The last time we spoke to Tomás O’Leary was during a bad week for the scrum-half. He’d injured his thumb a month into the season and, having undergone surgery, was told he’d miss all four of Ireland’s autumn Tests. The worst thing was he’d suffered the injury while losing to Leinster – a fourth loss in a row to their rivals. The Munsterman was hurting.
But now the smile is back on O’Leary’s face. Not one to dwell on the frustration that comes from having to watch your team-mates from the side of the pitch, he took a trip to New York with his girlfriend before returning home to his training routine. Determined to return as soon as possible, he worked hard during his time off, the only thing missing from his regular schedule the games themselves.
The effort paid off and in his third game back, O’Leary found himself as Munster’s No 9 for the Heineken Cup clash against the Ospreys in Limerick. Given Peter Stringer’s form for Ireland during the autumn, it was a bold call by Tony McGahan but O’Leary repaid the faith by playing his part in two tries in a 22-16 victory.
O’Leary hasn’t played Test rugby since June, but he was glued to his TV screen in the autumn while Ireland followed sluggish defeats by South Africa and New Zealand with a record 29-9 win over Argentina. “It was a bit of a mixed bag,” he says, “and personally frustrating because you want to play every game. Whether you’re watching Munster or Ireland you’d love to be out there. A lot of the lads were really disappointed with the South Africa game, but the conditions dictated that it was difficult to play rugby. They lost to New Zealand as well but that was a pretty good performance, especially when you compare it to how the other countries got on against them. The lads would have been hoping to win all of the games but it’s difficult when you’re playing New Zealand and South Africa.”
If things have picked up in recent weeks for O’Leary, he believes Ireland’s fortunes are about to follow suit. Having finished the autumn on a high, they go into the new year optimistic about their chances in the Six Nations. Ireland will enjoy home advantage against France and England, and with Scotland briefly overtaking Ireland in the world rankings in November, the tournament promises to be more competitive than ever.
O’Leary knows there’s no substitute for wins for building team confidence, but having a capacity crowd roaring them on at the Aviva Stadium wouldn’t half help too. Ireland struggled to fill their seats in November, with tickets sold in expensive packages, and the Lansdowne Road atmosphere of old was missed by all. O’Leary hopes a revised ticketing policy will get bums firmly back on seats.
“It’s really important that we get as many fans as possible in the stadium to get behind us. A good atmosphere improves people’s performances so hopefully for the Six Nations we can get a full crowd into the Aviva. It would be good to get a good few results to give the crowd something to cheer about too. Every game will be tough, it’s not going to be an easy Six Nations. Scotland are going well and the Italians are too, which they showed when Aironi beat Biarritz.”
With a World Cup in the back of every player’s mind, competition for places will be tough, and Declan Kidney will also have his eye on Stringer, Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss this month. O’Leary has been first choice when fit in recent times, but he’s not become complacent about his standing within the squad, and is hoping that a bit of friendly rivalry will spark a run of success for the team.
“I’m training hard and I’d be disappointed if I don’t get back in, but it does happen,” he says. “The Six Nations will be the last window for players aiming to get into the World Cup squad so it’s going to be ultra-competitive, which will hopefully improve our performances. There will be games where others get opportunities, and not every player will face every opposition. I’m looking forward to playing myself, but it’s good for the lads to get a run and get a chance.”
Before the Six Nations and subsequent World Cup, O’Leary will be engaged in Munster’s Heineken Cup and Magners League campaigns this month. The 27-year-old is in his sixth season for the province, with another one left on his contract after this – and is showing no signs of wanting to move on from Thomond Park.
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“I don’t really think about the World Cup too much, especially as I haven’t been involved with Ireland recently. I haven’t been to a World Cup before so I definitely want to go to one with Ireland, but if I think about it then the immediate future will go out of my mind, and you can’t let that happen. I’ve just been aiming to get back there with Munster, this is a fairly massive season for us. I’m pretty happy here at the moment. It’s a great place to play rugby with great professionals, and if you’re playing regularly for Munster you’re in with a shot for the Irish team.”
Fans will no doubt be delighted to see O’Leary back on the pitch, and will hope his cheery disposition translates into tangible rewards for Munster and Ireland.