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'I still absolutely love it. I'm already counting down the days until pre-season so I can smash it'

Donncha O’Callaghan talks to The42 about his season with Worcester, why he decided to play on for another year and the influence Jim Williams had on his career.

AFTER ALL THESE years, you know exactly what you get from Donncha O’Callaghan; heart on the sleeve passion, an indefatigable work-rate and raw, undiluted honesty. The type of infectious character you’d want in any dressing room.

Worcester Warriors Donncha O'Callaghan O'Callaghan has signed on for another season with Worcester. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

For the second year in a row, the 38-year-old was named Worcester Warriors’ player of year, fitting recognition for an evergreen stalwart who continues to defy his age, but for the second season in a row, the overwhelming feeling is frustration.

“I found this season massively frustrating and I’m so glad it’s over if I’m being honest with you,” he tells The42. “I found this year mentally tougher than physically.”

O’Callaghan consistently produced outstanding performances for Worcester, playing in 20 of the club’s league games, but individual recognition serves as little consolation in the grand scheme of things.

With just five Premiership wins all season, Worcester stuttered through the campaign and were fortunate Bristol were in such dire straits below them otherwise their top-flight status would have been in even greater danger than it was for large parts of the year.

The departure of Dean Ryan as director of rugby during pre-season certainly didn’t help matters and the disruption was keenly felt until Gary Gold arrived in January to add some direction. Three of their victories came after his appointment.

“When I signed up I was clear on the position I was coming in to and it was to stay up in year one and push on in year two,” O’Callaghan continues. “An awful lot went on off the pitch as well but sometimes players just have to grab it and take control themselves.

“To be fair, I don’t think we did that a whole lot. We needed Gary to come in and crack the whip and to be fair he did and we got a response to it but it’s just a bit of frustrating really.

“The big issue at the start of the season was Dean Ryan but players can look for excuses. They can look at it as an excuse we can all use to hide behind poor performances because we can blame it on that and that annoys me.

“I saw it before with Ireland and Eddie O’Sullivan. I remember the last few games for Eddie, did guys play as well as they could have? Possibly not and that’s what I’m saying to you, there comes a point when players need to take ownership and drive something on and we were probably slow to do that.”

Worcester Warriors v Exeter Chiefs - Aviva Premiership - Sixways Stadium The second row featured in 20 of Worcester's games this term. Source: David Davies

In the end, Worcester did enough in the second half of the season to pull away from Bristol at the foot of the table and keep their heads above water. It was a major relief for all involved at Sixways but at the same time a huge disappointment after finishing a place and five points worse off than last year.

The frustration for O’Callaghan, he explains, was the mindset within the environment and the players’ failure to recognise the danger signs and situation they found themselves in.

In an interview on the club’s website last August, a matter of weeks before their opening game against Saracens, O’Callaghan called for his team-mates to step up and make progress this season, saying they needed to find something from within the group to drive the performances.

Nothing really changed for Worcester as they once again failed to kick on and demonstrate the potential we’ve heard about for the last number of years. Different season, same problems.

“As players we can be massively disappointed and it’s one of the biggest things with Worcester, we’re saying oh ‘we shouldn’t be in this position’ instead of actually rolling up your sleeves and getting on with it,” he says.

“That can be a problem when you’ve got a talented group, you almost feel sorry and think we’re better than we are but if we don’t go out and produce it, that’s all that matters.

“Losing is draining. Winning is such a relief and everyone is a little bit happier around the place. I was finishing off my degree and I had to do a work placement in the commercial side of it and you’re hearing in meetings that if we were to be a Championship side next year, six of the people in the front office would have to go and you’re thinking, what we do has repercussions. I just found it a massively pressured year.

“The set-up here, it’s an incredible facility and believe me when I say it there’s an incredible squad there. We’ve a really good group. Sometimes I think part of the problem is them understanding how good they are. Losing becomes draining and negative and guys second guess and question themselves.”

