'It makes you realise how special it is what Munster has. It's very hard to replicate'

Tommy O’Donnell explains how his family have helped him to develop resilience.

IF YOU ASKED them to settle on one trait that sums up Tommy O’Donnell as a rugby player, those who know him best would probably opt for resilience.

It’s true that every sportsperson needs to have an ability to bounce back from difficult times but the Tipperary man has been tested more often than most.

His injury travails are well-documented. Shoulders, ankles, knees, the lot – O’Donnell has been through the wringer.

tommy-odonnell O'Donnell has been supporting Movember this month with an eye-catching handlebar 'tache. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But every time, he has come to terms with the disappointment and worked his way back to fitness. He would certainly have more than the 172 Munster caps and 13 Ireland caps he has racked up to date had it not been for injuries, but the 32-year-old has always managed to return.

Of course, our families have a big say in who we become. They rub off on us, leave us with certain characteristics. In that sense, O’Donnell’s resilience started from his earliest days growing up on the family beef farm near Cahir in Tipperary.

“Coming from the farming background, you’ll have good years and bad years and you learn from that – you have to accept it,” says O’Donnell, who starts at openside in tonight’s Pro14 clash with Edinburgh at Musgrave Park [KO 7.35pm, eir Sport 1].

“In the good years, everything seems to go right and in the bad years, things aren’t going great and they keep piling on and piling on. You always have to take the good with the bad and you have to have that mentality going forward.”

O’Donnell’s father, Tom, ran the farm, which supplied their butcher shop up until they closed it around 12 years ago. Tommy helped out during summers as a young fella, although he ended up working on another local farm “because they were paying better!”

His mother, Mary, was a midwife at Clonmel Hospital, where she is now in an administration role, and it was through his parents that O’Donnell learned that setbacks were a challenge to be overcome.

“I was only chatting about it with my dad recently about never getting too down over anything,” says O’Donnell, who came through the ranks at Clanwilliam RFC before joining UL Bohemians when he moved to Limerick.

“It’s always that ‘it will be grand’ attitude and that’s very much my dad. My mum would be a little less but she’d have a similar attitude that at the end of the day it will all work out.”

tommy-odonnell-with-his-father-tom-after-the-game O'Donnell with his father, Tom, after a win last season. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

O’Donnell learned resilience from his brother, Gearóid, too. He passed away at the age of 33 in January 2018. 

Gearóid had battled with muscular dystrophy for most of his life and had to use a wheelchair from the age of 14. But the difficulties didn’t define Gearóid. He studied Arts in UCC and had his own home in Cork.

To see his brother bravely taking on life with such determination was inspiring for Tommy, as well as the rest of his family. The O’Donnells are a resilient bunch.

“That’s probably us as a family,” says Tommy. “A lot of that was us saying, ‘We’ll deal with it.’ Whatever came in front of us, we dealt with it and it came from my mum and dad, it came from Gearóid.

“My brothers John and Ciarán are very similar as well, they have that very positive attitude as things go.”

Gearóid was a massive Munster fan and his passing last year underlined to O’Donnell that he is part of something powerful with Munster.

“It did dawn on you at the funeral, you realise how much of a Munster presence was there – branch members, CEO, team managers, coaches, team-mates that turned up, fans. You realise the amount of impact you have,” he explains.

“Then the good wishes in the weeks afterwards from people who didn’t realise what had happened, so you get that sense of what Munster is and the amount of people who have invested in it, how much they look forward to a Heineken Cup schedule so they can book their holidays and that’s their trip away.

conor-murray-celebrates-scoring-his-sides-first-try-with-tommy-odonnell O'Donnell celebrates a try with Conor Murray at Thomond Park. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“People plan their year around Munster fixtures, the amount of money they spend to follow us, the things they’ll do to follow Munter around Europe. It doesn’t matter where it is or how small the stadium is, they’ll pack it out with the most tickets they possibly can.

“That makes you realise how special it is what Munster has. It’s very hard to replicate.”

O’Donnell signed a new two-year contract with Munster last October and is now enjoying a run without injury, while he eagerly threw himself into captaining the team on a couple of occasions early in the current season.

He was away for much of the summer with Joe Schmidt’s Ireland but missed out on the World Cup squad after completing the pre-season with the national team. Again, he needed that toughness to deal with the disappointment.

“As soon as you see the phone call, you know it’s not good news,” says O’Donnell of Schmidt informing him. “Your heart drops, you answer the phone and you grin and bear it.

“You ask a couple of questions and say that you respect his decision and that you’re ready to be called up if you’re needed. That’s all you can do.

“Then you come back to Munster and realise you’ve got a great squad here, have the opportunity to go on and win the two competitions you’re competing for.”

Helping him to keep perspective these days is also the fact that O’Donnell and his wife, Elisse, have two young children. Conan is nearly two-and-a-half, while Hayden is five-months-old, meaning Elisse is “flat out” busy and evening routines have changed.

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tommy-odonnell-celebrates-with-his-son-conan O'Donnell with his son, Conan, after playing for Ireland against Italy in August. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It’s dinner, baths, bed, a couple of hours to yourself and then your own kip, your own rest and recovery,” says O’Donnell.

With Limerick having won the All-Ireland last year and his extended family hailing from the Treaty County, there may be a toss-up between hurling and rugby when his kids start to play sports, but O’Donnell is enjoying how family life slightly changes how he views rugby. 

His appetite for training and playing has not diminished in the slightest, yet he has an altered outlook.

“You’re still 100% committed to rugby but there are other factors around it. If you’re away, you’re always thinking about how they’re getting on at home.

“When we went to South Africa it was only two weeks but it felt like a long time and I can only imagine what it was like for the lads at the World Cup who had kids left behind, how long it felt like they were gone away for. 

“It’s good because you realise that rugby, at the end of the day, is there to be enjoyed. It’s a career but you’re playing best when you’re enjoying it rather than fretting and frustrating about it the whole time.

“It’s good that it gives you that perspective that there’s more. Your career and rugby is very important but family health and wellbeing is the number one. Once you’re enjoying rugby, it will look after itself.”

And that mindset means O’Donnell is determined to get the utmost out of however long he has left in professional rugby. 

tommy-odonnell-celebrates-scoring-a-try-with-billy-holland O'Donnell is focusing on enjoying every moment he has left in rugby. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

He turned 32 in June and is eager to soak in everything that still lies ahead.

“It’s hard to predict,” says O’Donnell. “Going off the last two years, you never know what’s there. The main thing is just to contribute to Munster, to be fit and available to contribute.

“Add a bit of leadership, add a bit of positivity and whatever else you can add. I’m a few months into a two-year contract, so it’s just to give these two years everything I have and then whatever’s to be had at the end of that will look after itself.

“You’re coming closer to the end of your career so the penny has dropped that you have to give everything you have to these years and enjoy them from a team-mate perspective -  that interaction in the team room, on the bus, at lunch, in the hotel, enjoy those conversations and sitting down in a dressing room after we win.”

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