Having missed most of last season through injury, it is starting to look like Jack O’Donoghue has the spring back in his step.
Last Saturday at a rainy and windswept Thomond Park, not even the horrible conditions could keep the Munster back-rower grounded, the 25-year-old literally springing into the night sky to claim the lineout ball that prevented Saracens from getting any more out of their trip to Limerick than they had already secured.
O’Donoghue’s steal, which derailed the defending champions’ hopes of anything other than a losing bonus point, sealed a 10-3 victory that just about keeps Munster’s Heineken Champions Cup ambitions afloat in Pool 4 as they head to north London for this afternoon’s round-four return fixture at Allianz Park.
It was also an affirmation that the Waterford forward is returning to the sort of form that had earned him Ireland recognition before a serious knee injury in May 2018 denied him the chance to stake a meaningful claim to a place in Joe Schmidt’s 2019 World Cup squad.
“Yeah. I enjoyed that,” O’Donoghue said of his part in the pivotal moment of last Saturday’s victory. “It was brilliant.
“Look, it was down to Billy Holland’s hard work during the week but I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, read the flight of the ball well and ended up taking it.”
Sitting down with the Irish Examiner at Munster’s High Performance Centre in Limerick this week, it is clear that O’Donoghue is in a good place right now and also that the injury he suffered during a PRO14 semi-final against Leinster at the RDS remains very much a significant reference point.
As he talks about the back-row talent coming through at the province this season and the big futures for “young lads” such as Jack O’Sullivan, he is reminded that he is not exactly an old stager.
“Yeah, I forget that I’m only 25,” he said with a chuckle. “Maybe I’ve been here, you know, 20 was when I broke on, so it’s my fifth season with the senior lads and to look back, I’ve over 100 caps now and it’s something that I’ve been very grateful for.
“I suppose it was the time off I had rehabbing and stuff that you really get a chance to look back on and really appreciate the time that you’ve had. And it motivates you to get going again.
“My body’s feeling well and touch wood that it stays that way but I’m certainly looking forward to the season.
"We’re only a quarter of the way through or so but it’s looking to be an exciting one.”
Whether it pans out like that remains to be seen but there was no arguing there was an exciting end to last Saturday’s match, that overtime lineout steal was Munster’s third of the game, adding to Peter O’Mahony’s double that makes him the tournament leader with four in three games.
“We have a great lineout operator, great jumpers,” O’Donoghue said. “Pete, you know, he’s someone that you’d definitely be modelling your game off in terms of lineout ability. You’ve seen it for Ireland and the Lions.
"He’s definitely up there with the best in the world and to have that at this club and to be able to model yourself on him, and to go up against him as well, being in opposition (training), you learn an incredible amount and it’s always good to get one or two over on him, maybe.”
Asked to compare his own spring with O’Mahony’s best in class ability to get off the ground, O’Donoghue replied: “It’s good. It’s getting there, coming back off a knee injury it’s getting back to where it was.
"It’s definitely something that during the pre-season, Johann (van Graan) put a lot of emphasis on and look, it took a while to get into the system and stuff like that, new things, new calls and stuff but it’s very much flowing now and it’s certainly a great asset to have.”
That asset could well be crucial again against the Saracens lineout this afternoon with their director of rugby Mark McCall recalling George Kruis to the second row to resume control of the set-piece after a below-par outing in Limerick in his absence.
“You can see the benefit of having a strong lineout because you’re coming up against big lads like Maro (Itoje) and Will Skelton, (Nick) Isiekwe and these lads.
"They’ve massive depth in their lineout squad, great jumping ability and mauling capability and they’ve George Kruis to come back in as well, who’s an incredible lineout operator, so we have to be on our A game when it comes to set-piece.
“Last weekend was the bar and we just have to raise it again this week, especially going over there.
"It’s going to be quite a tough competition and on a 4G pitch it’s going to be fast-paced so we can’t afford to let them get quick ball off the top so we need as much pressure as we can get on them.
“I don’t know what the conditions are going to be like but in the second half last Saturday they were tough for hookers to be trying to hit the tail so you can maybe bank on them squeezing to the front but if it’s a dry day over there it’s going to be a different battle.”
Given Munster’s developing sense of attacking adventure under the guidance of senior coach Stephen Larkham, the 4G surface at Allianz Park could equally suit the visitors.
O’Donoghue talks of the new-look gameplan with all the relish of an outside back.
It’s been a breath of fresh air, Steve coming in. It gave everyone a new energy and from the end of pre-season when he arrived, it took a few games to click but we really saw it click towards the end of the first block of PRO14 games.
“When the internationals came back from the World Cup they had to adjust to it. They were very quick to jump in and buy in and it’s really clicking. Going into these next games, Europe and the interprovincials, it certainly going to be vital to getting maximum points.”
A good showing from O’Donoghue between now and the end of the pool campaign could also see him given the chance to vie for a place in Andy Farrell’s new Ireland set-up.
His two caps under previous head coach Joe Schmidt came in November 2016 and on tour against Japan the following summer but his Test ambitions have not dimmed.
“I said to myself, focus on Munster and if my form is good all that stuff will take care of itself but, look, I absolutely have ambitions to be in that Six Nations squad and to kick on.
“The disappointment of not being in the World Cup mix last year was certainly something that spurred me on to keep the head down and keep working.
“Everyone has to have goals and ambitions and that’s certainly one of mine.
“I definitely want to get more caps. I think being here in Munster and putting my best foot forward is the best way to do that.
"Every opportunity I get I try to do that and with the new coaching staff going in with Ireland, there could be a rejig, no-one knows, but with the fresh faces coming in here at Munster it makes for an exciting period to come.”