WHEN you inquire from Tommy O’Connell how he would have responded if you told him that he would be running out for Munster in a glamour Heineken Cup semi-final clash in France this weekend, just seven months on from lining out for UL-Bohemian in the Limerick Charity Cup final, the powerful flanker admits he would have looked at the questioner a bit strangely.
But O’Donnell has become an overnight sensation with Munster, almost six full seasons after making his debut for the province in the Magners League clash with the Scarlets at Musgrave Park.
However, in his first four seasons with the province, O’Donnell made just 44 appearances, with 25 of those coming off the bench as a replacement. But good things come to those who wait.
The powerful 25-year-old has made relentless progress this season, however, making three outstanding appearances in the Heineken Cup and scooping a plethora of Man of the Match accolades to boot. The versatile back row has been, marauding, rampaging and magnificent in equal measure.
So how does the UL-Bohemian clubman explain his meteoric rise this season, at least as far as the majority of Munster fans are concerned? For those who have been observing the affairs of the local club game and Munster A side, O’Donnell was a player marked down for greater things from the time he first burst on the scene.
“I suppose, offensively, I am probably a bit more visible,” O’Donnell explained after a squad session at UL this week.
“I have taken aspect of my plan on. I have managed to get the ball in space and have the strength to make open field carries which suit me more.
“Defensively, nothing really has changed. I am still making the same amount of tackles. I am still putting in the same amount of work. It is probably more visible on attack. I have had a few more opportunities, had a few more bouncing balls fall my way and I have managed to take them. Other years, the ball bounces away from you.
“I put down a very good off-season last summer. The last few off-seasons have gone very well for me. They probably hadn’t translated when it came to rugby time. But this year, with the fitness and conditioning we are doing I feel I am able to carry the weight around the field. I am really just enjoying my rugby.
“I would probably have looked at you strangely, ok if I was told at the start of the season that I would be involved in a Heineken Cup semi-final this weekend.
“I knew I was playing well at that stage and really enjoying my rugby. I was playing for UL-Bohs and enjoying it. A few weeks later I was playing with the Munster A’s. I am enjoying every bit of it. I just backed myself when I got a chance. I took my chance when I got it. I am happy to be here. It rolled on from there.”
O’Donnell insists that while he may be a household name in most homes where rugby is spoken right now, he doesn’t have anything like the kind of high profile experienced by his Munster team mates, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo.
“But a fans Twitter account has already been set up in his honour, @WeLoveTommyOD. The account boasts more than 150 followers.
“I don’t think I have become that high profile,” O’Donnell said.
“A lot of people might know you, but they wouldn’t be coming running up to you. I don’t have to deal with that. I am not a Conor Murray. I don’t look like Justin Bieber. I don’t stand out like Paul O’Connell.
“There is a fans Twitter account. (Simon) Zebo has the same. There is a crew of girls in his case, who are mad into rugby. I am delighted to have fans, have a Twitter account following me, but I wouldn’t say I have the profile Zebo or Conor Murray has.”
Move the subject on to Saturday’s mammoth Heineken Cup semi-final meeting with Clermont and O’Donnell’s mood becomes serious very quickly.
“The quarter-final win over ‘Quins earlier this month was a personal triumph, the Tipperary man turning in an outstanding performance in a dominant Munster back-row, 12 months after Ulster had ensured his Heineken Cup debut at Thomond Park ended in heartbreak.
The dynamic back-row forward said: “They don’t come any bigger than Saturday’s game. Obviously, I have never experienced anything like this before. I am really looking forward to it.
“We are underdogs again, exactly as we were against ‘Quins. We have to so what we did against ‘Quins, turn up and be physical and relentless on the day. It’s Cup rugby, a bounce of a ball and you never know what is going to happen.
“Clermont have spent the money and gotten the players in. Toulon are probably the only team to have spent more cash.
“Their record stands up. But, like any team, they can be beaten on the day. The same with Harlequins. We knew we could take them. We know we have a chance this weekend. We know we can go over there and hopefully give them a fright.
“There is going to be a huge contingent from Munster heading over, certainly a huge O’Donnell contingent going to France. I think there are something like 14 going over, flying into Barcelona and making their way up to Montpellier from there. It is going to be an epic adventure for them. I think they are heading off on Friday.”
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