Eoin O'Connor after his Munster debut in 2021. Ryan Byrne/INPHO
Irish Abroad

'It was crazy. As it got into the media, the buzz around it was unbelievable'

Waterford man Eoin O’Connor is now with Exeter after four years in Munster.

IT’S WINTER 2021 and Covid is still causing major disruption in professional rugby. For a time, the bulk of Munster’s squad are stranded in South Africa due to an outbreak of the virus among their travelling party.

Amid the chaos, there is talk of the province having to forfeit their Champions Cup clash with Wasps in Coventry. There is a fair degree of uncertainty back in Limerick, where the Munster academy players who didn’t travel to South Africa are training away. There’s also a crop of Ireland internationals who weren’t part of the trip.

They’re all called into the meeting room at Munster’s training centre in the University of Limerick. Up on the screen is head coach Johann van Graan, one of those stranded in South Africa. His message on the Zoom call is clear. The young lads and the old guns will come together for the European clash. Under no circumstances will Munster be forfeiting.

Second row Eoin O’Connor, then still only 21 and part of the academy, ends up as part of the makeshift Munster team who beat an admittedly depleted Wasps side.

“It was crazy,” says Waterford man O’Connor, who moved on from Munster to English club Exeter last summer.

“We had a two-week lead-up to it. we felt unbelievably well prepared. The senior internationals were so good to us younger lads giving us tips and tricks. There was no judgment, no questions were stupid.

“As it got into the media and the wider public, the buzz around it was unbelievable. I can’t think of a better way to make your Champions Cup debut for your home club.

“It was definitely a career highlight so far.”

Ensuring that day on 12 December 2021 was all the more special was the fact that his parents, Kay and John, were able to make it over to the game in Coventry.

“They’ve been at nearly every game I’ve ever played,” says 6ft 7ins, 120kg lock O’Connor. “I remember we played an A game in the IRFU high performance centre in Dublin and it was behind closed doors.

“My mother still drove up and sat in the car park because it was my first game back in two years after injury. She was just so nervous in case I did my knee again. My parents are the best supporters. They’ve been over to Exeter twice now and their support is unbelievable.”

That win in Wasps was the first of the four appearances O’Connor made in his four years with Munster. He played once in last season’s URC-winning campaign but sadly, a major part of his story with Munster was injury.

eoin-oconnor O'Connor in action against Ulster last year. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

First, that major knee injury, one that meant he missed out on being an Ireland U20 international, and later a groin issue. In all, he was injured for pretty much half of the four-year stint.

O’Connor still loved his time with Munster and he’s excited for this weekend’s Champions Cup clash between his old team and his new club at Sandy Park. The now 23-year-old has yet to debut for Exeter due to being out injured until recently but he’s looking forward to seeing all the familiar faces.

“You can’t get a better high than finishing with a URC win,” says O’Connor of how his time with Munster ended. “But it was kinda weird, it was a quick turnaround. It went from the homecoming and the very next day, I was packing my bags to leave Limerick.

“Then a couple of weeks later, the Champions Cup draw came out. I had been living with Craig Casey and Josh Wycherley and straight away, the two lads text me about the draw.”

O’Connor says he has taken away many valuable things from his time with Munster. He flags Billy Holland and Fineen Wycherley as big influences on him, particularly through their generosity in helping him learn about running a lineout.

The Déise man also picked up handy tips from World Cup-winning Springboks lock RG Snyman, who he rehabbed alongside. Skills work with the late Greig Oliver was particularly eye-opening.

“Greig used to take the injured lads for skills sessions and it would be me, RG, and a couple of other lads. It was a lot of offloading.

“We’d be stood in the gym throwing different offloads at each other. Just seeing how he can manipulate defenders to get the ball away, how he moves his body. He has some freakish skills.”

O’Connor was sidelined for the closing months of his time with Munster, a groin issue that he carried into his time with Exeter meaning his last appearance was a URC start against Ulster in October 2022.

When it was time to look to the next chapter, he jumped at the opportunity to join Exeter on a two-year deal. O’Connor was particularly encouraged having seen lots of Irish players do well with the Premiership club.

