24 CAPS FOR Ireland, a Grand Slam, a Triple Crown, two Heineken Cup medals and selection for a Lions tour.
Tomás O’Leary has a rugby CV that so many others crave and having just turned 30, could not be blamed if he was to highlight his international claims once again.
However, after recovering fully from last season’s serious back injury, the Cork native is taking a philosophical outlook on getting back into the Ireland picture.
“I think if it happens, it happens. But especially after last season with the injury, I kind of focus on my ambition of keeping playing with London Irish, getting a run of games together, getting a season fully fit.
“I try to concentrate on those aspects and then maybe if something happens with Ireland then brilliant. That would be fantastic, but it’s a bit much for me to start thinking about that already. I need to take it step-by-step and if it happens, brilliant.
I can hopefully keep playing here and keep fit. If form dictates that I do get a chance, then obviously I’d be delighted, but it’s not really my priority.”
O’Leary’s main priority is going well. Having suffered with that back injury that restricted him to just seven appearances last season, “the body feels good” and the scrum-half is keeping his fingers crossed on that front.
Fortune has rarely been on O’Leary’s side when it comes to staying fit, with an ankle break meaning his 2009 Lions tour was ended before it even began. This season has been kind to the former hurling star though, and he has started all five of London Irish’s league games so far.
The Exiles are eighth in the Premiership coming into this weekend after two wins in five games, and O’Leary is content with their form.
“I think we’ve improved on last year. Obviously in terms of the start because we had a poor start last year. I think within the squad, there’s a lot more competition. I think we’re building something pretty cool and something exciting, so it’s good to be involved.
“Hopefully we can keep pushing on and keep moving up the table. We’ve had a couple of losses as well, which we’re disappointed with, but a couple of good victories too. It’s kind of a mixed bag, but we’re definitely going in the right direction.”
David Davies/PA Archive/Press Association Images.
Part of the reason for the increase in competition for places has been the recruitment of Irish men Eamonn Sheridan and Jamie Hagan to complement an existing stock of expats like O’Leary and Ian Humphreys. The ex-Munster halfback says the new faces have made an impression, particularly the one-time Leinster centre.
“It’s great to see the other Irish lads come in. I think Eamonn in particular has been awesome for us. He’s been unbelievable defensively and carries the ball really well. I’ve been really, really impressed with him.
“I didn’t know anything about him before he came and he’s been really good, a great lad with a great work ethic. Hopefully if he can keep playing the way he is, he might even push for further honours back home and hopefully get into the national set-up at some stage.”
“Jamie picked up an injury in his first minute or two when he came on against Munster [in pre-season] and that kind of held him back. But he’s back fit now and hopefully he can get a bit more game time. It’s good to have these lads coming in and hopefully we get a few more Irish lads over here.”
Indeed, it is encouraging to see London Irish return to their roots, when a core of Irish players were at the foundation of their squads. Keith Wood famously suggested that the IRFU should attempt to use the Exiles as a fifth ‘province’ for Irish players, and while that is of course unrealistic, it would be promising to see the current trend continue.
O’Leary has only positive things to say about London Irish and his experiences since deciding to leave the homeland. Young players in Ireland are beginning to wake up to the opportunities to play rugby abroad and O’Leary feels it’s a good thing.
I think it’s no harm. Obviously, maintaining a really strong Irish provincial set-up is key for Irish rugby. So if things are going well for individuals back home with Munster, Leinster, Connacht or Ulster, then there’s no need to head off.
“But I think if a fella is struggling, or a fella is not playing regularly, or a fella like Jonny Sexton has had an opportunity he can’t turn down, it’s great. I’ve really enjoyed my experience here. Certainly if a fella is considering it and a fella has an option, go for it.
“Every individual is different, but I’ve really enjoyed my experience here and hopefully this season can kick on rugby-wise. I suppose being born and bred in Cork, I just wanted a change of environment. I wanted a change of scenery and it’s done me the world of good.”
Like rugby? Follow TheScore.ie’s dedicated Twitter account @rugby_ie >