The path of Tomás O’Leary has been thronged with dizzying highs and immeasurable lows.
Whatever jersey you’ve got, it’s likely that he’s worn it at some stage during a storied career. The hurler-turned-rugby star grew up with a stick in his hand, and the wheel eventually came full circle after retiring from the oval ball game.
Since captaining the Cork minors to All-Ireland glory in 2001, O’Leary has lived a life less ordinary. Dropped before two Rugby World Cups, in between he was picked for a Lions Tour in 2009 but missed out due to a horrific leg injury, and yet the scrum-half finished up with an amazing haul of medals during a history-making run with both Ireland and Munster.
When you ask the Erin’s Own native about his sporting career, it’s a two-part question: one about GAA, and the other of rugby. His first love was the ash and sliotar, and little surprise when his father was the Rebel County’s four-time All-Ireland winner, Seanie.
“Hurling was my passion, it’s a game I love,” says O’Leary. “Obviously I’m steeped in it because of the family I come from. I grew up wanting to play with Cork and I was very ambitious about it as a kid.”
“I was very successful at hurling underage and I ended up playing senior with the club at 16. Got an All-Ireland with the minors, so it was going well.”
His style of play was learned up against the wall at home, beating the sliotar for hours upon hours, honing his skills and moving closer to realising his dream. “I would have spent five or six hours a day with a hurley in my hand. I had a bit of pace too and I used to love taking people on, and there is a great satisfaction in knocking a ball over the bar.”
“I was born in 1983, and my dad Seanie retired from Cork in 1984 and didn’t play at all after that. I grew up hearing stories about him and had seen all the videos, but obviously never saw him hurl in real life.”
“It was a different time and sometimes I would have slagged him about the standard of hurling back then, but you can see how much the game has progressed. If the likes of Jimmy Barry Murphy, Charlie McCarthy and Ray Cummins were playing the modern game and training that way, their skills levels would have gone through the roof too.”
When your dad is considered a big deal in the county, there can be a real pressure on the son to show he is cut from the same cloth. Expectations crush some, but not Tomás. “It didn’t bother me, I just thought ‘I’m gonna be better’, which might have been naive but that was my mindset.”
“I grew up as ‘Seanie’s son’ and was acutely aware of what he achieved and that drove me to play for Cork as a young fella. In rugby, which I didn’t take up until I was 13, that drive was transferred in another direction, but he was always there with guidance. Like any young fella, you’re trying to make your dad proud.”
Seanie was part of the Cork senior management team when they won All-Ireland’s in 1999 and 2004, and was Under-21 boss in between. When Tomás was leaving secondary school, he was offered trials at Munster and it left him with a decision to make. Pressure never came from within the four walls of his household, more so a support that his club Erin’s Own also imparted to him.
“A professional career was too good to turn down,” O’Leary explains. “I got great support from the club and home and it was a case of giving the rugby a go and coming back to the hurling after a couple of years if it didn’t work out. A bit like the lads who go off to the AFL now, go off for a few years and make a few bob.”
He needn’t have worried, because the Cork man went on to have a stellar career. Peter Stringer wore the number nine shirt for the breakthrough European Cup final win over Biarritz in 2006 while O’Leary enjoyed that win from the bench, but their roles were reversed two years later when Toulouse were beaten 16-13 in front of 74,417 at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
“There was a lot of pressure at the time,” he says of then winning the grand slam with Ireland in 2009. “You’re in a key position as one of the play-makers and nines and tens get analysed a lot. We were trying to end a wait of over 60 years (since the previous grand slam in 1948) and the build-up was huge, and you’re trying to stay focused on the day.
“The relief at the end of the game was palpable,” says O’Leary, who takes a moment to consider why players so often speak of relief as their overriding feeling. “Maybe it’s just because of all the sacrifices and all the effort that goes in, that it’s all been justified so that’s how it feels.
“When you’re imagining achieving the goal you’ve had all your life, you probably think it will be unbridled joy. I think it’s more that you get satisfaction from all the dedication you put into it. You spend most of your life trying and failing in both life and sport, and maybe that becomes normality. So, there’s relief that you don’t have to feel that disappointment again. A sort of an exhale of relief, and you can chill and look back and be satisfied later on.”
O’Leary played with and against some of the game’s greats. He namechecks Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara when talking of players who trained most diligently and understood how to get the best out of their games. In terms of opponents, New Zealand legend Dan Carter was the most skilful man he faced — “he glided over the ground, he was so graceful”.
As the Rugby World Cup in Japan continues, O’Leary is able to watch and enjoy it from afar. He was in a “world of hurt” when he was left out of the squad eight years ago, but “that’s old news now, I 100% love watching the lads and not even just the Irish games.”
“There’s no pressure now, I can just sit back and support them. Whereas before you would be watching the World Cup and you had that emotional desire to be there. That’s gone and hopefully now Ireland can push on and do well.”
With his own rugby days over, the former Munster, London Irish and Montpellier star is back in Cork and enjoying life with his family. When his old Erin’s Own clubmates knew he was back in town, the call to get down to the local pitch was always going to come. Being in his mid-30s, he was plenty young enough.
“The hurley and ball were like foreign objects to me,” O’Leary says with a laugh, after returning to the GAA field in 2018. “My touch was not near where it used to be. When I finished up playing in France, I put on a few pounds! So my fitness and my skill weren’t great — you can imagine how I struggled!
“I play a few senior league games and junior last year and this year, and I’ve enjoyed it. It’s a different game than when I used to play, it’s about skill and fitness and possession is crucial.”
“I always intended on going back,” he says, playing it down when reminded that he also found the net in the junior football final against Knocknagree when his team lost out 2-19 to 2-10 at Pairc Ui Rinn. “It’s good to scratch the itch.”