Munster v Scarlets
The contract is signed, the injury behind him and Tommy O’Donnell can breathe a sigh of relief that both he and Munster are heading into Christmas in a good place.
While his province goes into tomorrow night’s league game with Scarlets at Musgrave Park as leaders of the RaboDirect Pro12 on the back of a dramatic Heineken Cup win in Perpignan which leaves them top of Pool 6 with two games to play, O’Donnell is poised for just his second start of a season which had begun with high hopes.
The 26-year-old open side flanker enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2012-13, earning the Munster Player of the Year award for the season and parlaying that into his first Ireland Test caps against the USA and Canada over the summer.
It all looked good for the new season but having made his first appearance of 2013-14 off the bench in the opening league game against Edinburgh, disaster struck in his first start against Zebre in Italy on September 13 when he suffered a hyper-extension to his left knee.
It took 12 weeks to get back to fitness, but having re-emerged for Munster A in the B&I Cup game at Plymouth Albion a fortnight ago, O’Donnell came storming back last weekend, combining with fellow subs Denis Hurley and JJ Hanrahan to secure the try, scored by the latter, that rescued victory in France and kept Rob Penney’s side on track for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
“It’s great to be back. The year didn’t get off exactly the way I wanted but I knew once a timeline was established I targeted a couple of games, rehab went very well and I’m just glad to be back,” O’Donnell said.
“I had my day or two being a bit bitter and a bit angry but once the surgery was over and done with it was healing every day and I just got on with it. I was given a [return] date of about 12 weeks and that’s what I went for, just went about what I did, icing, compressing, working, like preparing for a match but just getting yourself right again.”
Whatever frustrations O’Donnell felt at being sidelined were not eased by his contract situation at the time. His present two-year Munster deal was coming to an end the following June and his future needed to be resolved, which it was at the end of last month with a two-year extension that will keep him with his native province until June 2016.
“That was good as well. I was probably tense enough knowing I was in a contract year and knowing I had got injured so I was just happy that we worked out a deal. I’m very happy with the deal and staying here in Munster.”
O’Donnell’s was the first of quite a few important signatures this season that signal key players such as himself, Conor Murray and Donnacha Ryan believe a bright future awaits with Munster.
“And hopefully a lot of other lads will sign on as well, especially with the way we’re going,” O’Donnell said. “It’s going to make it easy to sign on because there’s a great atmosphere in the club and it’s a place where lads want to stay.”
For now, though, O’Donnell is focusing on reclaiming his spot in the Munster back row, which means getting fully match fit following 32 minutes off the bench for the A side and a shorter but more significant 19 minutes against Perpignan last Saturday.
He looked pretty sharp at Stade Aimé Giral as Munster dug deep to conjure the winning try with the clock ticking past 80 minutes.
Receiving a wonderful offload out of the back of Hurley’s hand,O’Donnell showed great hands and feet to stay in touch and offload to Hanrahan, who produced a blistering sidestep to beat Perpignan’s last man and score in the corner.
He had replaced starting No 7 Sean Dougall, a player Penney has praised for “international calibre” performances in the back-to-back games with the French Top 14 side. O’Donnell is therefore under no illusions about the task he faces in regaining his place.
“He’s been outstanding. There were a couple of turnovers there in the Perpignan game and he was absolutely outstanding.
All credit to him and I think I have to fight to get my position back and it’s not going to be an easy job the way he’s playing.
“That’s best thing you could have at this time of the year. There’s other positions around the team but CJ [Stander’s] raring to get in and Paddy Butler’s going to be back in a couple of weeks, so it’s an absolutely unbelievable position to be in at the moment with the wealth of back rowers we have and competition breeds success. It’s exactly what you need.”
That level of competition for places should help ensure that Munster do not take the foot off the gas in switching from European rugby to their domestic league as the province bids to stretch a winning run to eight games this weekend.
“That’s exactly it. We’re top of the Rabo and it’s the best place to be. You don’t want to be in the chasing pack. You want to stay on top and keep extending your lead.
“Keep playing, keep giving lads who are playing well the opportunity because this is where the lads from the B&I Cup come in.
“This is their chance to shine now over the next couple of games and this is where a couple of lads stepped up last year.
“It’s a really good confidence booster to play at home in front of your home crowd, at Christmas, where there’s good crowds.
“It’s probably one of the best times of the year to be playing.”
And no better time to be playing once again and trying to impress new Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt ahead of the Six Nations.
That, he said, was “up to the management. I’ll just play rugby and let that talk for itself.
“I was in a good place and I’m just trying to get back to that form I had last year.
“I don’t think I’m too worried, I just trust myself to be able to get back to it. There’s lads playing well in the team and all I want to do is play well with the team.”
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