“It’s Just Great To Get Back To Where We Were With Pat” – Tiernan O’Halloran

Tiernan O'Halloran

“To be honest, I never had an injury like that before so it was all new to me,” Tiernan O’Halloran tells Pundit Arena as he describes the fractured fibula and ankle ligament injury he suffered at the beginning of the season. 

The Clifden native has had his fair share of injuries since he made his Connacht debut against Olympus Madrid in the Amlin Challenge Cup back in 2009 but none that have left him on the sidelines for a prolonged period of time.

The double ankle and leg injury he suffered against the Dragons at Rodney Parade in October means he won’t be back in action until after Christmas at the earliest – a cruel blow considering the renewed sense of confidence in his playing ability he has experienced since preseason.

“The preseason games went really well for me. I felt like I started the season well but then unfortunately just against Dragons away, going down on a loose ball on the ground, one of their players contested for the ball and he just went down awkwardly on my leg. I ended up with a fracture and some significant ligament damage to my ankle. To be honest, I never had an injury like that before so it was all new to me.

Connacht’s Stephen Fitzgerald celebrates after the Dragons game with Tiernan O’Halloran

“I suppose straight away you’re going to be out for 12-16 weeks. So I suppose even though I’ve been around a good while it’s my first time experiencing being out for that long. Straight away I suppose you have one or two days of sulking or being frustrated with, ‘Oh, I could have dived down on the ball differently or I could have dealt with things differently.’ But it is what it is at the end of the day so you’ve just got to deal with it.”

The 28-year-old product of Connemara RFC is now 10 years into life as a professional rugby player and there is a wealth of experience which comes with operating at the highest level within that time. O’Halloran is applying what he has learned in those years to help deal with this current setback as he admits he would have suffered from a ‘mourning period’ if he suffered an injury at such a crucial moment in the season in the past.

“Yeah, there is. When I was younger, that period would have been longer, do you know what I mean? You’d take a couple of weeks to go around sulking and to be honest with you, that becomes infectious. You come in with a big mopey head on you in the morning, other guys see that and that’s put them in a bad mood. And it carries into the squad, so, it’s really important that you carry yourself properly around the place.”

Connacht’s Tiernan O’Halloran at Guinness PRO14 launch in Cardiff

The responsibility to help maintain a positive mindset and attitude among the squad doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of those on the injury list – it comes from all aspects of the organisation. And this is something which head coach Andy Friend has been keen to develop and nurture as the Australian currently navigates his second season with the western province.

“The guys that are playing week in, week out, they know you’re in a tough spot so they always help you out as well and they’re always putting an arm around you, keeping you involved, going out for lunch with you.

“Because sometimes you can feel if you’re an injured player, there’s a bit of separation but in fairness, Friendy (Andy Friend) has been really good at keeping everyone involved. The injured guys will have to be there for meetings, they’d have to be at all the pitch sessions watching everything so you’re staying involved. You’re not missing a beat, really. So it just means that when you do get back playing, well firstly, it keeps you involved in everything and secondly, when you do get back playing, you’re ready to go.”

There are no shortages of anecdotes from players on the difficulties which are associated with being injured for a long period of time. Isolation from the playing group, long periods in the gym on your own, missing opportunities at club and international level – it can all contribute to poor mental health amongst other things but O’Halloran reveals that former Connacht player Johnny O’Connor, who is now the club’s senior strength & conditioning coach, plays a massive role in helping to maintain a positive mindset among the injured playing group.

Connacht head coach Andy Friend and Tiernan O’Halloran

Johnny O’Connor has mainly been in charge of the injury group at the moment. Sometimes we’d have an ‘injured breakfast’ or whatever. Just to keep things ticking over, keep it exciting. We could have a fancy dress one day or a theme of dressing up as footballers, something stupid or something silly just to have a bit of craic with it.

“It just makes it exciting. It always changes things because it can get very repetitive, obviously injured guys are in first every morning, so if you’re leaving your house at half six every morning and it’s dark outside, it’s wet outside in the depths of winter, it could get pretty grim. So it is important that you’re encouraging each other and you’re encouraging other guys.”

Speaking to O’Halloran, it’s clear that he’s at peace with the current predicament that he finds himself in as he’s very much focussed on the bigger picture and the positive strides which Connacht have made over the last 12 months.

The arrival of Friend has rejuvenated the club and his impact has seen the players, including O’Halloran himself, play with a new sense of confidence and ambition – a stark contrast to the end of the 2017/18 campaign which saw the departure of Kiwi Kieran Keane after just one season at the helm.

“When he (Friend) came into the club, we were in a pretty poor place as a squad. Morale was very low. Obviously, John Mul (John Muldoon) had just left who was a huge leader and a huge part of Connacht rugby for so long. Obviously, the way everything ended with Kieran Keane, it was just a difficult place to be in. It was a frustrating thing, there was a bit of uncertainty, nobody knew what was going to happen, to be honest, we didn’t even know who the head coach was at the end of the season.

