Conán O'Donnell hoping to be first Irish player to resume professional rugby
"How did a man from Sligo end up playing Super Rugby in New Zealand?"
Conán O'Donnell never pictured himself lining out alongside All Blacks stars in Super Rugby games but he has boots and he loves to travel.
The 24-year-old could become the second most discussed Sligo topic (after Normal People) if he gets the chance to add to the three senior appearances he has already won for the Highlanders this year. New Zealand's tackling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been among the standard-bearers and, as a result, life there is returning to normal.
Super Rugby will resume on June 13 and the Highlanders are slated to play the Chiefs in the first of the Aotearoa (all New Zealand) fixtures. For years, Kiwi supporters have spoken about what their own high-level domestic competition would look like. That wait is almost over.
O'Donnell, who lined out for Highlanders three times in the 2020 Super Rugby season, joined Andrew Trimble and Barry Murphy on the latest episode of Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby and [from 1:02:00 below] spoke about life in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
The former Ireland U20 and NUI Galway prop made his senior Connacht debut in October 2015. He ended up playing eight times for his home province in 2015/16 as Pat Lam led them to an unlikely but richly deserved Guinness PRO12 title.
He only managed seven more outings over the next two seasons and was released by Connacht in April 2019. O'Donnell takes up the tale:
"I ended up going to the Sunwolves (Japanese Super Rugby side) for six weeks, for the end of their season. From there, I got an offer to go to play for Counties Manukau in the Mitre 10 (cup). I didn't know where I was after that season, with Manukau, as Super Rugby teams are only allowed two international players and their rosters were full.
"I went to Austin, Texas for my holidays after Mitre 10 and didn't know what I'd be at. My agent then messaged me to say the Crusaders might have a spot for me in their pre-season squad. I ended up booking a return flight to Christchurch with no visa sorted, nothing, and just hoping I did enough to earn a contract. But they ended up sorting a contract before I flew out of Austin.
"I flew over and did the pre-season with Crusaders, and the first week of the regular season, before word came in that Highlanders needed someone as injury cover for a prop. I ended up moving from Christchurch to Dunedin on a Wednesday. I was in with the Highlanders the next day and then I was playing the following week against the Brumbies. It's been a mad year for me, really, but I'm loving it."
In February of this year, O'Donnell was signed by Highlanders as injury cover for Jeff Thwaites. He was drafted into a squad containing All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith and flanker Shannon Frizzell and played three games before New Zealand's lockdown measures brought a halt to Super Rugby proceedings.
"The 'Landers are back training this week. I'm not sure if I'm going to be involved as I was there as injury cover before the pandemic [was declared]. I was with the team then went into isolation and that cover contract then ran out. So I'm just waiting to see if I'll be involved in the upcoming tournament. Hopefully I will.
"If not, I'll just be playing for Counties again, around September time."
O'Donnell says the team did have a tough start to the full Super Rugby season (one win, one draw and three defeats) but was 'starting to gel' just before the break in play. The squad has been boosted with news that All Blacks winger Nehe Milner-Skudder is joining up with them for the next couple of years.
For the near and medium future, O'Donnell is delighted to be back out and about. They are heading into winter in Dunedin so he's out catching as much daylight as he can, getting in the odd surf lesson and keeping on top of his rugby in case the Highlanders could do with a game-ready prop again. After that, who knows, but he would like to get back and play pro rugby in Ireland again.
"I can't say I ever dreamed of playing Super Rugby," he says. "The dream was always to play rugby back home in Ireland, but I'm loving the experience here."
WATCH THAT HOUSE OF RUGBY EPISODE HERE:
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