It was a familiar post-match scene to any Munster supporter, Donncha O’Callaghan signing autographs, goofing for pictures, sharing the craic with red-jerseyed admirers.
It could be Musgrave Park over any of the last 17 seasons until a man approaches the veteran lock, grabbed him by the hand and holds the grip.
The voice is of the English shires, the words are heartfelt, and this was Sixways, the home of the Worcester Warriors following a stirring opening night for the Aviva Premiership.
“Thank you so much for joining us,” he said in an outpouring of gratitude towards the 36-year-old Irishman.
It was an earnest middle-aged Warriors supporter, delighted his club had captured the services of a British & Irish Lion capped 94 times by his country, but it could have been Dean Ryan, the director of rugby at Worcester, who persuaded O’Callaghan he still had a future in top-flight rugby.
After a record-setting 263 appearances for Munster, the Corkman joined his newly promoted side two months ago as one of a handful of carefully picked and seasoned campaigners brought in to steer an ambitious young club towards Premiership safety.
Guys like Phil Dowson from Northampton and Wynand Olivier from Montpellier, and, most recently, the most senior of them all, 36-year-old O’Callaghan.
All of them helped Worcester get their long campaign for survival off to a flying start last Friday night as the Warriors snatched a dramatic 13-12 victory over Dowson’s old club thanks to a drop goal with the last play of the game.
Ryan is as grateful as that supporter for the commitment made by the veterans. “Getting somebody who’s got 94 caps, two Lions tours, in alongside someone who’s 23 and never played in the Premiership... six guys in that pack had never played in the Premiership, including Donncha,” Ryan said.
“You get huge reassurance and so much value Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, from all of them.
“There’s no coaching book in the world that can add what he says when it happens in the driving lineout or what he says around the contact area.
“All of them confirm why I want them here and how committed they are to try and do things here. So I say thanks to them because they made big choices to be here.
“When you’re talking about people of that sort of magnitude, they make big choices to come and put so much at risk to be here, so full credit to them.”
The gratitude goes far. Dozens of Munster folk were at Sixways on Friday night to add their support to the debutant O’Callaghan, a mark of the esteem in which he is held in his home province and one deeply appreciated.
“God bless, that’s my old maths teacher,” O’Callaghan said as he bade farewell to yet another wellwisher, still pitchside in his Warriors kit an hour after full-time, bruises around both eyes.
“He came all the way over from Christians. Greg Ahern, he came over on the 3 o’clock flight and he’s going back in the morning. He just wanted to show a bit of support.
“That kind of means more to me than having my whole family here — just.”
O’Callaghan confirmed Ryan’s assessment that it had been a big choice to join Worcester. “It was a huge decision. It would have been easy to bow out and it would have been easy to… I would have felt like a fraud if I had done another year at Munster.
“It was the first time I felt like I was taking more than I was giving it, if you know what I mean. I was earning good money but not really playing. I hated that, I felt like a fraud in front of the lads.
“It was just over the summer, I was chatting to family and it just came to the decision, it’s either hang the boots up because Jenny (his wife) was saying to me ‘you’re like a golden retriever, every Monday you go and you’re thinking, gonna get in the team and then you come back on Wednesday afternoon when the team (is named) and it’s doom and gloom for the whole weekend and then it’s Monday again’.
“She was there like ‘you’ve got to give yourself a bit of a break from this’.”
O’Callaghan contemplated joining Eddie O’Sullivan in France at relegated Biarritz but Ryan’s powers of persuasion made his decision a simple one.
“Just from chatting to him (Ryan), he’s someone I respect, he was completely honest with me and told me the role he sees for me within the club, and he explained what he wants out of me. I didn’t shirk from the fact that it was a challenge but the biggest thing for me was he was speaking my language when he was talking about some of the parts that start my journey.
“I’ve got a lot of time for him, I think he’s got good values and good traits. There isn’t a whole lot of coaches, at my age, I want to play for. I suppose the other one would be Eddie O’Sullivan, and I was chatting to him, but Dean sold the challenge.”
To O’Callaghan, the challenge at Worcester has parallels with his early days at Munster. “It’s kind of the underdog card. The only thing is, the facilities and the set-up is phenomenal, it’s very hard to compare it then when you’re getting the best of… like, there’s cryotherapy there in two minutes.
“All my meals are measured and precise for exactly what I have to eat. For me, craving professionalism, it’s so easy to be a professional here. I’m like a kid in a candy shop. It’s just making sure fellas appreciate it because it’s not the norm. When you hear fellas saying ‘Jesus, the chicken’s a bit spicy’ and you’re there, (whispering) ‘Are you for real?’ “Guys don’t know how lucky they are. Even small things, we (Munster) had Wavin pipes for foam rollers, they’ve the best in show. So in that way, it is no way alike, but I think the rugby side of it is.
“I think that’s the way rugby is going, players need this kind of stuff off pitch to be able to put in a performance. I wish I was a bit younger.”
Some things even O’Callaghan can’t manage but he does believe his switch to Worcester could extend his playing career, maybe even beyond the two-year contract he signed in September.
“Absolutely it could. I feel fresh every day. It’s early starts but you’re done. M family aren’t over yet, so when there’s a few screaming kids at night, it may be a bit different.
“I’ll be telling a few lies instead of finishing at three, I might be supping coffee with the lads until at least half-five.
“You just see around the facilities, the kind of rugby professional nerd inside me kind of went, ‘I’d love a bit of that’. Instead of me having to bust my gut every day measuring out food, you know, it’s here, instead of driving out to Douglas to get six bags of ice for a bath, here you’ve got cryotherapy.
“But then again, that doesn’t do it, it just supports it, you have to back it up on the pitch and, I think, we did a bit of that (on Friday).
“Sometimes, the (younger players) need an injection of confidence. They don’t know how fit they are, they don’t know how good players they are, they can be really tough on themselves.
“We’re up against it every week. We have to go beyond ourselves every week just to be in with a chance.
“If we’re lucky, that’s the kind of outcome we’re going to have every week, a slogfest and hopefully get the right side of it. No one’s under any illusion that that’s what they signed up for. I’m enjoying it, I’m loving it.”
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