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'I think it's something special' - O'Donnell happy to retire as a one-club man

The Munster flanker is set to call it a day at the end of the season.

Tommy O'Donnell.
Tommy O'Donnell.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Updated May 27th 2021, 12:51 PM

TOMMY O’DONNELL HAS 186 games for Munster under his belt, and a maximum of three more ahead of him. Once the province’s involvement in the Rainbow Cup ends, he’ll pack up his things and say goodbye to a club he’s called home for the last 14 seasons.

There’s been a lot of memories packed into that career, but one day stands out above all others.

“I suppose it’s hard not to go past the Axel game, just the raw emotion that was there that week and that day,” O’Donnell says.

The flanker started at openside on that remarkable occasion where, just 24 hours after the funeral of Anthony Foley, Munster produced one of those special Thomond Park days to beat Glasgow Warriors.

“I think you could have put any team in the world against us that day and we would have got through.

“There was a lot of emotion leading up to it, there was a big Shannon vibe there, ‘There is an Isle’ was playing, the way the game went, a red card and it just didn’t faze us and we kept going. 

“That probably stands out as a huge moment, just because of the emotion and the performance of the week.”

a-view-of-thomond-park-as-the-two-teams-stand-for-a-minutes-silence-in-memory-of-anthony-foley The Munster and Glasgow teams line up before their 2016 Champions Cup meeting. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Foley’s name keeps cropping up as O’Donnell picks through his own career in red.

“It’s not until you look back on it, (you realise) how influential he was,” O’Donnell explains.

“When I drew the line under my career and started to reflect back on all the coaches who helped you out and all the years you had within Munster Rugby, they probably blended into each other while you were playing, until you actually take a moment to go back and you separate out the seasons and separate out where you got better and stuff. 

But like, Anthony as a Munster man was hugely important because he was always rooting for the Munster player. He always saw the talent. His biggest thing was ‘why can’t they see it? Why can’t they see how good they can be?’ 

“When you look back now, he was always helping me after training, pulling me aside to do that extra little bit of carrying, that extra bit of contact work. When he was in the assistant role he made more time to do that and that’s where it actually paid the biggest dividends for me. It was in those years as an assistant, that’s when I actually made the breakthrough into becoming a starter for Munster.

“He was also watching my games that year when I was outside of the starting XV for Munster, when I was playing the AIL games for UL Bohs and playing well for UL Bohs, he was the one watching those games and then fighting your corner as well in the coaches’ meetings for you to get gametime.

“So he was hugely important in that 2012 year for me getting into the team, getting me a run of games.”

O’Donnell began life at Munster as a versatile flanker before specialising at openside.

“I was always (playing) six or eight when I was coming up through U20s and it wasn’t until my development year that I was really cast into the seven role. So I never really looked at myself as a natural seven, but Axel, his main thing, he was constantly backing me. He knew I could tackle, he knew I was good at the ruck and was just constantly backing me to get the ball in my hand and to express myself and to express myself as a ball carrier. 

“I think that’s where he was really encouraging me to be good at. He knew I was good at tackling and that I was well capable of defending, clearing out rucks and doing the dirty work. He just wanted me to get on the ball and express myself my abilities as a ball carrier. That’s where he continually helped me to get better.”

The Tipperary man made his Munster debut as a raw 20-year-old Academy flanker in September 2007, playing the final three minutes of a 22-16 win against the Scarlets at Musgrave Park. It would be his only involvement with the senior team that season. 

He’d clock up another 16 minutes off the bench in the 2008/09 campaign, before earning his first start in the early stages of the 2009/10 season. From there, his first-team involvements began to steadily increase.

tommy-odonnell-tackled-by-leigh-halfpenny-and-sam-norton-knight O'Donnell in action against the Cardiff Blues in 2009. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Despite some notable long-term injury setbacks along the way, he’ll retire just a handful of games shy of breaking into the top 10 list of Munster’s all-time most capped players. 

Being Munster, and remaining Munster, has meant a lot to the 34-year-old.

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“I think it’s something special. There are plenty of guys who have gone on and played for other clubs and had incredible careers,” he continues.

But having grown up watching Munster and played for them, it’s special. I had offers in different contract negotiations over the years to change clubs and ply my trade somewhere else but I think there has always been a call to stay with Munster and to try and prove myself on my home field, and that I could mix it with Munster for as long as I did.”

O’Donnell is clearly content with his decision to call it a day, and feels a sense of pride as he reflects on a journey that started back at Clanwilliam FC in Tipperary.

“When you come through from the Youths system you look back now and see how raw you were compared to lads who are coming through from the Youths’ system now. Just the quality of coaching and quality of player coming through the system now is much better.

“So I look back on how raw I was… I thought I was good and then it’s not until you get into the professional set-up and you realise that there are continually ladders and places you have to hit.

“I’m very happy with how I did that and how I achieved them, notwithstanding a few injuries. I probably could have gone further but you have to take those injuries when they come and timing of injuries is huge for some players.

“Some players get the rub of the green and some don’t, but I’m happy that I kept plugging, that I kept going throughout my career and got as far as I did.”

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About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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