WHILE THE GRAVITATIONAL pull of Munster was at its strongest in the dark hours of mourning the late great Anthony Foley, Tomás O’Leary had to break out of the orbit to find a balance between what was necessary for his career and joining the procession behind his friend, team-mate and coach.
“Really tough weeek.”
The Corkman came onto Montpellier’s radar this month after an injury left Benoit Paillauge sidelined. And having been omitted from Munster’s list of players registered for European competition, there wasn’t a whole lot of sugar coating on where O’Leary fell in the pecking order.
In the weeks approaching his 33rd birthday, he can see the end of his professional career down the tracks, and he’s not ready to bow out holding tackle bags in training.
We meet O’Leary in the tunnel of Montpellier’s Altrad Stadium, his white club shirt still bearing the crisp crease lines of the packet it came out of.
“After I didn’t get into the European squad with Munster I was a bit frustrated. I had a look to see if there was anything else out there. Montpellier were looking for a nine for four months… fair dues to Munster, they let me go.
“With Cathal (Sheridan) getting injured they probably could have stood in my way, but they were great to let me go and I appreciate that.
“It’s great to be involved in European rugby and hopefully I’ll be involved in the Top 14 in the next few weeks.
“Just to get back playing rugby, at this stage of my career, that’s all I want to do. I want to contribute on the pitch. So it’s good to come over here – a totally new experience – and I’m just going to enjoy it and see what happens with it.”
Preparations for his debut could hardly have been more difficult. He was only one day in the south of France when the news of Foley’s tragic death came through from Paris last Sunday, then he was back for the funeral on Friday.
“I didn’t really get a chance to settle here yet. Really tough week, emotional week.
“Coming back here to play, at least there was a bit of a distraction after a tough few days.
Axel was my first number eight when I came into the professional game. Obviously everything has been said about him: he was our captain, our leader, he’d never ask you to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. He was a team-mate, a friend and he went on to coach me as well.
“The thing that stood out to me was his loyalty to everything Munster and his belief in everything Munster and the lads was unwavering. He was the epitome of everything Munster stand for, him and his family. It’s a total shock. I still can’t believe I really happened.”
This week, O’Leary will get a chance to find somewhere he can call ‘home’ again – however temporary the badge will stick. Asked where he’s been staying since touching down in Montpellier he nods towards the exit to a hotel “across the road”, but with his wife Julie and son Jamie on the way over to join him, he hopes to check out sooner rather than later.
After playing seven minutes in the Champions Cup win over Leinster – his 55th European appearance – and looking forward to preparations for a home meeting with La Rochelle, there’s little for O’Leary to regret about his move.
“You see the power we have in our side. Firepower, I suppose that’s the difference between French rugby and rugby in Ireland, just the sheer size of some of the lads they’re able to sign. Hopefully it’ll be good playing with them, as opposed to against them for a little bit.
“It’s a lovely part of the world and a fantastic team. They won the Challenge Cup recently and are sitting pretty in the Top 14 (third, four points off the top) it’s a great opportunity for me, a whole new experience.”
Yet he’s still definitley a Munster player, a son of the province and among the many who counted Foley as a friend.
“Watching the lads yesterday was pretty emotional alright, but as I said this was too good an opportunity to turn down.”
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