Joker in the pack to play it straight for Ireland

The mighty Munster lock Donncha O'Callaghan tells James Corrigan why Sunday's meeting with France at Croke Park will be no laughing matter
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The Independent Online

It is a serious business this top-flight rugby union. Just ask Donncha O'Callaghan. The celebrated joker in Ireland's pack is keen to put a few things straight and not necessarily the odd bent Gallic nose in Sunday's historic Test against France.

"You know, this whole cult that's been built up about me being this madcap prankster... well, those stories just aren't true," said the giant lock earlier this week at the team hotel overlooking Dublin Bay. "Apart from the ducks, of course."

The "whole cult" started with the Donncha duck incident, and countless Loony Tunes escapades since have seemingly confirmed he is indeed quackers. The 27-year-old is happy enough to recount the tale, although his deadpan expression hints that he has had to do so once or twice before.

"We were in training with Munster and for some reason, before we were going in for a team meeting, we were feeding these ducks with cornflakes," he said. "Well, they then started following us so, just for a laugh, with a few bags of Kelloggs I enticed them into the team room and hid them behind the curtain. When the coach started talking, he couldn't understand where the noise was coming from and we all fell about. It backfired, though. They shat everywhere and one of the coaches grabbed me by the ear and said, 'You're cleaning that up, boy.' It took me all afternoon."

But what about the time when he bought a lobster on holiday, put it on a leash and walked it down the promenade? Or when, on the Lions tour, he pulled down Alastair Campbell's trousers? Or when, he attempted to contest a line-out in only a pair of red, silk underpants? "That's [Geordan] Murphy putting that around, the pet lobster thing, and that's what I'm on about," he said. "Because it's me, if any story gets bandied around everybody tells everyone and everyone believes it. Now, if someone like Geordan does something a bit strange - which believe me he does, often - it all stays quiet. It's like how I get attributed with pulling Alastair's tracksuit bottom down in that press conference. That was actually Paulie [O'Connell] and anyway it was a good-natured thing as we both really got on with Alastair and have stayed in touch. But the 'undies' thing, that was different. I'm very embarrassed about that."

The last mentioned was the most recent and most talked about of all O'Callaghan's antics. Two months on from Munster's European Cup group victory in Cardiff, it is still one of the best-watched sports clips on YouTube (mistakenly it is filed under "Donnacha", although that is the way his name is pronounced) having been viewed nigh on 100,000 times. The segment shows the supposed Munster funster having an argument with the referee, who is insisting that he goes off the pitch and puts on a pair of shorts to cover up briefs that leave little to the imagination.

"It wasn't a lark or anything as it was a bloody important point in a bloody important match," insists O'Callaghan. "In a ruck, my shorts got ripped off and the bench didn't have any immediately on hand for me to put on. If I'd waited, I feared the referee would have played on without me and that's why I ran on in my undies. That's also why I refused to leave the field as I thought we'd then be one down. I remember Paulie once losing both front teeth in a match and carrying on in the next line-out, so I thought, if he can do it without teeth, I can sure as hell do it without shorts. As it was, the ref stopped the game while I changed 'em. But I wish it had never happened and it hadn't been shown everywhere. It's not the image I want to project, not because I'm shy, but because I'm a serious professional."

O'Callaghan's desire to be regarded as such is as obvious as it is understandable. Although, in other facets of life, it may be a wise man who plays the fool, in the ever more professional environs of modern rugby it is a decidedly daft one. O'Callaghan reveals that it was on last year's Lions tour when the necessity to calm his natural inclination for mischief became all too apparent.

"When you're surrounded by old pros such as Richard Hill and Martyn Williams, you quickly realise that you're not there to have a laugh," said the lock who emerged from the shadows to win a starting place in the last two Tests. "You have a finite period at the top of this game and there is no time for larking about. Fair enough having a giggle when you clock off, but when you're in work, you're in work. It's like with Paulie. He sets the standards in our pack. I don't think I can describe how much I respect him. People will say that I mess around a bit, but when I get out on the pitch I'd like to think I want it just as much as him."

The evidence is right there on his face; in the huge scratch marks that elongate his sideburns, in the labyrinth of cuts on his forehead, in the determined stare that is plainly intent on restating the Irish second row as the very best in the northern hemisphere. Since deposing Ireland's most-capped player, Malcolm O'Kelly, as the first-choice pal in the engine room, the O'Connell and O'Callaghan partnership has gone from strength to strength, although at the Millennium Stadium last Sunday their magnificence was crudely held up for scepticism. For his part, O'Callaghan believes their performance was "solid enough", but acknowledges, "we'll have to raise it a right few notches against France - especially on this of all days".

"Because although, like Paulie says, this is just 15 against 15 and a rugby match on a rugby pitch, it's obviously going to be special being at Croke Park," he said, welcoming the Gaelic Athletic Association's decision to throw open the doors of its temple to amateurism for the first time in 123 years. "I can't say how much it means coming from Cork and having a background in GAA to be playing at Croker. I was OK at [Gaelic] football but had no real skill and they used me simply as a big arse to get in the way. I quite fancied hurling but ,when they asked who wanted to play in school, I stuck my hand up and they asked, 'Are you an O'Callaghan?' I replied 'yes' and they said, 'Sorry, we're not giving any O'Callaghan a big stick.' My brothers' reputation tended to precede me a bit."

They cannot stop him from swinging his stuff this Sunday, though, just as nobody was going to stand in the squad's way when they took a run-out at Croke Park last week.

"There were a few [Gaelic] soccer balls around and we couldn't resist seeing who could score the first goal and all that," he said. "But that's out of our system now and this weekend is all about rugby and nothing else. You know, Croker's that much bigger than the Millennium and so will the noise be. France are going to find it very loud and very intense."

So no ducks, lobsters, tight underpants or pranks of any description then? "It wouldn't be the time and definitely not the place," he replies with a wink. Donncha laughs. He will always find it hard not to.

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