Tomás O’Leary will line out for Erin’s Own in tomorrow’s Cork JAFC final at Páirc Uí Rinn. The European Cup champion with Munster and Grand Slam winner with Ireland only returned to football a few weeks ago, having retired from rugby in July.
O’Leary played his first game back for Erin’s Own as a sub on October 2, the same weekend the club’s senior hurlers were knocked out in a replay. He drew the winning free in the following week’s quarter-final with his first touch, before scoring an extra-time goal in the semi-final draw with Kilmacabea. His first start came last Saturday and a late lead point was the most crucial of the three he kicked from full-forward.
Q: You’ve played in a Heineken Cup final and Grand Slam decider, so what does playing a county final with your club mean to you?
A: It’s a different world. I’ve a strong GAA background and I’m going back to the club where it all started, and playing with three or four lads I was playing with since the age of 10 or 11.
It’s not something that was overly planned – I’m only back playing football three or four weeks – so it’s all come about very quickly. But it’s been great to throw on the Erin’s Own jersey again.
It’s really special. Getting a chance to play in a county final and represent my locality again will be brilliant.
Q: You’ve had your share of injuries and a summer off. How’s the body been holding up?
A: It’s a different kind of fitness. There’s a lot of running but, thankfully, inside in the full-forward line I can get away with doing less than a few of the lads out the field.
I had my last game of professional rugby in March and I took the summer off completely. I did nothing at all until August and let myself go a little after 15 years training with Munster and the academy.
It was nice to chill out for a while but it’s refreshing and enjoyable to be back involved with the club.
Q: How have you managed that transition since retiring from rugby?
A: It was something I was ready for and the adjustment has been good. I’ve no regrets about retirement. I got 12 years of professional rugby with top teams in Ireland, the UK and France.
But my body wasn’t what it used to be even seven or eight years ago and professional rugby has taken its toll. Because football isn’t as physical, I can get away with playing it.
I was lucky to get to 33 and be relatively intact. I was happy to get out of it when I did, happy with what I achieved and happy to play with a great Munster team.
Thankfully, with TOLD (Tomás O’Leary Designs) & Co, my watch company, and I’ve a share of RedZone Recruitment in the UK, I’m trying to build those companies up, so that’s keeping me busy too.
Q: You were known as a hurler before rugby, so how did you end up playing football?
A: Erin’s Own were beaten in the quarter-final of the hurling after a replay on a Saturday night, and they’d to play the football on the Monday, so I just got a text off one of the lads saying they were short of numbers and would I fall in, just in case.
I was delighted to. I was happy to take a break during the summer but now that I’ve got back involved with the club, I’ve really enjoyed the last few weeks. It’s been brilliant to be back involved in a group dynamic, a bit of slagging and the craic with the lads.
Q: What about hurling?
A: I always had hoped to go back next year but you’d need a hell of a lot more practice to get my skillset back up to where it needs to be for hurling.
It would have been lovely to play with the boys this year in the senior hurling championship but it was just too early. Next year, with a bit of training from January, February, I’ll hopefully be able to contribute to the hurling team as well.
Q: You said “I can’t imagine I’ll be starting” earlier this month. What’s happened since then?
A: There was a couple of lads away on holidays and unavailable last week so it was a case of needs must.
I really enjoyed playing the whole game but I don’t know whether I’ll be starting this weekend or not.
Q: As Cork captain for the county’s last minor All-Ireland in 2001, it must’ve been nice to be asked to speak to this year’s group before their final?
A: Denis Ring was a selector back in 2001 when I was playing Cork minor and he asked me. It was a great thing to do.
Unfortunately, they didn’t get the result so my chat obviously didn’t have the desired effect. But it was nice to get a reintroduction to my hurling roots, back to where it all started and a sport I have a massive passion for.
I love being involved in it. Looking back to my own minor days and the team we had, four or five lads went on to play senior hurling, it was a privilege to be part of that team and they’re definitely special memories.
Q: Moving on to rugby matters, you finished your career with Montpellier, so what can Simon Zebo expect in France?
A: Everyone’s personal decision is totally different and everyone’s family situation is totally different but I know he’ll obviously have been offered a very good contract.
Paris is a beautiful city, if he ends up there, and he’ll know Donnacha Ryan, ROG (Ronan O’Gara) and Casey Laulala, who was over at Munster for a few years. He’ll settle in there pretty quick.
Simon can speak French and he’s always had that desire to head abroad and experience something different.
He’ll really enjoy it, it’s a great move for him and a massive opportunity, but a big loss for Munster. I don’t think he’ll have any issues adjusting to the rugby and ROG, Donnacha and the lads will show him the way.
There’s no fear of Zeebs anyway.
Q: Securing Conor Murray’s future will be key for Munster now. Is he the best scrum-half you’ve seen play for Munster?
A: That’s a big shout but based on his performances and what he’s done, you probably couldn’t deny that.
Every player is different. Strings (Peter Stringer) had an immense career and in terms of achievements for Munster, myself and Strings were part of a stronger squad.
But in terms of individual ability, you’d have to say Murr is probably up there as the standout scrum-half Munster has had.
Unfortunately, from a Munster point-of-view, all his success has been with Ireland and the Lions, and this current group are desperately trying to get a bit of success and push on as a group.
Losing the likes of Zeebs is a massive blow but hopefully they’ll get out of their group this year and come a quarter-final in Europe, they’ll be a challenge for anyone.
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