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Openside O'Donnell living the Munster tradition of breakdown competition

The 27-year-old Tipp native discusses competing for steals and CJ Stander’s impact with ball in hand.

O'Donnell surges into contact at the AJ Bell Stadium last weekend.
O'Donnell surges into contact at the AJ Bell Stadium last weekend.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

SCRAPPING FOR THE ball at the breakdown is a way of life in Munster, and an art in which Tommy O’Donnell is increasingly excelling.

While Laurent Cardona’s refereeing of the area at the AJ Bell Stadium last weekend meant Anthony Foley’s side had a rare barren day in terms of turnovers and spoiling, competing on the deck will always be a foundational block in their approach to the game.

Former masters like Foley himself and Alan Quinlan have worn the breakdown path in the southern province, while current players such as Peter O’Mahony, Paul O’Connell, Damien Varley and BJ Botha are carrying the torch now.

Tipperary native O’Donnell is also among the leading figures at the breakdown for Munster, as demonstrated by his havoc-causing display there against Leinster three weeks ago.

The 27-year-old looks a more rounded player than ever, with his long-standing ball-carrying ability and work rate having been supplemented by an increased focus on scrapping for those vital poaches.

It’s really down to attitude,” says O’Donnell. “With the breakdown as a seven, you really have to have the attitude that you’re going to live in there. I suppose that’s one thing I’ve gone about this season, just adding little things into it.

“If I’ve tackled a guy and I feel I can impact on the ruck, I’m going to stay in there and live in there until at least two or three bodies take me out of there. Anthony has the phrase that if you’re going to add to the ruck, add time to their ball.”

When we speak of decision-making in rugby, we so often refer to the attacking side of the game. But there are equally crucial calls to be made around the post-tackle zone in defence, and under intense time pressure.

Tommy O'Donnell The Tipp man was in relaxed form at the Castletroy Park Hotel this week. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“It all depends on the quality work at the front end of the tackle,” says O’Donnell. “If I’m coming from a line-out and my centres have conceded a little bit of ground, say, it depends on just having a sniff of the ball.

“It’s a snap decision, in a couple of milliseconds and you just make that call. Sometimes if you commit hard enough, you’re going to annoy someone or get in under their shoulder and make yourself a nuisance.”

On the flip side of the breakdown, O’Donnell is often tasked with being first man on the scene when one of his Munster teammates is tackled. The openside flanker must remove the early threats as the opposition look to pilfer the ball themselves.

Saracens’ Kelly Brown will be “quite a nuisance at the breakdown” at Thomond Park on Friday evening, but O’Donnell points out that focusing on one individual threat is not the best way to ensure he helps his side to get quick ball in attack.

You have to approach it with the real physical mentality,” says O’Donnell. “If you’re going in looking for just one person, you’ll get sidetracked. You have to just go at it.”

Away from the breakdown, O’Donnell has been a strong ball-carrier since first breaking through with Munster. His history at No. 8 and blindside flanker has seen him feature more prominently with ball in hand, but that’s not to say he is doing less in attack now.

The UL Bohs back row happily admits that CJ Stander is stealing everyone’s ball-carrying thunder at present, while also pointing out that his chances for the big busts will arrive again soon.

Tommy O'Donnell Conor Murray and Duncan Casey trail O'Donnell at training in UL. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“It all depends on the game. I’m still getting up around 10 carries a game. If I can turn one or two of those into a longer carry or a linebreak, things get rolling. Some days it’s hard to break the line, but other days you can just slip past tackles.

“CJ is incredible,” continues O’Donnell. “There were a couple of tackles  [against Sale] where he smacked and his leg drive just took over, he was gone through the hit and up the field.

He has incredible pace and power, I think we saw that from when he first came in. It really is great to see him excelling this year and getting the amount of carries he’s getting. His work rate has gone through the roof.”

While O’Donnell has started the campaign impressively enough to be recalled  to Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad after missing out on the June tour to Argentina, the 27-year-old is not quite content yet: “I wouldn’t say I’m playing to the best of my ability.”

He is positively relishing the prospect of welcoming a powerful Saracens side to Limerick this weekend, however, looking for that next step towards finding his peak form.

Brown, Billy Vunipola and Alistair Hargreaves against O’Donnell, Stander and O’Connell, among many other clashes.

“It’s what European rugby is,” smiles the Munster openside.

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