THERE was a time when Munster was the last place a promising young back-row forward would have looked when it came to forging a career as a professional rugby player.
It was where true greats of the game like Anthony Foley, David Wallace, Alan Quinlan, Denis Leamy and Jim Williams, to name but five, reigned supreme. A player of the calibre of Stephen Keogh read the situation well and decamped to Leinster.
John O’Sullivan was also deemed surplus to requirements and is now plying his trade in the south of France while Justin Melck and Jake Paringatai were recruited from abroad but didn’t measure up.
In a way, not a whole lot has changed. True, Foley and Williams have retired but Wallace, Quinlan and Leamy are still masters of all they survey and Niall Ronan and the luckless Nick Williams are also on board.
As against that, though, all the hard work done behind the scenes by men like Donal Lenihan and Ian Sherwin at the Munster Academy is beginning to pay rich dividends and the established guys must also beware of the challenge coming from talented youngsters like Billy Holland and Tommy O’Donnell.
O’Donnell has made such rapid strides that he is a member of the Munster squad for tomorrow night’s Magners League clash with Cardiff Blues at Thomond Park, having impressed in a 20-minute cameo appearance in Glasgow last week.
Part of Ireland U20s’ Grand Slam-winning team in 2007, he has recently been promoted from an academy to a development contract and has parked his studies, having just graduated from UL with a sports science degree.
“For now, I am concentrating on rugby and my ambition is to earn a full contract,” he says. “I need to keep working hard. Hard work is noticed and I won’t be taking any short cuts, and learning. The other players are very good to help you and the coaches likewise. They’re never putting you down, rather it’s a case of pointing out ways where you can improve.
“If you need something improved, they’ll organise extra sessions to help you improve that technique… if you’re dipping your head going into a tackle, to keep your head up and stuff like that. It’s all geared to making you a better player and if you are keen to become a better player, it’s all there for you.”
O’Donnell readily acknowledges that the back-row is an area where Munster have traditionally been especially well represented. He appreciates that great exponents of the art like Wallace and Quinlan have the experience but also that they can’t go on forever.
“Opportunities will arise in the coming years,” says O’Donnell. “It has become a great career since rugby developed as a professional sport. A lot of guys coming out of school see it as a career choice, that if they’re dedicated enough, there’s a chance that you can make it, and if not in your own province, there are plenty of professional clubs in France and England where people have gone and made their career there.”
So, Tommy, are you thinking along those lines?
“God, no,” he insisted with a big laugh, “I was born and reared in Munster and I’m going to try to make it here as much as I can.”
Meanwhile, Cardiff Blues coach Dai Young has reacted to his side’s defeat by Edinburgh by making some significant changes for tomorrow evening’s (7.05pm, live on Setanta Sports) Magners League clash at Thomond Park.
Australian Sam Norton-Knight has paid the price for a disappointing debut in the 22-21 defeat to Edinburgh at their new headquarters, the Cardiff City Stadium, and is relegated to the replacements panel. Ceri Sweeney takes over at out-half while John Yapp, Rhys Thomas, Taufa’ao Filise and Deiniol Jones come into the pack.
“The frustrating thing for me is, for season on season, we are awfully slow starters,” says Young.
“For the first three games last season, we were very poor. You can’t peak for 10 months, but we certainly want to be better. The attitude from the players is to work harder. A few people wrote us off at the start of last season but we cracked on and got things right.”
New Zealand full-back Ben Blair is again likely to be a key figure for the Blues who include Leigh Halfpenny, whose Lions tour was spoiled by injury, on the wing. Another Lion, number eight Andy Powell, is in the replacements.
CARDIFF BLUES: B Blair; L Halfpenny, G Thomas, D Hewitt, C Czekaj; C Sweeney, G Cooper; J Yapp, R Thomas, T Filise, D Jones, P Tito, M Molitika, R Sowden-Taylor, X Rush.
Replacements: G Powell, G Williams, S Morgan, A Powell, R Rees, S Norton-Knight, D James.
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