The Munster and Ireland openside flanker will take the field against Georgia on Sunday leaner, fitter and sharper than he felt he was when he lost his place in Joe Schmidt’s squad to Leinster’s Jordi Murphy midway through the 2014 Six Nations campaign.
O’Donnell, 27, is now back to his rampaging best for Munster and as a result back in the Ireland squad, making the most of a surprise promotion to the bench last Saturday against South Africa after Chris Henry withdrew from the starting XV and Rhys Ruddock moved up from the replacements to the number seven jersey.
Now he is set to feature against the Georgians and it is all thanks to a summer of hard graft that, spurred on by Schmidt’s advice, has improved his game, and with the help of Munster’s new full-time nutritionist Catherine Norton has shed four kilogrammes to get down 104kg.
Having come off the bench in the wins against Wales and Scotland, before making way for Murphy, as Ireland went on to win the RBS 6 Nations title in Paris, O’Donnell resolved to regain his place in Schmidt’s matchday squad.
“I just went back, took the summer break and used that as a new starting point, as a refreshing point, and just went back to work on a lot of the basics, upped my work-rate and the intensity, a lot of things around my defence, chop tackling, being a nuisance and just basically having more of an impact on the game, which is what I’ve really tried to do and I suppose it’s been working so far.
“ dropped a few kilos, got my body fat down and just worked hard. That has been a real motivator, just to be fitter and to be able to last out games and be that 80 minute player.
“I’ve played nearly all the games for Munster and nearly finished them out to the end so I’m happy with how my fitness is and I think I can keep driving it on.”
Schmidt had told the back row, in O’Donnell’s words to “keep working on what I’m good at.
“I’m in there at the moment getting my hands on the ball. Just get one of two and rip them away and that will make the difference in games. That is what he is looking for. A little more in attack then and just add a bit more to the carry and get a couple more yards every time. Just to bring an intensity to the game.”
Losing the weight under Norton’s supervision has helped that effort.
“I worked hard with the nutritionist in Munster, kept my muscle mass the same but dropped those few extra kgs of fat. Every gramme is going to add up as you run around the field so I think it has made a difference.
“Having Catherine there is very good because she’s constantly monitoring what’s in your hand and what you’re eating; are you bringing the right resources to training. She’s just upped my knowledge on how to refuel and rebuild muscle.”
It was not as if O’Donnell had been horsing down a succession of Big Macs on a daily basis, more a case of fine-tuning his diet and thinking ever harder about what he puts into his body. “Last year I suppose we were waiting on food to come in but now every player will come in, in the morning with food, ready. Catherine will be there looking over your shoulder to see if it’s quality.
“Having the right amount of protein and carbs and it’s just about being a total professional. You need to add all those little things together.”
“I would have been pretty good before. You’d be surprised how the little things just make it better. We would have been relying on going to a bar for breakfast but now you have to have a quality snack ready for you.
“I have gotten better at just making an extra meal the night before and that’ll be my grab-and-go snack. I’ll make sure I’ll have the right amount of carbs and protein so you’re cooking extra food in preparation for the rest of the week.”
So what does the Tipperary man eat these days?
“Beans on toast have been out for a while,” he says. “It’ll usually be a grilled chicken fillet with rice and a bit of veg thrown in on top of it. How it’s cooked as well is the main thing. I would have been putting a lot of oil in and thinking it was good but now, it’s minimal. Catherine’s thing is that every gramme of oil is an extra nine calories and they all add up.
“If you’re not measuring that exact amount, there’s extra calories going into your diet and that’s how it’s helped — getting those really minute details.
“It’s knowing when to eat it too and getting the timing right. As soon as you finish training, it’s in your hand. You don’t have to go and order food and wait 20-minutes for it to come to you, it’s there ready to go straight into your system.”
The minute details. Ounce by ounce, inch by inch, O’Donnell is starting to sound like Schmidt’s kind of player.
Tommy Bowe has inked a new three-year deal to keep him at Ulster until June 2018. The 30-year-old wing has signed a joint contract with the IRFU, just two days after in-demand full-back Rob Kearney committed his long-term future to Leinster.
Johnny Sexton’s decision to return to Leinster next summer after two years in France was the first big victory in Ireland’s battle to keep top stars on home soil.
Kearney and now Bowe completing quickfire new deals without fuss further boosts boss Joe Schmidt’s long-range preparations for the World Cup 2015.
“I am delighted to have signed a new contract with the IRFU and Ulster,” said Bowe, who has won 55 caps. “It is an exciting time for both the province and the national team and I hope to play a part in achieving success on both fronts in the years to come.”
Performance director David Nucifora has exerted pivotal influence over the IRFU’s new policy of fuss-free contract negotiations. “We are delighted that Tommy has committed his future to Ulster and Ireland,” he said.