Connacht’s John Muldoon celebrates with Eoghan Masterson and Tiernan O’Halloran

“As soon as Friendy came in, it was just a breath of fresh air. Straight away, he just made himself so approachable. In the first meeting, he always said, ‘I’m open, anyone who wants to have a conversation, my door is always open, selection-wise, I’ll be completely open with guys about that’. It’s been infectious, to be honest. Sometimes if there is 23 or 28 guys all the time involved, it’s tough on the guys that aren’t involved. But at the moment, there’s 40 plus lads who are genuinely excited to come into work every day and work hard for each other. I think that’s the environment that he’s created here.

O’Halloran added:

“That (belief) probably started with Pat (Lam) but when Pat was there, that belief that we can win games, big games. Friendy has brought it on as well now. So it’s just great to continue that and get back to where we were with Pat. It’s exciting and like I said, it’s enjoyable to go into work every day when you know you have someone like that who makes it fun, makes it challenging and makes you become a better player as well.”

That last line applies to O’Halloran, too. Even though the 28-year-old registered 1,487 minutes of rugby with Connacht last season, he feels he wasn’t at his best but that having a full preseason under the tutelage of Friend this season has brought him on as a player.

Connacht’s Tiernan O’Halloran and head coach Andy Friend

“This year I felt, in preseason, I did some really good work with him on that and I was in a really good place. He put me in a good mental space for me, I felt, to perform at my best. I had three or four games there between preseason and the first couple of games that I felt like where I was three or four years ago.

“That’s where I want to be and to kick on from. I was in a really good place and to be honest, even though I’m injured now, I still feel like I still have that ability to play at that level and get back to where I want to be which is playing for Ireland at the end of the day.”

So what about Ireland?

O’Halloran has six international caps to his name, the first of which came during the second Test against South Africa in the 2016 summer tour. His last came in the 2017 summer tour of the USA and Japan.

With a new head coach at the helm in Andy Farrell, there is a fresh opportunity to get back into the Ireland setup and adding to those six caps is a huge motivating factor for the Galway man as he reflects on watching Ireland’s 2019 World Cup campaign from afar.

Ireland’s Tiernan O’Halloran, Andrew Conway and Keith Earls after the game against Japan in 2017

“It’s tough, you watch the World Cup there. I know Ireland didn’t go well but you’re still watching and you’re always kind of a bit jealous of guys playing. I’ve obviously tasted that before, I’ve tasted it six times or whatever and I loved it when I was there. It was always my ambition to do that. I suppose once you get that feel for it, you want to get back to that level. It’s frustrating obviously getting that call from Joe at the time, you’re not involved in this window or whatever it was, Six Nations, whatever it might be. It’s always a tough place, it can knock you back.

“I probably didn’t deal with it great when I did get that call the first couple of times. The big thing as well isn’t to overly focus on it either but at the same time the reason I got into that Irish squad was playing well with Connacht and being consistent with that. I know Faz (Andy Farrell) is in now as head coach of Ireland, it’s going to be a different system, a different way of thinking about everything so I suppose for me, it’s not about trying different things, it’s just get back playing a good bit with Connacht. If we can be successful as a team, that always helps as well. The year we won the Pro12, we had many lads involved with Ireland because if you’re successful as a team, it’s going to feed into the national team, so, I think that’s important, it’s just sticking to what we do well and what I can do well consistently for Connacht.”

Experience brings perspective and O’Halloran has learned the lessons from receiving those dreaded phone calls from Joe Schmidt. In the past, he would have used those frustrations as a motivating factor to his own detriment by trying too hard in subsequent games at provincial level.

Going forward, it’s very much about sticking to the process.

“It’s a big setback. It’s frustrating. Obviously, you feel like the last few times you did play for Ireland you represented yourself well, you had good games or whatever it may be. At the end of the day, there’s going to be guys there that are more experienced than you or whatever it might be. So they’re obviously going to go back to that which is natural and it’s the same with provincial level, with me, experience counts for something.

“So that can get frustrating. You might get frustrated for not, when I wasn’t involved the first time, I got frustrated and you probably try too hard then in your next provincial game and you try things that you wouldn’t do in the past. That’s just learning at the end of the day, it’s a way of growing as well.

“It’s just those little setbacks, you have to be able to approach them right and deal with them in the right way. I suppose that’s all a learning curve and I didn’t deal with them the way I should have when they first happened. But if it was to happen again, you definitely know, you’d be better this time.”

Read More About: Andy Friend, connacht rugby, Heineken Champions Cup 2019/2020, pat lam, Tiernan O'Halloran, Top Story

Author: Sean McMahon

Sean is Deputy Editor and head rugby writer. You can contact him by email seanmc@punditarena.com or on Twitter View all posts by Sean McMahon