Hard Look – Jack O’Donoghue

“Get better at what you’re good at.”

An interview with Niall Scannell in the Irish Independent (April 2017) featured the above little nugget of rugby advice. Scannell was detailing the chat that he had with Eusebio Guinazu when the Argentian hooker arrived as a medical joker in 2014.

“He was very much, ‘Get better at what you’re good at’. I used to have sit-downs with Axel [Foley] and I’d look at, for example, Mick Sherry’s breakthrough season. He was so dynamic, playing on the edge of that 2-4-2 system, making breaks. He’s the starting guy, so you’re trying to get like him, but Seb helped me realise, ‘That’s not you. You’re going to be a big scrummager, physical in the tight exchanges. Your breakdown has to be unbelievable, if you want to be a bigger man, you’ve got to be fit.’ He really broke it down with me.

That advice seems like it could have been given specifically for Jack O’Donoghue. You’d forget that the Waterford man is still only 23 years of age (24 in February) but that’s probably down to his 81 Munster caps. O’Donoghue has been a recurring feature of Munster squads since 2014, and that’s down to his rich potential. I mean, just look at him.

He’s 6’3″. He’s closing in on an athletic 107kg. He’s got a fantastic turn of pace. He’s already got two test caps and looks likely to reach 100 Munster appearances before he turns 25.

He’s got all the tools you could want in a future test level mainstay.

Yet, for a while last season, it looked like that he was going nowhere fast. I think that mainly comes down to the one thing Jack O’Donoghue’s missing from his repertoire – that Big Moment. Every player has them before transitioning into the player they were destined to be. Think O’Mahony vs Harlequins. Stander vs Toulouse. Whether that moment comes his way or not is yet to be seen but O’Donoghue is showing that he has what he needs to take it should it arrive.

That Big Moment looked pretty far away when Jack O’Donoghue was left out of the 23 to face Saracens in the European Champions Cup semi-final in the Aviva Stadium. He was left out of the squad because Jean Deysel provided a better carrying game off the bench at the time, something that would be important against Saracens given how we were playing at the time.

Comparisons

That game was the first time that people began to wonder aloud if Jack O’Donoghue was going to become the guy he always promised to be, especially compared with Jack Conan at Leinster.

But I think comparing Jack Conan and Jack O’Donoghue as #8s is similar to the scourging that many Munster fans would give Jamie Heaslip when they compared him with Leamy/Stander. They play the same position – most of the time – but they are very different players.

Expecting Jack O’Donoghue to play the game in the same was as CJ Stander does Jack a disservice. O’Donoghue probably won’t be a guy who can rack up the close quarter power that Stander can bring but that’s only a problem if you’re someone who demands that your #8 must be your primary ball-carrying option.

For me, a back row isn’t made up of numbers on shirts, it’s made up of roles. You need a close-quarters power ball carrier, a midfield strong carrier, a defensive hitter, a breakdown smasher, a jackal, a lineout option, a wide runner, and a linkman.

Sometimes you’ll have guys that double up on these roles but as long as you cover all the bases, it doesn’t matter what the numbers on the back mean. So what a good back row player will do is focus on the parts of the role that he can really excel in. If you’re not a power carrier at 23/24, you’re probably not going to become one – so stop trying. Focus your energy on being the best you can possibly be at the other roles and say to your coach: “I can do this for you. Fill in the blanks with someone else”.

So what is Jack’s best game?

What He’s Good At

O’Donoghue has been tailoring his game to focus on his best traits for at least the last 18 months. He’s focusing on the following primary traits:

  • Lineout Option (with accompanying maul speciality)
  • Wide Runner
  • Midfield Strong Carrier
  • Defensive Hitter
  • Attacking Ruck

He’s improved his passing (linkman) ability too but these five traits are the main ones I’ve see him improve on. If you look at O’Donoghue’s physique, you’ll see he’s carrying much less mass than, say, Jack Conan but Conan is focused on a slightly different role makeup. He needs that extra timber – O’Donoghue doesn’t.

Let’s look at what O’Donoghue has been working on.

Wide Runner/Strong Midfield Carrier

When you give Jack O’Donoghue a bit of space to attack in, he is a really effective carrier. He’s got good acceleration, really good top end pace and excellent core strength.

Here’s a good example of him taking the ball with a bit of room to work against Castres.

That’s some good stuff with the drop of the shoulder and the work after the first contact being especially good.

You’ll often see O’Donoghue move into the wider areas of the pitch when Munster are in an attacking sequence. This is where he’s most effective. That isn’t to say that he can’t truck it up close in now and again, or even hit the line in the midfield as he often does but, for me, he’s most effective in the wider areas. As a wide attacker, he’s got the pace, power and handling to be a fantastic option at the end of any sequence of passes in the 15m tramline at the end of the pitch, which is something Munster have been specifically working on this season.

That three-man attacking pod in the wide channel is perfect for O’Donoghue’s traits.

He can finish;

Or he can run excellent support lines that, crucially, keep up with the winger’s break;

When he’s in the wide channels, he gives excellent passing support and, crucially, has the dynamism and mentality to provide excellent ruck support.