O’Callaghan also admits he questioned his team-mates and the structures in place at the club at various points during a disheartening season, no more so than at Christmas when he sat down with his wife, Jennifer, to discuss the future.

With offers from other clubs on the table, including a reported approach from French Pro D2 side Narbonne, the former Ireland and Munster second row had decisions to make. Should he play on for another season? Should he play on but leave Worcester? Should he commit to Worcester?

BT Sport Craig Doyle and Donncha O'Callaghan TV On punditry duty with BT Sport recently. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Despite the doubts and questions reverberating in his head, O’Callaghan continued to lead from the front on and off the pitch, driving standards and demanding better from those around him. You wouldn’t expect anything less, even if the levels of frustration were growing.

“You’re brought in there to do your job and that’s what I’m there to do,” he continues. “I’ll be honest, I don’t like to use an excuse and don’t like to look to anyone else to get something right. I’m the only one who can be accountable to myself so if my performances are up there, I can ask others to do things.

“There’s no point in me shouting on about work-rate and energy around the pitch if my stats are poor or my work-rate isn’t good. You can’t ask if you aren’t producing it yourself. That’s just the way I am.

“I think we’ve under-performed, myself included, and that we can play an awful lot better than we have. It’s up to us to fulfill our potential.

“Phil Dowson is an incredible fella and he was probably the biggest standard driver and fair play to him for putting his hand up and saying ‘guys this isn’t good enough’. You respect guys who actually have the balls to do that.

“Believe me I have no problem doing that as well but there are also times when there’s no point bitching and moaning. When it’s correct and right, you don’t want to be negative around the squad but when things are poor you can’t live in denial and you have to say this isn’t good enough.”

As someone with his vast experience and an unflinching quest for success and betterment, admitting that fact — that they weren’t good enough — isn’t an easy thing to do.

With four young kids, O’Callaghan once again split his time between Worcester and Cork, travelling back and across at different stages of the week, and while it was difficult to park it all when he got home, walking through the door as Dad made things that bit easier.

“I was getting text messages off Jenny saying ‘you’re only home for 26 hours, don’t come back grumpy now’ because she saw we lost at the weekend,” he joked. “She was telling me that I was only home for a little while so just park it because she knows I’d be going through the video and ringing guys.

“Look I’ll be honest with you, as a Dad of four kids, it’s great to be going bowling or to the cinema with the lads but I have to be able to say I did something over there and that’s why I went back and finished my sports management degree. I spent my down time in Worcester doing that.

“Perspectives do change. I was absolutely obsessed with rugby and now thankfully I have a new number one. I have no problem saying it, rugby was all I was centered on and all I was concerned about but now it’s all about the family and doing right by them.

Donncha O'Callaghan with Peter O'Mahony and George Murray O'Callaghan splits his time between Worcester and Cork. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“I’d much rather be known for being a brilliant Dad than being a good rugby player and that’s the biggest thing for me. I’m really lucky, I really am. Jen has gone over and beyond not only for our kids but to help me do something I love doing and I’m massively grateful for.”

O’Callaghan puts the support of his wife and family down as one of the reasons for his remarkable longevity, and they had a big part to play in his decision to commit to Worcester for another season, his 17th as a professional.

His hunger and appetite for the game remains undiminished and O’Callaghan has always been meticulous in his preparation and work off the pitch, citing former Munster captain Jim Williams as a big influence during the early stages of his career.

Now, at the age of 38 and with 94 Ireland caps, two Heineken Cups and two Lions tours behind him, he wants to give something back. He wants to shape the careers of some of Worcester’s young talent just like Williams and John Langford did when he was coming up through the Munster ranks.

“If I’m realistic and honest, I won’t taste success with Worcester,” O’Callaghan admits.

“I’ll always remember Jim Williams, John Langford coming in at Munster and they set the standard and they show you what’s right so maybe five, 10 years down the line that’s where a club starts to be successful. For me as a young lad I had huge respect for those guys who would critique you and they set values in us as players so for me it’s an important part of my role.

