Age is but a number according to Munster, Ireland and Lions second row forward Donncha O’Callaghan, who is determined to set a new benchmark for longevity at the top of the Irish game.
Ask O’Callaghan about possible retirement and he will look aghast before relating the stories of two overseas icons in the form of Brad Thorn and Simon Shaw, both of whom have defied logic to play at the highest level approaching their 40th birthdays.
Thorn, World Cup winner with New Zealand, and Shaw, a member of England’s World Cup final team in 2007, are 37 and 39 respectively. By comparison, O’Callaghan is a mere pup at 33 and he figures another five years or more at the top is not beyond the bounds of possibility.
O’Callaghan looks after himself well; he doesn’t drink, trains obsessively and constantly pushes his training schedule to the limit to keep ahead of those hounding him for his place with Munster and Ireland.
Although he admits he has been fortunate in not picking up serious injuries over his long career, he sees Thorn and Shaw, particularly, as his role models.
“The big thing for me, this sounds a bit corny, but our bodies are our business and we have to look after it ourselves, it’s a massive thing for me, it’s a bit of obsession and I know that everything I put into my body, every way I look after it has massive value in keeping me in this profession and that really matters to me,” he said.
“But I want to keep going and it is good anytime I see Shawsie running out; I’m going like, ‘go on ya beaut’. I love to see that and it makes me want to keep going too.
“Brad, according to the Leinster players, brought training to a whole new level altogether and he would be another benchmark. From talking to Jamie Heaslip, he left an huge impression and that’s what you want.”
Following an exhausting and confrontational Heineken Cup clash with Saracens last week, O’Callaghan had an opportunity to rest up for a couple of days. He didn’t take it, explaining: “I can’t take two days off because if I did that I would be as flat as a pancake, what’s great for me is that the fitness lads know me well and they know exactly how to tailor my programme.
“The big thing for me is I trust them; instead of sneaking off for sessions where they can’t find me I ring them and they meet me and do a bit of work with me.”
Munster won the first of the back-to-back encounters with Saracens and O’Callaghan was happy with the evening — apart from having to spend 10 minutes in the sin-bin.
It was the first time in his career, he points out, that he was shown the yellow card “for having the crap kicked out of me”.
That’s all in the past. What isn’t forgotten, says O’Callaghan, is that Sunday’s return at Vicarage Road is bound to be a really tough test of physical endurance and brain power.
He said: “It’s a great aspect [back-to-back games] of the competition; you’ve to bring the best out of you as a team two weeks in a row. Everything you showed the week before has to be repeated and more.
“If you didn’t perform something well, it will get exposed; over two weeks, quality teams will expose you in the end if you haven’t got good game plans and good defensive systems. If you’re not sharp, you’ll be exposed in the second week for sure.”
So, has Munster something in reserve?
“Yes, no doubt, although I’d say they’re licking their lips,” he said. “They’ll have looked at what we threw at them at the weekend and they’ll probably be thinking it wasn’t much.
“Going to a fortress like Vicarage Road is going to be tough. But that’s what we have to do and that’s why this competition is so great.”
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