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As He Retires, We Should Remember Tomás O'Leary's Underrated Contribution To Irish Rugby

As He Retires, We Should Remember Tomás O'Leary's Underrated Contribution To Irish Rugby
By Gavin Cooney Updated

The man who succeeded Peter Stringer has retired before him.

Tomás O'Leary today announced his retirement from professional rugby, at the age of 33, having gilded 151 appearances for Munster and Ireland with two Heineken Cups and a Grand Slam. It's a very fine return trophy-wise for O'Leary, who made relatively few international appearances: just 24 between 2007 and 2012.

Conor Murray's breakthrough led to his leaving of Munster for London Irish, and although he returned to the province in 2015, he left last season to join Montpellier for a short while. Today, he has called time on his career.

Murray and Stringer will be the two most fondly remembered Munster and Irish scrum-halves in years and decades to come, but O'Leary's contribution to Irish rugby should not be forgotten. Here, we remember some of the biggest moments of his career.

He's the last man to captain Cork to an All-Ireland minor hurling title

O'Leary was Darren Sweetnam before ever there was Darren Sweetnam. He captained Cork to the 2001 All-Ireland minor hurling title, but decided to switch to rugby. His father cast a considerable GAA shadow across the family: Seanie O'Leary won nine Munster titles and four Celtic Crosses with the Cork hurlers across a legendary 13-year career.

O'Leary admits that hurling is the best game in the world, and had rugby not been professional, he would have stuck with the hurlers. Instead, when the offer came to join the Irish Development Squad at the age of 19, he decided to give rugby a try. Fair to say it worked out pretty well for him, although his record as the last minor winning captain from Cork is under threat this year.

He went on to play a major role in Munster's second Heineken Cup 

Peter Stringer was first-choice in 2006, but Declan Kidney gave O'Leary his confidence for the second trip to Valhalla. O'Leary started the knock-out stages victories over Gloucester, Saracens and Toulouse, with Stringer making do with a place on the bench.


He was first-choice for (almost) all of the 2009 Grand Slam season...

Peter Stringer lost his spot to O'Leary at Munster under Declan Kidney, and when Kidney took charge at Ireland, he preferred O'Leary from the beginning. O'Leary started all but one of the five games in the Six Nations, dropped for the penultimate game against Scotland as part of Kidney's shake-up. He returned for the final game against Wales at the time, although it was Stringer who tossed the pass for the legendary O'Gara drop goal against Wales.

O'Leary was good-natured about his missing out on the Scotland game, telling Off the Ball years later that "Yeah, against the Scots. Sure, they were useless anyway..."



...and was unlucky to miss out on the 2009 Lions tour

Having played an integral part in Ireland's Grand Slam success, O'Leary was named by Ian McGeechan as a member of the Lions squad that toured South Africa in 2009. The dream curdled three days later, however, as he broke his leg and fractured his ankle in a horror injury sustained against Scarlets. O'Leary later wrote on his blog:

Sadly, my Lions dream only lasted a mere 72 hours as I broke my leg and dislocated my ankle playing with Munster vs. Scarlets on the following Friday night.

The injury had a massive and profound impact. I was devastated. The impending weeks were absolutely heart-breaking.

He suffered equal heartbreak two years later 

His Lions chances were ruined through injury, as was his Munster and Irish careers, and these injuries helped facilitate the emergence of Conor Murray. Murray's bolt to stardom coincided with the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which led to O'Leary's omission having been named in the provisional squad. At the time, he was described as being in a " whole world of hurt", having been left out by the coach who had started him at Munster and handed him his first international start, just ten days after Murray made his debut. In 2015, however, O'Leary had moved on from this disappointment:

Yeah, it was tough at the time. But, four years later, well over it. Plus, the boys were useless at the World Cup as well.

He scored a scorching try to crown arguably his finest Irish performance 

Arguably O'Leary's best game in an Irish shirt came in 2010, against Wales at Croke Park. He collected a pass from Paul O'Connell to streak clear, touching down to set Ireland on their way to a 27-12 win. Only Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe scored more tries for Ireland in that Six Nations campaign, as O'Leary also scored in the opening win against Italy.



He made a few monster tackles over his career 

A greatly underrated part of O'Leary's career was his tackling. Some of his stand-out moments were huge, critical hits, like this against the Ospreys in 2009:



There were other, even more impressive examples however. Take this crunching try-saver on Benoit Baby of Clermont at Thomond:


And there was this (admittedly very high) tackle on Cian Healy:



See Also: "A'Boy ROG!" - Ronan O'Gara On The Small Things That Made Mick Galwey Such A Leader

See Also: At A Combined Age Of 77, Peter Stringer And Donncha O'Callaghan Will Be Teammates

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