Tommy the Toreador already relishing big battles ahead

As a Lions candidate in a position already over-subscribed by Test captains, let alone internationals, Tommy O’Donnell may have bolted just a little too late with his standout performance in Montpellier at the weekend.

But after holding his own against Clermont’s Julien Bonnaire, Julien Bardy and Damien Chouly, the Munster flanker will have impressed the watching Warren Gatland on Saturday even if there is no room in his squad for another quality flanker once he has pencilled in Tipuric, Warburton, O’Brien and Robshaw.

Still, Munster head coach Rob Penney was full of admiration for the Cahir back rower after Saturday’s near miss in the Heineken Cup semi-final, suggesting O’Donnell would also hold his own in that company.

“Tommy has been like a gem all year, particularly since just prior to Christmas,” Penney said. “He’s had a fantastic year and he contributed wonderfully again against Clermont. There’s probably some more senior sevens floating around that have had international experience but I don’t think they’re any better than him.”

If he had not been pencilled in for Ireland’s two-Test summer tour to North American already, his performance against Clermont should have done the job, allowing incoming national head coach Joe Schmidt the opportunity to watch him close-up as he plans for the 2015 World Cup in England.

There is also an Emerging Ireland tour to Georgia this summer but O’Donnell’s Heineken Cup performances this season in particular warrants inspection at Test level against the USA and Canada in June.

“I want to go on whichever tour is coming up, I haven’t been on one, I want to step up in my career and get better,” O’Donnell said. “Whichever one would be great. I would love to go on one.”

O’Donnell’s progression since making his Heineken Cup debut off the bench last December against Scarlet has been impressive. His first European start came in last season’s quarter-final defeat by Ulster and has grown in stature with every European appearance since. Which made defeat to Clermont at the weekend all the harder to take given the scare Munster gave the red-hot outright favourites at Stade de la Mosson.

“It hasn’t set really set in yet. It will be probably only later that I’ll realise we what we left behind us,” he said.

“It is still different from the quarter-final last year when we knew we under-performed. We battled against Clermont, we battled hard, we had chances there to win it, that will probably hurt more when we look back on tape. Down to Casey Laulala if the ball had bounced into his hand, we’d be in a final.

“That the way it goes, sometimes you have to learn the hard way, I would prefer if we didn’t learn the hard way but, you know.”

O’Donnell’s development over the last 12 months has surprised possibly as many people as has have been taken aback by Munster’s progression to this season’s semi-final and he, for one, has enjoyed proving the doubters wrong.

“A lot of people had written us off last season after losing the quarter-final and if you said then that Munster were going to win their quarter-final well next year and march into a semi-final and just lose out, a lot of our fans wouldn’t have believed you, especially if you told them that a lot of young players would come, would be blooded, as part of that.”

O’Donnell believes he and the other less experienced Munster players who played in their first Heineken Cup semi-final at the weekend have taken lots of positives from the European campaign this season, not least the fact they have learned they belong at the highest level.

“I want to be out there... there are times when you get the ball and you go and you can make ground and pitch up into the tackle and you are not being dominated as such and it means you can play at that level.

“I think we have proved we have it in us, we have something, we battled from adversity this year, we lost two games in our pool. We were one of the worst teams in terms of seeding and we got Harlequins and we battled through.

“There were a couple of games this year where we just messed up.

“That is where you have to learn, so we have to make it that next year when we get into that 22m we don’t come out without a score.

“That was the best one I’ve ever been involved yet, the noise, the atmosphere.

“Just realising what it was, it is the furthest I’ve gone in any competition in my career so far and I want more of it after experiencing it.

“Next year I want to be back in it and I want to be on the winning side.”

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