Donncha O'Callaghan: An elite sportsman, a family man, and a bona fide rugby legend

Donncha O'Callaghan: An elite sportsman, a family man, and a bona fide rugby legend
Donncha O'Callaghan, Simon Zebo and Peter O'Mahony pictured at the Wagamama Cook-Off. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

WHEN I think about Donncha O’Callaghan, I think of a guy I’ve seen on the biggest stages in rugby, and in multi-storey car parks in Cork City. 

I don’t know Donncha personally, but I seem to have this weird knack of bumping into him in St Finbarr’s car park with the kind of regularity that would make a fella suspicious. It always blew my mind a small bit.

“That’s Donncha O’Callaghan.” 

 This is the guy I saw piling Sebastien Chabal into the Ballynanty End and win trophy after trophy in the Millenium Stadium and there he was just pulling out of a car park like it’s no big deal. But that’s who Donncha was to a guy like me that didn’t know him.

An elite sportsman, a family man, and a bona-fide Irish rugby legend. O’Callaghan announced his retirement from the game over the weekend and the game of rugby will be poorer for it.

Donncha O'Callaghan, Simon Zebo and Peter O'Mahony pictured at the Wagamama Cook-Off. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Donncha O'Callaghan, Simon Zebo and Peter O'Mahony pictured at the Wagamama Cook-Off. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

The selfish part of me - the small, petty part - wishes that Donncha O’Callaghan’s last game as in the crimson of Munster where he made his name. I was abroad recently and was speaking to some Spanish rugby heads for work. 

They knew I was a Munster guy before arriving and when I landed in the clubhouse, I was hurried into the bar area where an old Munster jersey hung on the wall. Donncha O’Callaghan’s signature was on it. 

The reverence they held for it was something that struck me but I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Munster story of the mid-2000s was a powerful narrative for more than just the people of this province. 

It created legends of the game and if you go abroad and talk about the Munster of old, most people tell you about the big O’s. O’Gara, O’Connell and O’Callaghan.

O’Callaghan’s name deserves to be in that exalted mythic company.

The best thing you can say about the man on the rugby field is that he wrung every last drop of potential out of himself. It doesn’t sound like the most glamorous praise a guy could receive, but how many players do you know that maxed out every ounce of what they could have been and left it on the pitch? 

Very few. Vanishingly few. 

As a professional, O’Callaghan has few peers. The fact that he’s still rolling at 39 years of age and looks to be in good enough nick that he could go another few years if he felt like it. 

For a second row who has run the gauntlet of professional rugby nearly 500 times, that’s some going. 

Donncha O'Callaghan playing for Ireland in 2004. Picture: Dan Linehan
Donncha O'Callaghan playing for Ireland in 2004. Picture: Dan Linehan

But what would you expect? He prepared himself like the champion he would go on to become. 

That kind of dedication to the craft isn’t something that everyone can do, even though they probably should. I mentioned in an article around the time of the Grand Slam about the importance of remembering the men who set us on the road to that day in Twickenham. 

The rugby world we know today was built, piece by piece, by greats like Donncha O’Callaghan. These men were the ones that showed the stars of today what was possible, in green and red. 

Much of what Donncha O’Callaghan did on a pitch isn’t going to show up on a Youtube sizzle reel but everything he did was for the team and those around him reaped the benefit. O’Callaghan was skilled in the heavy arts of the front five. 

You won’t see many offloads on Donncha’s resume but you will see one of the best front jumpers in the game, a quality scrummager on either side of the scrum, a hundred thousand tackles, a million rucks rattled and one 55m screamer against Leicester.

He’s in the Munster 200 cap club. He’s got 94 Ireland caps. He’s toured with the Lions twice and is a three-time test Lion. 

He’s won Celtic Leagues, two Heineken Cups, multiple Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam. If you had half the career O’Callaghan has had, you’d be in dreamland.

He retires as a guy that I’m proud to say I saw live in every senior jersey he played in. 

Captaining Munster in 2014. Picture: Diarmuid Greene
Captaining Munster in 2014. Picture: Diarmuid Greene

Donncha O’Callaghan’s retirement marks the slow turn of an age but the example his career leaves behind is the greatest example any player could hope for - that hard work and dedication to the craft pays off and pays off big. 

Thanks for everything, Donncha. 

See you in St Finbarr’s Car Park sometime, probably.

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