Ben Brady/INPHO Munster's Jack O'Donoghue.
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'That mental side of the game, it's something that probably I hadn't really tapped into'
Munster flanker Jack O’Donoghue on his strong form this season, and Graham Rowntree’s promotion to head coach.

JACK O’DONOGHUE HAS described Graham Rowntree as “an incredible character” following Tuesday’s announcement that the Munster forwards coach will be promoted to the role of head coach from next season.

Rowntree will take over from outgoing boss Johann van Graan for what will be his first shot at a head coach position, and flanker O’Donoghue has explained what makes the former England prop such a popular figure with the squad.

At half-time during the province’s 13-8 defeat to Exeter Chiefs last weekend, TV cameras caught Rowntree giving an animated address in the Munster dressing room, but O’Donoghue says that’s just one part of his personality.

“Very passionate. I think you saw that from that little two second clip,” O’Donoghue explains. 

“He’s incredibly passionate about the game, about the scrums, about the breakdown, about the nitty-gritty stuff. Yeah, he gave us a bit of a kick up the hole but the messages after that were really calm and composed. While that’s something you saw in that little snippet, from after that the messaging and stuff we were very calm and composed, and we knew exactly what we needed to change and what we needed to do when we out there.

Graham is an incredible character to have around the place. He’s well able to identify when you’re maybe a bit down and knows exactly how to pick a player up and to motivate a player. Certainly around selection and maybe (if) they’re having a tough time with form and stuff, he’s a good man to put an arm around a player and bring him along.

“I think that’s just the vibe around the place and I think that’s why players do speak so highly of him.”

While it will be a summer of change for Munster – with the province yet to confirm Rowntree’s coaching team – O’Donoghue is well placed to remain a key figure under the new man.

With Peter O’Mahony ruled out of last Saturday’s trip to Exeter, along with a string of senior players, O’Donoghue stepped up to captain Munster for the first time in Europe, another nice milestone for a player who enjoyed some strong form this season.

jack-odonoghue-leads-his-side-out-ahead-of-the-game Dan Sheridan / INPHO O'Donoghue captained Munster in Exeter last weekend. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“I go back to last season, I was chipping away, chipping away but there were certain aspects of my game that I really needed to fine tune and I think during the pre-season I certainly did that,” he continues.

“Look, Caroline (Currid) coming in is a massive help to talk about the mental side of the game, and when things are maybe going badly in a game, how you can swing that around to a positive. But like I said, I just hit good form and we just seem to build on each game we go into so I can’t exactly put my finger on it.”

O’Donoghue is far from the first Munster player to highlight the work being done by  performance psychologist Caroline Currid, who has been involved with All-Ireland winning teams in Limerick and Tipperary [hurling], as well as Tyrone and Dublin [football].

The 28-year-old believes his own upturn in form is largely down to the work he’s done around the mental side of the game.

“One hundred per cent mental, it is a huge part of the game now at the moment, that mental side of the game, and it’s something that probably I hadn’t really tapped into much as I look back on my career, you know?

caroline-currid-with-johann-van-graan Dan Sheridan / INPHO Munster sport psychologist Caroline Currid with head coach Johann Van Graan. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s certainly something that I think is very beneficial to younger players coming through because you see yourself on a nice steady rise, and then maybe you might plateau at a certain stage in your career. For me, that could have been my injury, and then trying to kick on again and reach the heights that maybe you had before your injury and, you know, it’s something that I probably hadn’t tapped into until the preseason just got gone.”

At 28, O’Donoghue is almost an older statesmen in the Munster pack as emerging talents such as John Hodnett, Alex Kendellen and Tom Aherne continue to push through.

“It’s really exciting because the energy those younger lads give you when you’re on the field and the skillset that they have, it’s so enjoyable to play alongside them. I’ve been lucky to be able to play alongside them for most of the season. 

John, Kendo or Tom Aherne, they have these moments on the field where you are almost in awe of them because of the skill set that they possess and the things that they can do, you know, be it over the ball and a poach or a chop-tackle.” 

This weekend, Munster need to overturn a five-point deficit if they are to progress to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup, with Exeter making the trip to Thomond Park on Saturday.

The province put in a massive defensive effort at Sandy Park in the first leg of their round of 16 tie, but the performance also left much to be desired, with Van Graan’s side dominated at the breakdown and sloppy in attack.

“I think back-to-back matches you will always have a better understanding of exactly what the opposition are going to bring,” O’Donoghue adds.

“That breakdown, they really came after us at the end there in terms of their goal-line D. They have a big pack and they have a powerful back row and for us it’s about trying to be a bit more dominant than them in our collisions and in our breakdown and give ourselves good ball to play off.

“(I was) Very proud of the lads and the fight that they brought. And to be able to dig in and keep Exeter out at the end, but frustrated with the opportunities we left out on the field and obviously we didn’t start the way we wanted to. But, on reflection, we know what we have to do and we’re going out there on Saturday and, look, it’s knockout rugby for us now and we are going to give it our best.

“Thomond Park… just thinking about it, you get that buzz, you are going to feel the crowd but we can’t let that get the better of us. We have to stay on task. We know exactly what we have to do and we have to stay calm and stay composed and when the whistle goes that we hit the ground running and we really go at them from the start.”

In the final episode of the series, The Front Row – The42’s new rugby podcast in partnership with Guinness – welcomes comedian Killian Sundermann in to studio. The online funnyman fills us in on his schools rugby days, gaining recognition during the pandemic, making his stand-up debut and travelling around Europe in a van. Click here to subscribe or listen below:

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