seasons with Munster, he appreciates the role Foley played in his own development.

“Anthony as a Munster man was hugely important because he was always rooting for the Munster player. He always saw the talent and his biggest thing was ‘why can’t they see it, why can’t they see how good they can be?’

“When you look back now, he was always helping me after training, pulling me aside to that extra little bit of carrying, of contact work. When he was in the assistant [coaching] role he made more time to do that and that’s where it actually paid the biggest dividends for me. It was in those years as an assistant, that’s when I actually made the breakthrough into becoming a starter for Munster.”

O’Donnell turned 34 last Friday and had been offered a new contract but the increasing lack of game time contributed to his decision. He has designs on a coaching role with UL Bohs.

From Cahir, his was a road less travelled, coming through Clanwilliam and the Munster/Irish Youths and the Irish Under-20s 2007 Grand Slam before graduating to the Munster academy, remaining a one-club man thereafter.

“There are plenty of guys who have gone on and played for other clubs and had incredible careers, but having grown up watching Munster and played for them, it’s special. I had offers in different contract negotiations over the years to change clubs and ply my trade somewhere else but I think there has always been a call to stay with Munster and to try and prove myself on my home field and that I could mix it with Munster for as long as I did.”

He was more cruelly afflicted with injuries than most, notably before the 2015 World Cup. O’Donnell had never looked fitter or sharper than in a 35-21 warm-up win over Wales whereupon, just four minutes from time, he suffered a dislocated hip.

“When you come through the Youths system you look back now and see how raw you were compared to lads who are coming through from the Youths system now.

“I thought I was good and then it’s not until you get into the professional set-up you realise that there are continually ladders and places you have to hit.

“I’m very happy with how I did that, notwithstanding a few injuries. I probably could have gone further but you have to take those injuries when they come and timing of injuries is huge. Some players get the rub of the green and some don’t but I’m happy that I kept plugging, that I kept going throughout my career, and got as far as I did.”

A top lad and hugely liked by all and sundry, he did that for sure.

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