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Tomás O’Leary’s new start in Exile

 

IT WAS a long night for Tomás O’Leary. There was an important phonecall coming the following morning and he feared the worst.

A few hours earlier at Lansdowne Road, his mistake cost Ireland victory over France in their last warm-up game before the 2011 World Cup squad would be named.

That match had been a chance for O’Leary to install himself as Ireland’s first-choice scrum-half for the tournament. Instead he played himself out of contention.

“It didn’t go well against France,” he says. An intercept pass that gifted Francois Trinh-Duc the winning try sent O’Leary back to pre-season training with Munster while Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss boarded the plane to New Zealand.

“There was a bit of a push against me being selected from media and fans because I wasn’t playing well, so that didn’t help. The France game was the defining factor in terms of selection.”

It’s now 12 months on from the biggest disappointment of O’Leary’s career. He maintains he’s over it, but the pain is still there beneath the surface.

He doesn’t enjoy recalling that Sunday morning last August when Declan Kidney phoned him to confirm that his services weren’t required in New Zealand.

“I had a feeling it was coming alright,” he says. “Obviously based on my performances in the warm-up games the coaching staff felt I wasn’t up to it.

“I still think I would have been a good option for the World Cup and that Ireland would have been better off having me there. I’d love to have played in the World Cup but that’s all in the past now and I don’t have any issues with it.”

There have been more lows than highs for Tomás O’Leary over the last two years, but missing out on the World Cup was the nadir. The scrum-half turns 29 in October but has yet to play in the tournament.

He doesn’t shy away from the fact that his form recently has dipped. The Tomás O’Leary who earned Lions selection in 2009 hasn’t been seen for a while, although a series of injuries haven’t helped.

The emergence of Conor Murray pushed him down the food chain for club and country. Munster offered O’Leary a two-year extension to stay and fight for his place, but he felt a fresh start was required.

Like all Corkonians, he’s proud of his patch. But he needed to get away for the sake of his career and there were attractive options abroad.

“I pretty much had my mind made up last January,” O’Leary says. “The way the last year or two had gone at Munster, I just felt that I was down the pecking order and I felt that I needed a fresh environment to reinvigorate myself.

“There was nothing left for me to achieve with Munster. It would have been great to win more stuff with them while I was there but it’s about a life experience as well; living away from home.”

Reports suggested that a move to Perpignan had been agreed, so London Irish’s announcement of the capture of O’Leary on a three-year deal in March took everyone by surprise.

“I spoke to Perpignan and a couple of other clubs but when I met Brian Smith I was impressed by his vision and his ambitions for London Irish,” says O’Leary.

“He wanted me too and that’s always good to hear. It felt like the right move to make. I always enjoyed visiting London and it’s a different lifestyle over here compared to Cork, but the change isn’t too drastic either.

“There’s obviously no language barrier or anything like that. Perpignan has got the sunshine and a nice lifestyle, but I felt London Irish would be a better fit.

“I went with my gut instinct on this because it felt right. It’s definitely something I would have regretted if I hadn’t done it.

“Very few Irish players leave Ireland so clubs in England and France sometimes wonder if they’re being used as a bargaining tool by a player trying to bump up his contract in Ireland.

“But I knew I wanted to go. I knew I needed to leave Ireland to try and get my career back on track and start playing regular rugby again.”

As that career veered off track, O’Leary acted as reserve to Conor Murray for Munster throughout last season – he started on the bench for all seven of their Heineken Cup games – despite believing he was worthy of far more game-time.

However, he denies ever clashing with then-coach Tony McGahan over the issue of selection.

“I always got on well with Tony. We never fell out with each other, I just fell out of favour.

“There were no issues. We always got on well personally. It was his job to pick what he thought was his best team so it was nothing personal.

“I wasn’t playing my best rugby. Sometimes I thought I deserved to be picked but I wasn’t, whereas other times when I was dropped I totally deserved to be.

“At times last season I felt I should have been starting in the Heineken Cup but I wasn’t. But I certainly don’t think I was hard done by over my Munster career either.

“Munster had become a bit of a comfort zone for me. You’re hanging around with your mates from home, growing up with the same squad for seven or eight years and you know everyone inside out.

“It would have been a fresh challenge with a new coach coming in but I really think I needed a totally new environment.”

He has looked like a player suffering from a loss of confidence lately, but London Irish could be the perfect place to rebuild it. The Exiles have waited a long time for a high-profile Irish international so O’Leary will be cherished.

But he’ll also be expected to deliver on the field, particularly as one of the senior players in a young but promising team.

“Coming into a new club is a different experience for me but the lads have been pretty good. Getting to know so many new faces and names in the first week or two was pretty hard but the fresh challenge has been enjoyable.

“The club don’t go too well last season but the positive thing is that there doesn’t seem to be any sort of hangover from it.

“There’s a bit of pressure and responsibility on my shoulders here in terms of my role within the club. Munster had more established senior players but it’s a young and inexperienced squad here.

“But that’s good. That’s what I want. I know I’m new to the club but I’m also one of the more experienced lads in the set-up and that’s part of the reason they signed me.”

O’Leary is still not quite sure what to expect from the Premiership, but he’ll have a clearer indication after London Irish begin their campaign against Saracens at Twickenham on September 1.

Boss Brian Smith wants to end the season in the top four and, having seen some of the talent at Smith’s disposal since he began pre-season training last month, O’Leary believes that goal is attainable.

“There are some really exciting players here so I definitely think it’s realistic for the club to target the top four.

“From chatting to the lads who have been here for a few years, they’re saying this pre-season has been totally refreshing and totally different to the last few years. Hopefully that can translate on to the pitch.”

While his primary focus will be on performing for London Irish, adding to his 24 international caps will never be far from O’Leary’s mind. Declan Kidney has assured him that he’ll be watching.

“He’s said he’ll keep an eye on how I’m doing over here so hopefully it won’t restrict me from getting back in with the international set-up as long as I’m playing well.

“It’ll obviously be more difficult getting picked for Ireland when I’m over here, but I also felt this was a move I needed to make if I wanted to get back in because I wasn’t going to get back in anyway if I stayed with Munster as wasn’t playing regular rugby.

“This is an opportunity for me to put myself back into the minds of the management. Hopefully if I’m playing well they’ll see the odd game.

“It’s when you’re not being picked that you realise how much it means to you. When you see the team playing without you it does hurt.

“Where I’ve fallen down over the last couple of years is that I haven’t been performing consistently at club level. The hope is that the new environment here can allow me to make a fresh start.”

These next few years are when O’Leary should be hitting his peak and he’s now got that clean start that he craved.

He proved himself to be one of the northern hemisphere’s top scrum-halves between 2008 and ’09, winning a Heineken Cup, a Grand Slam and a Lions call-up.

He’s convinced he’s capable of recapturing that form and London Irish will need him to do so if their top-four goal is to be achieved.

O’Leary says: “I’m confident I can hit peak form over the next few years. If I can get a good run and an injury-free season I definitely think I can get back to that kind of form.”

 

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