“Tom Hayes came over here a good while ago and was captain for a long time. Dunney [Jack Dunne] and Rory [O'Loughlin] had been here the last year or so.

“Jack came over and played over 20 games in his first season. That made me excited to come over and get opportunities.”

jack-odonoghue-eoin-oconnor-and-thomas-ahern-celebrate-with-the-urc-trophy O'Connor [second from right] at the URC homecoming. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

O’Connor hasn’t been able to play for the senior side just yet but has been grateful to Rob Baxter and co. for their patience and care in making sure his groin injury completely healed before he returned to full training. He has now played a couple of times for Exeter’s A team, his first action since the All-Ireland League with Young Munster back in January, and is aiming to break into a team that has started the season impressively.

With lots of big-name departures in recent times, there hadn’t been great outside expectations for Exeter but they’ve won five of their eight games in the Premiership so far and had a brilliant last-gasp win away to Toulon in the Champions Cup last weekend.

“I think some people maybe wrote us off before the start of the season thinking it’s a young team but we’ve started really well and it’s so exciting,” says O’Connor.

“Going from Munster, it was very detail-based and structured in how we play and over here it’s a bit more ‘jouez‘ which I’m really enjoying. The coaches are very detailed in their own right but it’s a different style of play. I think it’s great to experience that.

“I spoke to [ex-Munster out-half] Jake Flannery after he moved to Ulster, I was looking for advice, and he said the same thing – going to a different club and seeing how different things can be, he had nothing but good things to say about that experience.

“That’s how I’ve felt so far. I’ve only been here for 5 or 6 months but I’ve already learned an incredible amount.”

Away from the job, O’Connor is embracing life in Exeter, which he compares to Cork in terms of its size and vibe. His girlfriend, Anne Marie, moved over with him and is working in real estate, while their new home in an old farmhouse just outside Exeter sounds delightful.

Exeter folk are rugby-mad so it’s similar to Munster that way. O’Connor recounts how he was shopping in Ikea in his first week there and the locals who heard his accent immediately asked if he was a new signing for the rugby club. 

Anne Marie hails from Kilkenny, which is a little controversial given that O’Connor is the grandson of legendary Waterford hurler Philly Grimes. And she wasn’t happy when he was shouting for Limerick in this year’s All-Ireland final.

Dunmore East man O’Connor is proud to be representing Waterford in pro rugby. Historically, the Déise hasn’t produced many top-level rugby players but he followed in the footsteps of Jack O’Donoghue and Thomas Ahern to show that times are changing.

O’Connor hurled, initially with Mount Sion like his grandfather but then with Ballygunner after he moved to the Gaultier club to play football. He also played soccer with Bohemians but some of his friends were with Waterpark RFC and O’Connor wanted to get involved in rugby.

conor-hayes-celebrates-scoring-a-try-with-eoin-oconnor O'Connor came through Waterpark and then played for Young Munster. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

He started at the age of eight and slowly rugby took over. Waterpark coaches like Tommy Bowe and Billy Leslie had a big influence on him as he then rose through the Munster underage ranks and earned Ireland U18 and U19 caps.

O’Connor even played for the Waterpark’s men’s J1 side when he was in his final year of secondary school, Munster having given him dispensation.

“I loved that year,” says O’Connor. “I still talk to some of the lads today. You’d go up to Bandon away, St Senan’s in Limerick. Those long bus trips when you’re 18 and with all these men and the craic was really enjoyable.”

There’s great pride in Waterpark now to see O’Connor having advanced to make his Munster debut and then earn a move over to the Premiership.

For O’Connor himself, there’s great pride too.

“My mother and father would tell me that younger kids in Waterpark now look at me or Thomas Ahern or Jack O’Donoghue. That gives you pride. As a young kid, you usually just want to play for your county but to play for your province and then represent where you’re from when you’re abroad, it’s great pride.

“I love Waterford, I love getting back there. My parents say there’s always people asking how I’m getting on. My mum forwards every message she ever gets. It’s nice to see how much people want you to do well.”

It used to be the case that O’Connor only wanted Munster to win, but he’s on the other side for this weekend.

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