An interview with Niall Scannell in the Irish Independent (April 2017) featured the above little nugget of rugby advice. Scannell was detailing the chat that he had with Eusebio Guinazu when the Argentine hooker arrived as a medical joker in 2014.
“He was very much, ‘Get better at what you’re good at’. I used to have sit-downs with Axel [Foley] and I’d look at, for example, Mick Sherry’s breakthrough season. He was so dynamic, playing on the edge of that 2-4-2 system, making breaks.
He’s the starting guy, so you’re trying to get like him, but Seb helped me realise, ‘That’s not you. You’re going to be a big scrummager, physical in the tight exchanges. Your breakdown has to be unbelievable, if you want to be a bigger man, you’ve got to be fit.’ He really broke it down with me.”
That advice seems like it could have been given specifically for Jack O’Donoghue. You’d forget that the Waterford man is still only 25 years of age but that’s probably down to his 97 Munster caps. O’Donoghue has been a recurring feature of Munster squads since 2014, and that’s down to his rich potential. I mean, just look at him.
He’s 6’3″. He’s closing in on an athletic 107kg. He’s got a fantastic turn of pace and has got all the tools you could want in a future test level mainstay and, since his recent return from a horrific knee injury, O’Donoghue has looked back to his best.
Yet, for a while over the last few seasons, it looked like that he was going nowhere fast. I think that mainly comes down to the one thing Jack O’Donoghue’s missing from his repertoire – that ‘Big Moment’. Every player has them before transitioning into the player they were destined to be.
Think O’Mahony vs Harlequins. Stander vs Toulouse. Whether that moment comes his way or not is yet to be seen but O’Donoghue is showing that he has what he needs to take it should it arrive.
Expecting Jack O’Donoghue to play the game in the same was as CJ Stander does Jack a disservice. O’Donoghue probably won’t be a guy who can rack up the close quarter power that Stander can bring but that’s only a problem if you’re someone who demands that your #8 must be your primary ball-carrying option.
For me, a back row isn’t made up of numbers on shirts, it’s made up of roles. You need a close-quarters power ball carrier, a midfield strong carrier, a defensive hitter, a breakdown smasher, a jackal, a lineout option, a wide runner, and a linkman.
Sometimes you’ll have guys that double up on these roles but as long as you cover all the bases, it doesn’t matter what the numbers on the back mean. So what a good back row player will do is focus on the parts of the role that he can really excel in.
If you’re not a power carrier at 23/24, you’re probably not going to become one – so stop trying. Focus your energy on being the best you can possibly be at the other roles and say to your coach: “I can do this for you. Fill in the blanks with someone else”.
Jack O’Donoghue isn’t the finished product yet but you can see where he’s going – a wide running strong carrier with elite lineout/maul and superb mobility on defensive sequences.
If he continues on this trajectory he’ll be a guy who’ll fill in the blanks in any back row – be it Munster or test level. He doesn’t have to rack up 20 carries per game to get where he wants to be and I think he knows that.
Not many back row players have that lineout specialty that he’s working on, nor do they have his unbelievable close-quarter maul killing ability in maul D situations.
Jack O’Donoghue’s abilities mean you can add in different flavours to your back five. Have a big hitting second row that you want to use as a primary carrier?
You can do that with O’Donoghue in the back row to take some of the jumping duties off him. Have a seek and destroy #6 that isn’t a lineout option? You can play him with a true openside and not lose anything around the pitch or in the set piece with O’Donoghue at #8.
If Jack O’Donoghue continues to ‘get better at what he’s good at’ then Munster (and Ireland) will have a fantastic option at #8 or blindside that’ll fill out any back row combination. He’s had a really effective middle of the season stretch and we’ll get to see a lot more of it in the coming weeks.