Donncha O'Callaghan part one: Anthony Foley's memory, rugby inspirations and his career high
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 28/01/18 10:48pm
Second row stalwart Donncha O'Callaghan opens up about the loss of Anthony Foley, his rugby inspirations and his career highlight in the first of a two-part exclusive with Sky Sports Rugby.
It's a Sunday afternoon in October 2016.
Following a rare weekend off, Donncha O'Callaghan puts his feet up and settles down at home to watch Munster play their opening European Cup game of 2016/17 against Racing 92. A province he represented for some 17 seasons.
Though a Worcester Warriors player since the summer of 2015, Munster will always be in his heart. Anytime the men in red are in action, his focus is fixed.
The game is due to kick off at 3.15pm in France. Another Irish province are in action on the TV beforehand as Ulster take on Bordeaux-Begles at the Stade Chaban-Delmas.
It is during the first half of that game that O'Callaghan feels his phone ringing in his pocket. Peter O'Mahony's name flashes up. The Munster skipper who should, by now, be in the depths of preparation.
O'Mahony is starting the game. Munster should be warming up. O'Callaghan quickly registers the time. Something was wrong...
"I'll never forget his tone and his voice," he says.
"I can't even remember what he said, but you just got a sickening, horrible feeling and, actually, 100 per cent disbelief."
On the other end of the line, O'Mahony has just informed O'Callaghan that Munster Rugby have lost a favourite son.
Former player, captain and head coach Anthony Foley has tragically passed away at the age of just 42.
A husband and father to two young sons, 'Axel', as he was affectionately known by his players and former team-mates, died in his sleep in Paris. A post-mortem would reveal the cause of death to be acute pulmonary oedema, stemming from heart disease.
After the shock and devastation, several of the men Foley donned a red jersey alongside in his career descend upon Killaloe, County Clare and Limerick to remember the man.
They congregate and remember the extraordinary times they brought to their province. Times when Munster finally became the kings of Europe after an emotional 11-year journey.
O'Callaghan was one of those men. Foley was their captain.
Alone on the couch with Jess.Heartbroken.We have lost an incredible man. Too sad to tweet further.. sleep well Axel. We love you..xxx— Ronan O Gara (@RonanOGara10) October 16, 2016
"For us (who played with him), it was so important to be around each other," he says.
"I don't know why but when you were on your own, it was horrible and you did too much thinking. But when you were around each other you just felt safe.
"I've been at brilliant Munster days - Munster versus the All Blacks, seeing Munster beat Australia when I was a child - but the Glasgow game that week was the proudest day I've ever had, both playing or supporting Munster.
"How that group of lads reflected us was incredible. I was so, so proud.
"I shouldn't have gone to the dressing room afterwards. I don't even know how I ended up in there. I was hugging the centre Jaco Taute, I'd never met the man, never even shaken his hand, but I was there saying: 'I love you man'.
"It's the same shirt, same values. When I watch them I feel the same way as I did when I was eight or nine years of age."
Munster's 38-17 victory over Glasgow came the day after Foley had been buried.
An occasion of intense poignancy and passion, it will go down in history. As will the man who inspired it.
"All the relationships are different. For that group of lads Axel was their coach," O'Callaghan adds. "For me he was always my captain, and for John Hayes, Keith Wood, he was like their brother.
"The big one is Olive and the kids.They're the ones. I always say it's so important that those boys know their dad was flipping superman.
"He could push me to be better than I really am. Some guys have that talent.
"I'm a better person if I'm around him and they're one in a million. I was so lucky to be around him.
"But then there's the family side that just sees him as a dad. That's the most important thing. You just constantly think about Olive and the lads."
A year on from that tragic October day, a documentary titled Munsterman was broadcast in Ireland, remembering Foley.
Within it, current Munster players Conor Murray, Simon Zebo, Peter O'Mahony and Billy Holland each remember travelling over to Cardiff for Munster's 2006 Heineken Cup victory over Biarritz. A final O'Callaghan played in. A trophy Foley lifted.
You can imagine for that quartet, travelling over in their mid-to-late teens to watch their province achieve the Holy Grail, the inspiration to throw everything into making a life out of rugby was huge.
For O'Callaghan, though, the first time Munster were in a European Cup final in 2000, he was in the squad. So what inspired him to get into the sport?
"When I was growing up, you went to Munster games but there was only an inter-pro series and maybe one big game every now and then played against Australia or New Zealand," he says.
"Munster wasn't the week-in, week-out team like we see it now.
"I just remember I used to play underage rugby up in Highfield Rugby Club in Cork and you'd sprint home to watch the Five Nations and see unbelievable games.
"The likes of Simon Geoghegan, Phillip Matthews, all these hardy men.
"And it was just: 'I'd love to play for Ireland', that was the dream."
It's a bright spring Saturday in March 2003. Having been involved in the Munster set-up since 1998, a 23-year-old O'Callaghan has been named in an Ireland squad for the very first time.
It's the fourth week of the Six Nations and Ireland are away to Wales in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. The game swings one way, then the other. On 71 minutes, O'Callaghan gets word he's about to come on. A lifetime's ambition up to that point is about to be fulfilled.
Leo Cullen makes way for the young Munster lock, who sprints onto the pitch complete with cut off grip gloves at the fingers - a fad in rugby at the time.
Within 10 seconds of his emergence onto the turf, O'Callaghan sacks a maul. Test rugby has a new member.
"The highlight of my entire career is my first cap," he says. "It was always the dream.
"I remember I ran on and nearly ran past the set-piece that I was coming on for! I was that excited.
"We won, thank god. Ronan O'Gara got a drop goal to win it but I swear if we'd lost by 50 points, I still would have jumped around the place like a lunatic. It was just a brilliant, brilliant moment.
"Then everything that went on after it. Going up to collect your cap, looking up and seeing all these internationals standing up to applaud you, it was just incredible.
"Everyone goes on about winning the Grand Slam in 2009, and believe me that was the pinnacle as a team at the top end of it.
"That's the hardest to do, I 100 per cent know that. And the European Cups at Munster felt like you were winning it with your brothers.
"But just from an individual, selfish point of view, your first cap is something different.
"I'll never forget it."
For the second part of our interview with O'Callaghan where he chats about the lowest point in his 20 years as a professional, Munster disappointments and his decision to retire at the end of the season, click HERE.