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Dublin: 12°C Thursday 22 April 2021

'There's no question I would have loved another few years in rugby'

Eoin O’Malley was forced to retire at 25 but has made a success of life post-rugby.

AS EOIN O’MALLEY made the move from rugby into the pub industry, having been forced to retire from professional sport aged just 25, he soon learned that not everything from his former career was going to transfer into his new line of work.

One of the cultural elements Joe Schmidt had brought into Leinster when O’Malley was playing was everyone in the organisation shaking hands with each other in the morning.

“I thought it was a brilliant thing to do, so I said we’d do it in the pubs,” explains O’Malley with a smile.

“But you’d have people of all nationalities, some only working there a day, some for a year, some not in this for a career – all of these different people working in the pubs – and they’re looking at you like you’ve lost your marbles!”

Eoin O'Malley O'Malley was an outstanding outside centre. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He also learned that the directness of communication that is part of daily life in professional rugby wasn’t quite suited to his new gig. Delivering critical, constructive feedback requires a lighter touch outside the rugby bubble.

“When you’re in a video session as a player and you’ve made a mistake and it’s clear as day, it’s called out in front of 40 or 50 people.

“Your heart sinks and you’re embarrassed or whatever, that’s just the way it is. You got used to it but you never loved it. You definitely have to be a bit more diplomatic about it in the workplace.”

Those lessons aside, O’Malley has made a success of his enforced retirement from rugby. He’s now part of the Loyola Group – who own and run pubs including The Bath, The Landmark and The Leopardstown Inn in Dublin – along with his brother, Brian, and group director Stephen Cooney. 

In an alternate universe where a knee injury hadn’t ended his playing days, O’Malley – who turned 31 earlier this month – could be preparing for a World Cup with Ireland.

An intelligent outside centre, O’Malley helped Belvedere College to the Leinster Schools Senior Cup in 2005 and went on to excel for Ireland at underage levels before making his senior Leinster debut under Michael Cheika in 2009.

A year later, with Schmidt having taken over, O’Malley – who friends know as ‘Chubbo’ – shone in a highly impressive Heineken Cup debut in Leinster’s 13 shirt away to Clermont, underlining his ability. 

In total, he won 54 caps for his province and would have had more but for the presence of Brian O’Driscoll. O’Malley was part of Ireland’s 2012 Six Nations squad too and, again, would almost certainly have gone on to win many caps after O’Driscoll’s retirement.

But O’Malley was cut down by injury. Having overcome a career-threatening hip injury earlier in his career, he suffered a serious knee injury in what he called a “freak accident” in the 2012 Pro12 semi-final against Glasgow.

Eoin O'Malley goes off injured O'Malley is helped off injured by the late Prof Arthur Tanner. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Though he showed grit to battle through 10 months of rehab and play for Leinster five more times the following season, O’Malley was eventually forced to accept that his time in the game was up. He announced his retirement in August 2013.

Naturally, it was a devastating blow but O’Malley came through the dejection and began to look to what came next. He had been keeping an eye on life post-rugby and was in the midst of a Master’s degree in Finance when forced to retire.

“I had the hip injury when I was about 20 and thought I might have to finish playing then, so that gave me a bit of a reminder that you’re not invincible and needed to keep an eye on post-rugby.”

It left O’Malley well placed to eventually go into business with his brother and Cooney, as they expanded their portfolio, which has continued to grow in recent years and now includes a gastropub called The Cheeky Pup in the Algarve in Portugal.

O’Malley admits the learning curve was steep.

“The first pub I was involved in, the manager, John O’Toole, had been running pubs for 20 years and I was talking to him as if I had a clue. I’d say he was looking at me wondering what I was talking about.”

But many of the habits O’Malley had relied on in rugby did transfer and the Dubliner believes ex-pros have a skillset that can be adapted to new careers.

He was recently part of a Rugby Players Ireland panel with Kevin McLaughlin and Andy Dunne as they spoke to current pros to share their experiences of life post-rugby.

“The discipline is huge, the level of training, and players are really ambitious,” says O’Malley. “Most have had success and they want more, they want to be the best. It’s been in them since they were 10 or younger. 

“It’s just directing that somewhere else when you finish. I do think that there are a huge amount of transferable skills.”

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Eoin O'Malley wears the number 13 shirt The Belvo man was a pure outside centre. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

Many rugby folk who knew O’Malley as a player will tell you he was destined to be O’Driscoll’s heir, but the man himself says his discipline came from a belief that he wasn’t as naturally gifted as those around him.

“I was never the most talented. I always felt you need the discipline to get ahead of someone more talented. I motivated myself out of fear that way probably – ‘if you don’t work this hard, you won’t get picked.’

“The only downside to that is you probably don’t enjoy it as much. I used to use negatives and fears as motivators instead of saying, ‘This is brilliant.’”

O’Malley is still close friends with several of the current Leinster squad but his direct involvement in rugby extends to getting to the big games as a casual fan.

He initially liked the idea of coaching but with his young family – wife Lara and son Bobby – the commitment even at a lower level of club rugby would be too much.

When he speaks with former team-mates who are still playing, O’Malley can see the benefits of having been out of the game since 2013, but there is also the recognition of how special a job professional rugby is.

“There are definitely positives like the flexibility and the fact you don’t have to make the sacrifices. If you were playing a game, it just wasn’t an option to go to a friend’s wedding or a family occasion. It did feel like you were in school at times – ‘be here at this time, wear these clothes.’ 

“But there’s no question I would have loved another few years in rugby. I really enjoyed it while I was there.

“I think it’s class what the lads are doing, it’s an unbelievable career. You won’t get that buzz again, I don’t think – that adrenaline and that same team environment.”

While his retirement was difficult, O’Malley is grateful for his experiences in rugby.

Paul O'Connell, Jonathan Sexton and Eoin O'Malley O'Malley with Paul O'Connell and Johnny Sexton at Ireland training in 2012. Source: Cathal Noonan

Playing and training alongside the likes of O’Driscoll, Johnny Sexton, fellow Belvo old boy Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip, as well as working under coaches like Cheika and Schmidt leave him with many fond memories.

“Joe was very good to me,” says O’Malley of the Ireland boss. “I found his detail as a coach phenomenal and everyone probably has insight into that now.

“As a person, he was very good to me, even when I was injured. He was making sure I got the best of care, trying to get me back. And when it didn’t happen, he was unbelievably supportive with the pubs.”

Indeed, O’Malley is appreciative of the support the rugby family continues to show him even now after he has successfully moved on from the game.

He tells of how, after one of Ireland’s Six Nations games, Schmidt stopped the team bus after leaving the Aviva Stadium and brought the entire squad into one of O’Malley’s newly-opened pubs.

“All the players, the physios, the coaches, everyone all arrived in and had a couple of beers.

“After the first game of the Six Nations, it’s not something Joe would be encouraging regularly, so that was class. Even for the business, it had a great effect.

“The last time the squad were over in Portugal training [before this year's Six Nations], they all booked in for their team night at The Cheeky Pup.

“They went out of their way to support it and that happens here in Dublin with the pubs too, ‘Oh, we’ll go to Chubbo’s place,’ and that’s class.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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