Life off the pitch: Donncha O'Callaghan and his plans for the future

Donncha O'Callaghan and Anna Geary from Ireland's Fittest Family. Picture: Andres Poveda

Professional rugby player Donncha O’Callaghan has played for Munster, Ireland and the Lions and has recently renewed his contract with Worcester Warriors. He will bow out of the pro-game
at the end of the season, he talks to Esther McCarthy about his plans for the future

DONNCHA O’CALLAGHAN is curious about many things that will come in a future beyond professional rugby.

Among them, he’s keen to experience that ‘Friday feeling’ beloved of friends and colleagues as they switch off for the weekend. All his adult life, his Friday feeling has been very different.

“A Friday feeling for me is your stomach kind of churning with a sickening feeling, knowing that you’re going to get the shit kicked out of you the next day!” he tells me. “Everyone talks about the Friday feeling but the type of Friday feeling I have you don’t want.”

The amiable, funny Corkman is chuckling, but it’s an indication that he’s planning for his future, and reflecting on a life less ordinary.

The former Munster, Ireland and Lions star is still thriving in his professional life at the age of 38, having renewed his contract with Worcester Warriors earlier this year. But he has indicated that he will bow out after 20 years of professional rugby at the end of this season. This year he graduated with an honours degree in business sport management.

“I’d started it in Cork Institute of Technology in 2004, and when you come in to play at Worcester, they have a brilliant career guidance person, Lynette Cutting. We have 36 guys on our squad and 28 guys are doing some form of career planning. She man-marked me! I was not allowed not be doing something. If I didn’t go back and do my degree I would have had to do some work experience, or look at a trade, or look at personal training. We have guys in our squad who do a vast amount of different things.

“I think that’s quite important for clubs and professional environments to realise now, that you have got these players, but you must also prepare them for life after rugby.”

While he does not go into specific career plans, he has been planning ahead — and stresses his focus is also very much on the emotional changes his post-professional career will bring.

“To be honest, there are so many challenges with leaving rugby, that the job side of it, the work security side of it, is only a small part of it,” he says.

“You’re also losing a massive part of your identity. There is a part of guys that their ego comes into it. They’re used to playing in front of 30,000 people every weekend. I go into training and I have 36 friends, guys that I hang around with, have great fun with. But you pull them out of that environment and they’re gone.

“I think I’ll be fine with the ego side of it, the identity side of it. But I do think I’ll badly miss the lads. I’ll miss the craic around the dressing room, the bit of rogue, the fun part of it. I remember chatting to friends of mine who’ve gone out into the real world. I chat to John Kelly, and some of the things that we think are hilarious aren’t funny at all. You have to be nearly re-introduced to society,” he says.

“I read that a few of my ex-team-mates struggled to go to games and I actually found that quite sad. I would hate that to be the case for me. I would be really disappointed, because I think you go back to your first role with these teams — being a fan. I was at the South African game and I was just a rugby supporter again. It was brilliant.

“As much as I love rugby, and I do, it’s been brilliant for me, I love my family way more and I know I want to be around them more. I want to enjoy the great times with them.”

FLYING HIGH: Ireland’ Fittest Family presenter Mairead Farrell puts coaches Donncha O’Callaghan and Anna Geary through their paces. Picture: Andres Poveda

He has been devoting some of his time to rewarding projects, including a recent visit to Sierra Leone as part of his work with Unicef Ireland, where he trained with the national rugby team and tweeted: “Unbelievable how sport brings people together”.

His Cork wit and caring heart have made him a big hit in the current season of Ireland’s Fittest Family, a show he has always watched avidly with wife Jennifer and their four young kids Jake, Anna, Robin and Sophie. It has an ethos he cares passionately about.

“As a dad of four kids, I know we have problems in our country. One in four of our kids is obese. I think as their dad, that’s my responsibility — that they’re healthy, happy, well.

“I’m not talking about them calorie counting or watching micro-nutrients or being obsessive about it, but it’s knowing that: ‘I’ve to do my exercise, I’ve to earn my treats, I’ve to know that they’re treats’. I think that’s one of the biggest problems, that so much of the junk food can just seem like it’s normal, when you’ve got to really realise that this is a treat.” In any case, he adds, his family love being outdoors playing.

“We love going out the front playing a game of stuck in the mud, or a game of chasing. We go up to the fairy park in Ballinlough. It’s great fun, being up there playing games, it’s a good laugh.

“That’s when you’re doing things right, when it doesn’t feel like a chore.”

He leaves a legacy of epic performances for Ireland, Munster and beyond.

To his ongoing bemusement, he also leaves behind a clip that went viral when, such was his match-time intensity during a Heineken Cup game, he endeavoured to play on in his y-fronts in what has become an ultimate TV moment.

ULTIMATE CHALLENGE: Donncha watches his team hang over the river Lee on RTÉ’s Ireland’s Fittest Family.

“I look at myself, and I nearly don’t know the guy playing, you know? Like sometimes I see the physicality I bring to matches and I’m like: ‘Jeez, look at him’. I suppose when you cross over and go to play, you turn into a bit of a half-machine mentality.

“I’m just looking at that moment going: ‘What?’ because, honestly, in my normal thinking I would run a mile, I’d be hiding behind the post, but Donncha who’s playing that match is just going to try and drive on in his jocks! I wish I could grab him and drag him off the pitch.”


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