Here’s an excellent example against Connacht this season;

He commits to supporting Earls early. That seems like a small thing but a lot of guys would try to stay “alive” on the ball here and it would be the wrong decision. With O’Donoghue on his back, Earls knows that he can focus on drilling into the Connacht cover because Jack will look after him once he hits the deck. This area of the pitch is prime turnover territory so O’Donoghue’s strong body shape locks this phase up nice and early for Murray to use.

That’s the main secondary role of the wide forward runner – ruck security.

Up the middle of the pitch, O’Donoghue is equally effective.

This is a dangerous carry situation. Kleyn made a little more ground than he expected to and that left him exposed to Muldoon over the ball. O’Donoghue’s pace and movement shut that down comprehensively, as did his Strong & Long body position.

O’Donoghue’s a good rucker and he’ll only get better as he develops further.

Defensive Hitter

Having a guy of O’Donoghue’s size and mobility is great to have from a defensive point of view. He can lead the defensive line at “C” with excellent pace and, crucially, that pace means he can be trusted to provide wide defensive cover. Given Munster are always likely to be attacked in those wide channels (it’s seen as a systemic weakness of ours) having a guy like O’Donoghue to cover those channels in the latter parts of games is vital. Look at his movement here;

He guards that wide 15m tram, has the timing to shoot and stop before spinning back to his feet and into the defensive line. Sometimes that pace can be an undoing of his – he gets caught with his positioning – but that’s mostly because he manages to get in position to “miss” the tackle when other back rows wouldn’t even be in the same townland as the line break.

He’s a good defender up the middle of the pitch too. Look at these power stops against Castres;

He was covering Cloete’s openside positions when he came on against Castres and didn’t look out of place with the defensive routes he was running.

The pick of the bunch was this beaut of a tackle on Smith;

O’Donoghue has no right to get to that break but makes a textbook tackle on a winger who’s shifting his line into disrupted space. That’s massively impressive.

He’s not the finished package defensively but he’s trending upwards in this facet of his game. He isn’t the strongest over the ball defensively but that isn’t really in his main traits like it is for Cloete, Stander and O’Mahony. But, like I said earlier, it doesn’t have to be.

Lineout and Maul

I left this aspect until last because it’s – by far – O’Donoghue’s most elite trait. Jack O’Donoghue has been turning himself into an absolutely superb back row lineout and maul option on both sides of the ball.

O’Donoghue is the same height as Peter O’Mahony and, for me, is just a shade off his raw jumping ability at 23 years of age.

Look at this example from the Connacht game;

He doesn’t get the ball here but get a load of that peak jump and relative speed in the air! Give that ball a little more height and he snatches this clean. O’Donoghue is an incredibly athletic jumper who matches excellent height with outstanding pace into the air.

You have to get up quickly to come down quickly and the faster you do that the better the ensuing maul will be. Jack O’Donoghue is beginning to really excel at that aspect of the game but he’s realised that it’s not enough to take the ball off the top and ship it on for wide plays. If you’re going to be a chief lineout option, you have to be able to play off the top, yes, but you also have to be a bracing option once you hit the deck.

Peter O’Mahony is excellent at this aspect of the lineout – getting in the air quickly and providing a good maul base on landing – and O’Donoghue isn’t far off him. Jack has developed into a superb, athletic attacking jumper who can take the ball anywhere.

He’s showing the same elite traits on the defensive side of the jump.

Look at the height he gets with one lifter;

That’s some good height at the front of the lineout with ONE lifter. If you have a guy who can get that kind of height and speed at the front on defensive jumps while only burning one lifter, it limits the opposition’s lineout options immensely because you can challenge in the air twice, if you want.

But O’Donoghue’s real improvement has been on maul defence where he’s been astoundingly good.

Look at this work;

He has an innate ability to drill through the heaviest part of maul “fronts” and get hands on the ball carrier. His core strength is outstanding in this regard, as is his low gear leg drive. This example of his maul work against Racing 92 is probably my favourite one of his this season.

He arrives late to the counter-shove but somehow manages to power through three massive Racing forwards to get his hands on Dimitri Szarzewski at the tail of the maul.

Absolutely outstanding stuff and he’s been doing it all season long.

Future

Jack O’Donoghue isn’t the finished product yet but you can see where he’s going – a wide running strong carrier with elite lineout/maul and superb mobility on defensive sequences. If he continues on this trajectory he’ll be a guy who’ll fill in the blanks in any back row – be it Munster or test level. He doesn’t have to rack up 20 carries per game to get where he wants to be and I think he knows that. Not many back row players have that lineout speciality that he’s working on, nor do they have his unbelievable close-quarter maul killing ability in maul D situations.

Jack O’Donoghue’s abilities mean you can add in different flavours to your back five. Have a big hitting second row that you want to use as a primary carrier? You can do that with O’Donoghue in the back row to take some of the jumping duties off him. Have a seek and destroy #6 that isn’t a lineout option? You can play him with a true openside and not lose anything around the pitch or in the set piece with O’Donoghue at #8.

If Jack O’Donoghue continues to ‘get better at what he’s good at’ then Munster (and Ireland) will have a fantastic option at #8 or blindside that’ll fill out any back row combination. He’s had a really effective middle of the season stretch and we’ll get to see a lot more of it in the coming weeks.