It has been a rollercoaster week for Donncha O’Callaghan. He playing his last game for Munster, visited south Sudan where he witnessed both joy and terror, before tearing himself away from a rugby team he loved with all of his heart to plan a new beginning in a different environment at the age of 36.
Worcester Warriors, new boys of the Premiership, want to stay in the top flight of English club rugby and have head-hunted one of the most experienced players in the world to help achieve that goal.
O’Callaghan admitted yesterday his emotions were “all over the place” in the past week. “My daughter started school, my wife is soon to give birth, I had to take in that my appearance against London Irish last Friday could be my last. Then I went to Sudan (as Irish sporting ambassador to Unicef), saw the delight of one mother who gave birth and watched as her child was inoculated against the scurge of Polio, and the fear of another just 30 metres away as her teenage daughter was suffering a frightening seizure, brought on by malaria.
“After coming back to Cork, things moved quickly. Following my talks with Munster, I was free to sign for Worcester with the security of a two-year contract. It has been emotionally draining, especially when you’re greeted by a postman giving you a hug to wish me well, and a building worker scurrying down scaffolding from four flights up to shake my hand and thank me for the memories. That’s emotional. That’s humbling.”
Having served Munster for 17 years through the rough times on to the glory years and back again, O’Callaghan gave a lot of thought to evaluating the offer. “It hasn’t been easy. To simply think about it, I sometimes felt I was disloyal.
“But this is what happened; I was getting phone calls from different places when I wasn’t getting game time, from other clubs monitoring my situation.
“It ended with Dean Ryan (Worcester coach) coming through to me. I am a fan of his, I love his values, he is a good guy. I knew and liked him, worked with him in the Barbarians last year and I gained a lot of respect for him.
“It was very clear what Worcester were looking for and we had a good discussion. He is talking about a sum of the parts team and I know that I can add value to that.
“From a personal point of view, I craved getting game-time. There was no guarantee I would get that at home this year and I also wanted a bit more security that a two-year contract will help to provide.”
Despite all his experience, O’Callaghan admits to being more nervous than at any stage of his long career. “I don’t think I have felt like this since the day I walked into the classroom at Christians (CBC Cork) for the first time. I know some of the players from knocking about, but a massive thing for me is to be able to win their respect.”
There’s no lack of respect in Munster, nor in the Ireland and Lions camps. Players would tell you of the high standards O’Callaghan upholds,taught by hard task-masters like former Munster skipper Jim Williams.
So it’s hard for him to give it all up. “Playing for Munster I felt I was in paradise in that everything I wanted and loved was right there in front of me. And you want it all to go so well, but last year it was a bit like being invited as a couple to a disco and everyone dancing with your girl. So that was a factor.
“I don’t want to dwell on that because I loved every minute of my time and I want to leave with the full heart for Munster I have; incredible memories, brilliant friends. People go on and say we have great team-mates but we’re more than that, we’re brothers, and that’s why were were able to achieve things together. Quite honestly, I haven’t yet grasped how much leaving is going to affect me. It’s all a bit mad at the moment, having watched horrendous things in Sudan and dealing with all these developments in a short space.
“To be honest, I get emotionally attached and that’s where I have to get to in order to perform. It has to mean everything to me. I’m going to Worcester to perform, it’s going to be all in. I think I will find that easy knowing already how Dean Ryan wants to run it. He has a clear vision for the club and I want to contribute to that.”
The last week may have been frantic, but it is also an exciting time, with wife Jenny expecting their fourth child in the middle of the month. Because of the delayed start to the Premiership, O’Callaghan will have time to plan his move to England. “It’s not a million miles away; knowing my personal situation they’ve been very considerate in relation to when I might move over full-time, but I’ll be there on and off starting from this weekend. I’m grateful to Munster for all they’ve done for me, I’ll miss the fans, miss everything, but I’m hungry, really hungry, for this new challenge.”
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