The screams for Simon Zebo from the younger fans outside the Munster dressing room at Musgrave Park may have been high-pitched and piercing but the appreciation for Donncha O’Callaghan’s contribution to his province’s cause lingered longer in the Cork air on Saturday night.
Two tries for the young wing with the X factor as he continued to make his way back from a long spell on the sidelines have rightly earned Zebo an adoring fan base, but Musgrave Park belonged to Donncha on the night the 34-year-old became Munster’s most capped player with his 241st appearance.
It is the younger players, O’Callaghan said after he helped his beloved Munster to a 36-8 bonus-point victory over Zebre, that help to keep a spring in the veteran lock’s step a month short of his 35th birthday. They’re why he signed a new two-year contract earlier this season and a reason his head coach Rob Penney thinks there is so much more left in the tank for a player capped 94 times by Ireland but feeling as fresh as he did when he made his debut in the same arena at 19 in August 1998.
“I hate to kind of self-publicise but I’m feeling well,” O’Callaghan said. “It doesn’t feel like a grind and I think that’s when you’ve got to go, if it’s tough. But I bounce out of the bed to come in and be around the lads. It’s better craic now. I’d never say it to the older guys but these fellas are mad.
“They don’t talk about dream feeds and negative equity, it’s enjoyable to be around them so they’re chatting about poking on Facebook and the likes.”
He may be one of the elder statesmen at Munster now but the competitive drive is still burning strongly in O’Callaghan.
“I suppose physically I’m getting good scores and that matters to me and I’m just a little bit driven. I want to achieve and straight away you think of 242 and I think of [Ireland cap] number 95. That’s what drives me and that’s the competitive nature of it.
“You see the bigger picture as well and you see the squad we have and it’s about making sure of the little things that can influence by the way you conduct yourself and the legacy that other fellas have left, the standards. I’m not saying you enforce them but you make sure guys are aware of them.”
Penney last week suggested the influence O’Callaghan had on the younger players was more than a little thing and part of a changing role for the two-time British & Irish Lions tourist as he continues to set standards.
People look up to you, it was suggested to the lock on Saturday night.
“I hope not,” O’Callaghan joked before addressing that changing role to which Penney alluded.
“Absolutely. I understand that but there’s a competitive beast as well. I felt like I had to earn my stripes and I think that’s the best way for Munster fellas to do it. You have to put the foot down when you get your chance. That’s the way it’s done around here and I like that. I like that nearly bitterness among us and that guys don’t give it up easy and that’s got to be the way it is.”
For now, though, there is the satisfaction of his place in the Munster history books and for passing out his former fly-half O’Gara and restoring a bit of superiority to the pack.
“You always keep an eye on your own caps, but to be honest I didn’t know what the other guys were on. For a Munsterman it’s important that a forward is top. I thought it was [John] Hayes but when I heard it was ROG, it was one to go after.
“It’s special for my family and I think Munster’s in my DNA. I’ve taken on the values and the attributes that the team brings, I think I’ve brought it into my life a bit more and I’m hugely thankful to tog out with a group of lads that I love and a team that means everything to me.”
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