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Dublin: 17°C Saturday 8 May 2021

Youghal man O'Callaghan showing international credentials for Munster

The 25-year-old back row has been in excellent form for Anthony Foley’s side.

ALL THE TALK has been of CJ Stander heading towards international honours now that he’s qualified for Ireland, but within the Munster group they believe another of their back rows is moving in that direction too.

Dave O’Callaghan has been in rip-roaring form for the southern province this season, although his effectiveness is a little less remarked upon in the wider Irish rugby circle.

Dave O'Callaghan O'Callaghan has been in excellent form for Munster this season. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

With high-quality lineout skills, huge agility and mobility around the pitch, underrated ball-carrying ability and an aggressive edge on the defensive side of the game, the Youghal man has been especially impressive.

O’Callaghan wears the seven shirt this evening against Leicester at Thomond Park (KO 7.45pm, BT Sport), after lining out in the same position last weekend against the Dragons.

Predominantly a blindside flanker, and having played in the second row in his youth, this will be just a third start at openside in O’Callaghan’s senior career.

“I wouldn’t be what you call a ‘natural’ seven, I’d be more a six and obviously playing second row as well,” says O’Callaghan. “The way we play though, we don’t really have an out-and-out seven as such, it’s a shared responsibility among the back row and the forward pack.

When I play seven, I try to play my own game. Obviously you’re trying to get to the breakdown first, but it’s important that it’s not taking away from what you bring.”

Indeed, Anthony Foley will be asking O’Callaghan for more of what he’s been delivering all season.

O’Callaghan is playing with an energy and hunger that perhaps illustrates how frustrating a time he had with injury in recent seasons, with knee issues cutting him down twice when he was making firm progress.

The 25-year-old’s rugby life began with local club Youghal RFC, though his involvement in other sports meant it was a casual involvement at that stage. He does remember the club nearly escaping from the junior leagues when he was in his early teens, and says Youghal can do so when the town “gets people back from Australia.”

Dave O'Callaghan O'Callaghan has switched over to the openside in the last fortnight. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It was during secondary school at Midleton College that O’Callaghan realised he had a genuine passion for rugby, and an ability that most of those around him didn’t share.

“I remember going to a rugby camp in France, one of Nigel Osborne’s rugby camps,” says O’Callaghan. “I went over with a few lads from Youghal – one of them was John Quill, who’s playing with the US now. It gave me confidence going over there.

“We played against some kind of French regional underage side and then coming back from that I was into fifth year and I felt I was enjoying rugby. I started to think of it as a possibility then that I could maybe push on and get into the academy.”

Midleton, a school of around 400 pupils, has historically been more renowned for its academic prowess than a rugby tradition. Though Cork City institutions like PBC and CBC were better known as rugby powerhouses, O’Callaghan didn’t allow Midleton’s status as a ‘B’ school to prevent him from being noticed.

He played for the Munster ‘A’ Schools team (confusingly picked from the ‘B’ schools) as a fourth year, before advancing onto the full Munster Schools team the following season and eventually playing for the Ireland Schools side while still in Midleton.

“Other lads would be used to seeing guys from their school getting trials and getting onto the Schools team,” says O’Callaghan.

“For us, it was different, it wasn’t really expected of us. I think that worked in our favour too. If you played well in those games, you maybe stood out a small bit because you weren’t from one of the bigger schools.”

O’Callaghan remembers being well coached by the likes of Martin Preston and Kevin Stanley in those schools days and says he lined out with “a lot of lads who are playing AIL now.”

Dave O'Callaghan is tackled by Taulupe Faletau O'Callaghan looks back on his Midleton days fondly. Source: Camerasport/Craig Thomas/INPHO

Clive Ross, the Ulster back row, was a classmate of his, while Munster academy playmaker Ned Hodson was on the junior team during his time at the school. Perhaps a long line of professional players from the small Cork school is only really beginning.

With O’Callaghan determined to make his way as a professional rugby player, he earned a place in Munster’s academy and also stood out for the Ireland U20s, playing two years at that level and featuring in the 2009 and 2010 Junior World Championships.

One legacy of his emergence from a school that didn’t have the strongest rugby tradition was that O’Callaghan found himself slightly behind others on the physical side of things.