“I’m driven and hungry and I want us to do well. It’s crazy, I’m actually counting down the days until pre-season because I want to go back into it and smash it. I want it to be my best pre-season and I’m hungry for it . I genuinely think we have a squad to do something and I don’t think we have fulfilled our potential and that’s why I’m in it.

“The reason I signed on for another year is because I have an awful lot of faith in these guys and I want to drive Worcester on. I want to leave something here that I can look back on and say I added to the place.

“Also you know when you’re done. I spoke to an awful lot of my former team-mates because around Christmas it was just miserable and I thought about it. They all ask the same question and it’s: do you love it? And I love it and that was a conversation with me and Jen, that’s what it came down to in the end.

“She just said ‘if you want to go for it Don, go for it and we fully back you and when you do hang them up don’t have any regrets’ and if I had packed it in this year I probably would have felt there is still a bit in me to push on and do well.”

Jim Williams and Donncha O'Callaghan 25/4/2004 O'Callaghan says Jim Williams had a huge influence on his career. Source: INPHO

O’Callaghan adds: “I don’t know where that comes from, I’ll be honest, as I’ll be giving you some bullshit excuse but it’s mad, I’d definitely say I’m as hungry now as I was when I was starting off with Cork Con.

“I had big influencers in a brilliant time of my life. Looking at it at the time, when Munster signed Jim Williams, I didn’t think anything of it but just being around the guy everyday. I remember Deccie [Declan Kidney] telling me that it was up to me to pick Jim’s brain and learn from him and I was laughing at him. I was too busy, I knew it all and I wasn’t going to learn from Jim Williams. It’s not until you’re around the guy everyday and you just learn from him.

“I remember he was just meticulous about his body and he used to say ‘your body is your business’ and I remember he pulled me to one side after training one day and said: ‘You know why you trained poorly today, Donncha?’

“I didn’t think I did and I said ‘no Jim, I don’t’ and he told me I didn’t think about rugby between yesterday’s training session and now. You don’t keep a book, you don’t keep a journal and don’t take notes so you’re relying on rocking up and being good enough. You’re not that good, you need to study the game and that was harsh to hear at the time but he was 100% right.

“We used to have a 55kg set of dumbbells but all they were used for was as a door stop but when Jim came in, he dusted them down and used them all the time. He was actually looking for up to 70s and I remember after about three months of being around him, the most weight I’d lifted was probably 45 and then I was up to 55 because you see it and you’re around guys like that who are infectious and drive you on.”

Professional, driven, infectious and hard-working. They were the type of core values instilled in O’Callaghan as a player and as he brings them to the Worcester dressing room, the ultimate goal at this stage of his career is to make an impression.

He remains as committed, enthusiastic and determined to be the best he can be, both on and off the pitch, but the focus has shifted slightly. It’s not trophies or caps anymore, rather a responsibility. To lead the way and let his experience rub off on others.

“Dean was either a great salesman or I just believed him when he signed me,” the Cork native explains. “But I can see his vision for this place. I can see we can actually push on if we can get it right. You look back at teams who have done it, the Toulons and now even Saracens.

Rugby Union - Aviva Premiership - Worcester Warriors v Northampton Saints - Sixways Stadium O'Callaghan wants to drive the Worcester project on in 2017/18. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“I’ll probably be well gone out of it but maybe it’ll be a case of going to a European Cup final to watch Munster against Worcester in 10 years. That would be the ideal circumstance for me but I’m not done yet.

“I’ll be the first to put my hand up if I am but I’m there to give it everything for Worcester and if there are guys there playing better than me and hopefully that’s the case, my part may be something else within the squad. I’m fully committed to doing that as well but if it is to be my last year, I want to go out kicking and screaming and do something special.

“I want to leave having made an impression to the extent that some of the younger guys can say ‘yeah, he shaped us a bit’ and that would give you just as much satisfaction as everything else.”

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Ryan Bailey

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