Niall O’Driscoll: ‘I grew up playing rugby in the West Cork mud, then I'm running around the Caribbean’

Niall O’Driscoll is living the life of a rugby nomad. Since leaving Cork Con five years ago, he has captained the Cayman Islands at the North American/Caribbean Sevens Championship and now plays for the Dubai Eagles, who are coached by his own brother.

Niall O’Driscoll: ‘I grew up playing rugby in the West Cork mud, then I'm running around the Caribbean’

Niall O’Driscoll’s father, also Niall, served as President of the Munster Branch in 2004/05. He later sponsored the ODM Financial Munster Senior Cup when his son’s injury-time try won it for Cork Con in November 2012, meaning he got to present the cup to Niall’s team. O’Driscoll Snr passed away less than three months later in February 2013.

Q: Before we get to the more exotic locations, tell me about your background playing rugby in Ireland.

A: My dad would’ve been involved in Bandon RFC for years, so myself and all my brothers started playing there. I was lucky enough to play for Munster’s U18 side and I later played for the Munster Development Sevens team at the Glasgow Sevens.

I went to university in UL, played with Garryowen for a while and we won a Munster Junior Cup.

Then, I moved back to Cork, played with Cork Con and, in 2013, we won the Munster Senior Cup and All-Ireland Cup, which Con have now won five years on the trot.

Q: And you scored the winning try in that Senior Cup final?

A: Yeah, I got a try about eight minutes into injury time, which was a bit controversial at the time!

It was fantastic, and it was actually the day I passed my accountancy exams as well. For the Junior Cup I won with Garryowen and the Senior Cup I won with Con, my dad actually presented both cups to the team.

Q: So those accountancy results would’ve set you up to go travelling?

A: Yeah, I always wanted to travel once I’d qualified and KPMG had an opportunity to transfer to the Cayman Islands.

I only intended to stay for a year-and-a-half but I ended up staying four years.

The lifestyle there was fantastic. I literally lived on the beach.

Q: How did playing for the Cayman Islands national team come about?

A: The first thing I did was go to the rugby club to meet some people and settle in. Before I knew it, I was there three years and I was eligible to play for the national team.

Q: You said your greatest achievement in sport was captaining Cayman in the North American/ Caribbean Sevens Championship. What was that experience like?

A: That was my first competition and, after a couple of months training, I actually got named as captain.

I know it’s a little Caribbean country but I was delighted to say I did it. The population is about 50,000 people and, all of a sudden, you’re playing against Canada and Mexico, who have populations of millions.

We did quite well — we got knocked out in the semi-finals to Jamaica, who had a lot of English-based semi-professional players and out-and-out sprinters. For me, personally, it was a great experience.

You’re pinching yourself — you’re in Trinidad and Tobago playing rugby for the Cayman Islands — it’s not like something I’d ever have thought I’d be doing.

Q: You played with the 15s team as well?

A: I was lucky time-wise that just before I left, I got a cap for the 15s team. They’re actually also captained by an Irish guy, Chris Kennedy, who would’ve played for Old Belvedere.

I got to go to Bermuda to play the Caribbean Championships for that. With Cayman, every time you play it’s in a different country. I played in Vegas a couple of times with the Sevens.

I went to Bermuda and the States with the 15s team. When I was growing up, I was playing rugby in West Cork in the mud, then all of a sudden you’re running around the Caribbean — it’s a lot nicer!

Q: We hear a lot about Cayman as a tax haven but don’t know anything about the place itself?

A: A lot of the island is very rural and there’s a seven-mile stretch where everyone lives and all these banks are. Then, the rest of the island is surrounded by beaches, so it’s very strange in that way.

It’s close to the US, so it’s got a real US-theme going on. It’s an interesting place. It can be very relaxed but it’s very corporate too.

A lot of people are working so hard, it could be the same as being in New York. Then, on the weekend, you could be on one of the nicest beaches in the world.

It was a nice mix but a strange place — like nowhere I’ve ever been before.

Q: Six months ago, you were on the move again. Another opportunity came up?

A: Yeah, I was ready to move to a city. I didn’t want to move home just yet — I like the whole ex-pat lifestyle.

The choice to move to Dubai was a good move career-wise, I have a brother living here and it’s also closer to home — literally one flight away. I’m very happy so far, it’s a great place to live.

Q: Was there a culture shock when you arrived? Had you to get your licence for pork and alcohol?

A: That’s all true. I have an alcohol licence and there’s a special pork section in certain supermarkets where you can go to buy pork.

Certain bars and restaurants can get pork licences and it only seems to be the Irish ones that have it for some reason. It’s not just a local culture shock, it’s very multicultural — there are people from everywhere living in Dubai.

Q: The Dubai Eagles, your new club, wear green, they’ve an Irish founder and director of rugby, Sean Carey, an Irish captain, Conor Coakley, and an Irish coach, your brother Andrew...

A: The Eagles are a brand-new club — this is their first year in existence. I played with and against Sean at home.

He won an All-Ireland League medal with Lansdowne. Conor Coakley is a Wexford man. Andrew would’ve played in Cork Con. It’s a huge Irish influence and playing rugby makes moving places very easy.

Sean would’ve played for Connacht growing up so the Connacht Eagles... the Dubai Eagles... I’m pretty sure if you Google ‘Connacht’s kit from last year’, it’ll look very similar to our current kit. (Laughs)

Q: What’s it like having your brother coaching the team?

A: He’s not just my brother — my younger brother! Andrew’s had a lot of injuries so he’s coaching now.

He was involved in the Munster Academy so he’s very knowledgeable. I try not to step on his toes and he tries not to step on mine, so it’s going alright!

Q: Are there many native Emiratis playing?

A: We do have one guy but I don’t think it’s necessarily a sport the locals have much of an interest in traditionally.

The standard of rugby in the UAE is very high, though. You’ve a lot of ex-pros and semi-professional players from all over the world playing.

Q: These are all scorching, desert climates. Is that a problem for training and playing?

A: You just don’t get used to the heat. The first game I played in Cayman, I went off because I felt like I was going to burst into flames.

Four years later, the last game I played, I went off with the exact same thing. In Dubai, we play evening games so it’s not as bad.

Q: Did ye make use of the pork and alcohol licences for St Patrick’s Day?

A: I was sitting in an Irish bar drinking green pints of Heineken and watching the Six Nations, so I could’ve been back in Cork!

More in this section


Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox