Waterford and Waterpark feel the pride as O'Donoghue debuts for Ireland

The 22-year-old starts at number eight against Canada in the Aviva Stadium this evening.

IT’S A PROUD day for rugby in Waterford, and particularly for Waterpark RFC.

Homegrown hero Jack O’Donoghue makes his debut for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland this evening, lining out at number eight against Canada at the Aviva Stadium [KO 7.15pm, RTÉ 2].

The Munster back row is one of three debutants in the Ireland team, with a further five uncapped players on the bench.

Jack O'Donoghue O'Donoghue [middle] makes his Ireland debut today. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

All eyes in the Déise will be on O’Donoghue, with a real sense of pride around the city at having a local play for Ireland. Ben Cronin was the last Waterpark man to play Test rugby back in 1997.

For Waterpark, O’Donoghue’s rise has been thrilling and rewarding to watch. Down at the clubhouse in Ballinakill, they’re not a bit surprised that the 22-year-old has reached international level.

“I knew in my heart and soul that it was a foregone conclusion that he was going to make the Irish team,” says Junior Drohan, a ‘Park man for most of his life and now the club’s media officer.

“Jack is just really a top-notch guy and he’s a great role model for all the kids in the club.”

O’Donoghue played all of his underage rugby with Waterpark, having come from a sports-mad family. His mother, Caroline, was a show jumper for Ireland, while her brother, Francis Connors, had a glittering international career in the same sport.

It was rugby that captured much of O’Donoghue’s imagination as a youngster, however, and he excelled as he came through the youth ranks in Waterpark.

“His ball carrying has always been phenomenal,” says John Molloy, a long-serving youths coach at Waterpark, who has moved up to take charge of the senior team this season.

“Jack’s reading of a situation in terms of where the play would break down was always exceptional, and his ability to handle the ball. We’d all know him as a number eight, so I’m absolutely delighted to see him in what we’d regard as his best position.”

Jack O'Donoghue and Stephen Duke O'Donoghue in action for Munster Youths in 2011. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

O’Donoghue was part of a classy crop of young players moving up through the Waterpark age grades together, with the likes of Billy Leslie, Brian McCarthy, Willie Walsh and Ro O’Hare all helping to coach that talent.

With each step up the ladder, O’Donoghue’s sheer potential became even more obvious.

“I remember one match at U17s when we were playing in Clonmel,” says Waterpark president Brian Morrissey. “A young guy on the wing for Clonmel was running up the line, where there’s a slight hill on that pitch.

“Jack was running beside him and he says, ‘You’re going to knock it on or I’m going to tackle you, what do you want to do?’ The poor guy knocked it on with Jack looming up beside him!”

By the time O’Donoghue and his club-mates reached that U17s level in 2009/2010 under influential head coach George Anderson, they were ready to become All-Ireland champions, defeating Enniscorthy in the final in Naas.

It was an historic first for the club and O’Donoghue was the star of the show.

“That day up in Naas, he was absolutely magnificent,” says Drohan. “He was outstanding and you could see it there, at that level, that there was no way this guy wasn’t going to make it. Jack stood out head and shoulders.”

O’Donoghue’s captaincy of the Ireland U18 Clubs side in 2012 was a big moment for himself and Waterpark, with the likes of Adam Byrne, Peter Dooley, John Madigan and Caolin Blade in that team with him.

This week, Ireland head coach Schmidt recalled how impressed he had been after first meeting O’Donoghue at the World Rugby U20 Championship in New Zealand in 2014, finding the youngster “level-headed and very driven.”

Jack O'Donoghue O'Donoghue was Ireland U20 captain in 2014. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Molloy says those elements of O’Donoghue’s make up were apparent from the very beginning in Waterpark.

“Even at underage level, all the way through, he was a natural leader. He showed maturity and leadership above his age at all times. That’s been highlighted everywhere he has gone. He’s often been picked as much as a leader as for his own skills.

“He captained the Ireland U20s despite lots of that squad having come from traditional rugby-playing schools. It was a reflection on his character.”

While show jumping might have been a big part of the O’Donoghue family’s background, rugby is at the forefront of life for Jack and his brothers, David and Nick.

David has played for Munster Juniors and is currently shining at number eight for Waterpark’s first team, who are top of Munster Junior League Division 2 with five wins in five games so far, three of them coming with bonus points.

“The chap is outstanding,” says Drohan. “If Dave was a few years younger, the way he’s playing now, he’d be a certainty to get an academy place.”

Meanwhile, younger brother Nick played scrum-half for Munster U18s this season, scoring a try as they beat Connacht to clinch the inter-provincial title.

“Nick is a very talented player,” says Morrissey. “He can play scrum-half, out-half or fullback, kick with either foot and pass off both sides. I can see a bright future for him.”

Typically for a Waterford family, hurling has been a part of the picture too. Jack played with the highly-successful Ballygunner club and for his school De La Salle College, featuring in the Harty Cup.

OD Bros David, Nick and Jack are all talented rugby players.

He was a good enough hurler to play for Waterford at underage levels and even went to county minor trials while still a year young.

But O’Donoghue was ultimately more interested in pursuing a professional career in the oval ball game and he headed for Limerick after leaving school, joining UL Bohemians and entering the Munster academy.

While O’Donoghue was something of an exception in departing Waterpark for that lofty level, losing players to bigger cities is an unfortunate reality for the Waterford club.

“The big problem we have is we lose players to Limerick or Cork or Dublin,” explains Drohan.

Not that Waterpark aren’t delighted to see their young stars go onto greater things. In fact, they are beginning to lure former underage players back to the club under their new homegrown senior coaching ticket of Molloy, Neil Kennealy, Nigel Daly and Jerry Miller.

O’Donoghue’s achievements since leaving Waterpark are simply inspiring for everyone involved in the club.

“It’s been a long time since we got anyone playing at Munster senior level and he’s the first guy in professional rugby that’s got this profile at Waterpark,” says Molloy. “He’s inspirational at all levels – from minis, youths, the coaches, and even at senior level.”

Lock Ben Cronin was the last Waterpark man to play for Ireland, winning two caps in 1995 and 1997.

Geordan Murphy once played for the club while studying at the Waterford Institute of Technology, while Waterpark’s John O’Neill played for Ireland ‘A’ and the likes of Dale Harris, Paul Molloy, Dean Landy, Dylan Power and Edwin Torrie won caps for Ireland underage and club teams.

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The Waterpark players celebrate with the cup Waterpark U18s celebrate this year's Munster title. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Given the sheer profile around Schmidt’s Ireland and the professional game now, however, this is something entirely new for Waterpark and Waterford.

“People are proud of him because they know him,” says Molloy. “Every chance he gets he’s still back in Waterpark and he’s kept his contact, his friends and mates here. He’s still one of the lads down here, still one of the boys.”

Drohan picks up that theme:

“Never, ever does he forget his roots. Any time he’s in Waterford, he’d be up at the U18s or U16s, whoever is playing he’d be at the game and he’d be in the club house after the game. He never forgets his roots.”

O’Donoghue’s rise is the latest success story for Waterpark’s prolific underage system, which has secured the club 10 trophies in the last 10 years.

Just last March, Waterpark won their second U16 and U18 Munster double, with Nick O’Donoghue in the latter side. The club continues to provide a large number of players for the province’s representative sides at U18, U19 and U20 levels.

The highly-promising Alex Molloy helped Ireland to trophy success in the Rugby Europe U18 Sevens Championship in Bucharest in September, while Harry Donnelly was part of the Ireland U18 Clubs’ win over Portugal just last weekend.

The hope in Waterpark is that O’Donoghue is blazing the trail for these exciting players coming through the club, and that the 22-year-old can show that it’s not just the renowned rugby schools that can produce talent for Irish rugby.

“I think Jack is one of the greatest examples of somebody who has come through a non-traditional rugby playing area where the opportunity has prevailed for him, where it might not have been the case a few years ago,” says Molloy.

Jack O'Donoghue O'Donoghue gets his Ireland debut against Canada. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“He’s a great success story from Munster youth and club rugby, rather than the traditional areas. That’s a credit to Munster, and Waterpark are just one of the clubs happening to benefit from that.”

Right now the feeling is one of deep pride at the prospect of seeing Waterford man O’Donoghue line up for the national anthem.

“It’s just a tremendous boost for rugby locally, not just for Waterpark,” says Morrissey.

The last words go to Drohan, the man who launched Waterpark’s youths system around 45 years ago and has seen it grow to the extent that there are more than 300 youngsters – including a youth girls side – and numerous coaches enjoying their rugby at Ballinakill every week.

“The whole place is so proud of Jack now. It’s unbelievable,” says Drohan.

“The whole town is talking about him. It’s just so great for his family, they’re an unbelievable family.”

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Murray Kinsella

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