“I was always tall, but I’m still trying to put size on; that’s a constant battle! I was definitely under-developed on that side of things. On the weights side of it, Ken O’Connell would come down to Midleton and do the odd session with us.

But our emphasis was always on skills and that’s how it should be.”

At 6ft 5ins, O’Callaghan has an ideal frame but says that he still has to get through a heavy daily food intake in order to keep his weight up around the 110kg mark that allows him to be most effective.

“I’m someone that if I’m not eating six times a day, the weight falls off me. Obviously for a lot of other people that would be great, but for a professional rugby player it’s not so much.

“I’m naturally lean, I’d be one of the skinnier forwards, so it’s something I always have to work on. At the same time, it helps my game to be that body type. I think my agility is down to that and also good lineout work is something I pride myself on.”

Dave O'Callaghan Now 25, O'Callaghan is realising his full athletic potential. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

O’Callaghan’s senior Munster debut came when he was in his final year with the academy, Tony McGahan picking him at blindside flanker for a 17-13 defeat to the Ospreys in October 2011 at Thomond Park.

Having already featured in a number of pre-season games for the province, O’Callaghan wasn’t totally daunted by the experience. That said, he will be “forever grateful” to McGahan, while he also recalls the steadying words of a man who is now part of Munster’s coaching staff.

“Mick O’Driscoll was pack leader that day and he was one of the guys looking after you,” says O’Callaghan. “He was the one who stood out for me, just giving me that bit of advice. It was one of the toughest games I’ve played, but I was looked after.”

Eight more league caps and a Heineken Cup debut off the bench against Northampton followed that same season, before O’Callaghan moved onto a development contract and underlined his potential even further in 2012/13.

The 2013/14 season was moving along positively too, before a serious knee injury halted O’Callaghan in the second half of the campaign. Frustratingly, the following year brought about a somewhat similar storyline.

“It’s a big part of rugby, trying to stay injury-free,” says O’Callaghan of his struggles. “I had a problem with my knee for a while, I had patellar tendinitis. It got worse and worse, and it was about managing it, one of these chronic injuries.

“Eventually, playing against Zebre two years ago I ruptured it completely. That ended up being a blessing in disguise, because in a way I needed to rupture it completely to actually reconstruct it and get it sorted. Thankfully, it was sorted then.

“I got injured at the end of last season as well, a small medial injury on my left knee. I missed the end of the season, which was gutting, but the rehab went well.”

Dave O'Callaghan tackled by Duncan Jones O'Callaghan on debut against the Ospreys in 2011. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

That allowed O’Callaghan his first uninterrupted pre-season for some time last summer, meaning ”plenty of time on the grass with the coaches, so I knew what they were trying to do, the game plan they were trying to play.”

Physically, test results in the pre-season had Munster’s strength and conditioning staff smiling knowingly, and the positive impression has transferred into games as O’Callaghan looks a better athlete than ever before.

On top of that athletic ability, the Youghal man is showing an impressive skill level in the lineout and around the pitch. Though he spent a portion of Rob Penney’s tenure injured, O’Callaghan says the Kiwi made an impact on him in that area.

“I’m a loose forward, and that means I try to play in wider channels a bit more,” says O’Callaghan, who is a graduate of Commerce in UCC. “Especially under Rob, I spent a lot of time on my skill work and you’d often find yourself out in those wide channels.

“The same with Axel and Brian Walsh, they want back rowers to be able to play and be able to get wide. I’ve been working on my ball skills, on being comfortable in those open spaces, and when defences come hard at you, being able to move the ball on.

It’s the way the game has gone and you can see it’s not just back row forwards any more.”

The confluence of these factors is that O’Callaghan is in the form of his life with Munster. Having represented Emerging Ireland in 2013, there is little doubt that the ambitious 25-year-old has hopes of international progress, but his focus is on provincial matters for now.

After signing a one-year contract last season that is set to expire next summer, O’Callaghan is in the process of talking to Munster about a new deal. It’s a certainty that the province will be eager to ensure the dynamic flanker is playing in red again next season.

For his part, O’Callaghan is excited to be among what he sees as a group that can make their own new history.

“It would definitely be exciting to be part of it, we’re such a young squad. I’m nearly one of the older guys, even though I’m not even 26. It’s our time and we have to show that.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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