Where are they now?: Jack O’Connell
February 10, 2023 9:55 am Des Berry
THEN – Jack played 14 times for Leinster between 2011 and 2014.
NOW – He is a financial advisor in Bristol, expecting his first child with wife Niamh in March.
It was dinner time in Baton Rouge in the deep south. Not Kerry. Louisiana.
Jack O’Connell had something to say. It was brewing for some time. He knew his parents wouldn’t like it. But, it had to be done.
You see, the O’Connell family had moved around. Jack was born in Brussels, Belgium, moved to Winchester in England at the age of two and, at thirteen, moved to United States.
In Winchester, Jack had nursed a love of the game that went way beyond being with an oval ball.
“I just loved rugby growing up. It was how I made friends. I wasn’t able to play the sport I loved in America and, subsequently, never felt like I fitted in,” he says.
He pleaded with his parents for the chance to travel back across the Atlantic Ocean to play rugby in England or Ireland.
The lower financial drain in Ireland meant Jack had a look at Blackrock and Clongowes Wood. It was the same season Gordon D’Arcy had his breakout Six Nations in 2004, sealing Jack’s faith in the Clane school.
The Kerry connections are there through his Dad, who grew up in London, and his grandad, both named Daniel in honour of their roots.
However, his mother is a Kiernan, born and raised in Cork, from rugby royalty, the lineage including her legendary uncle Tom, the full-back, and her decorated brother Mick, the Triple Crown-winning drop-goal hero of 1985.
“I remember travelling for hours in Louisiana to find the one bar showing Munster playing in the Heineken Cup,” says Jack.
In August 2005, as a 15-year-old, it should have been a huge adjustment moving to the country of his forefathers, another new experience, this time without his family in tow.
“It took me 20 minutes to fit in. It was perfect. I think my mum was a lot more heartbroken than I was,” he states.
“In fact, Hurricane Katrina hit the day she dropped me to school. My Dad, my brother and my sister were hiding in the closet when it struck.
“Mum returned from dropping me off to find two other families living in the house. They had been made homeless in New Orleans.”
The impact of Clongowes was immediate and enduring: “They try to make you a better person through charity work and education and sport and whatever you are interested in.”
In 2007, the Leinster Schools tour to South Africa still ranks as one of the best experiences of his life.
“John Cooney, Jack McGrath, Dominic Ryan, Darren Hudson, Noel Reid were some of the players. It was a hell of a tour.
“That is when you start realising there might be a chance to play professionally. There could be something more there for me,” he says.
The Ireland Schools and Ireland U20s were the stepping stones into the Leinster Sub-Academy and a world of pain handed down by conditioning guru Dave Fagan.
“He was the bane of my life for three years. He taught me harsh, but fair lessons because I wasn’t professional in any sense early doors.
“I was living in Trinity Halls in Dartry with five other people. I was the only one playing. I had a 30-minute walk from Dartry to Donnybrook in the mornings.
“It probably wasn’t a very good environment for someone trying to become a professional rugby player.
“When you were leaving the apartment complex, you would be able to see the parties still going on in the other apartments.
“My discipline definitely strayed one time too many and Dave was always there to whip me into shape, making me run up and down the cement steps in Donnybrook until I was on my hands and knees.
“He is the perfect person to have at that level because he teaches players who are rudderless coming out of school how to have structure and discipline.”
It drilled a level of toughness into Jack which he has come to appreciate over the years.
“It gives you resilience,” he notes.
“There aren’t many jobs out there where you are shouted at and someone pinches you with fat-testing callipers to tell you that you are either overweight or you need to eat more.
“It means when you get into the real world and people give you criticism, it is 1% of what you were once used to.”
Jack had to persevere and be patient. playing in a position that was stacked at Leinster in behind Cian Healy, Heinke van der Merwe and even Jack McGrath.
“I probably waited a bit longer than I would have wanted to make my Leinster debut away to Ospreys. It was almost a relief.
“My biggest regret at Leinster is that I never saw myself on the same level as the other lads,” he reveals.
“I put them on too high a pedestal at times. It was something I never really got to grips with, especially in the early days.
“You grow up watching them on television. Then, you are standing next to them.
“Having said that, the likes of Shane Jennings, Isaac Boss and Mike Ross were incredible for the young lads coming through, really knowledgeable and helpful.
“The coaches were great too, Girvan Dempsey, John Fogarty, Colie McEntee, Davie Fagan, Tom Turner. You couldn’t ask for a better group to train you, to push you.
“It is a gift that you are surrounded by all these incredible players that are helping to raise your game.
“But, it is also a curse in that there is a reason they are playing on Lions tours, ultimately forcing me to move elsewhere.”
Even so, two memories stand above all others. First, Noel Reid slotted a late penalty to see Leinster A eclipse Newcastle Falcons in the 2013 B&I Cup final.
Second, in 2014, Jack came on late in Leinster’s 22-18 victory over Munster in front of 51,700 spectators at The Aviva Stadium.
It would have been an evening of mixed feelings for his relations in Kerry and Cork, emphasised by a revealing story involving his granny Angela.
“She was cold one evening in Kerry. I put a Leinster jacket on to keep her warm. She threw it off immediately.
“She said: ‘Jack, if someone sees me wearing that, I will never hear the end of it.’”
In the summer of 2014, Jack moved to Bristol for more game time. He was there for four seasons, playing 63 times before one final year at Ealing Trailfinders.
Living in Bristol with his wife Niamh, a Cabinteely girl, and cocker spaniel Stella, they are expecting their first child in March.
Working as a financial advisor, Jack is keen to replicate the impact made on him when playing at Bristol.
“I had a financial advisor at the club. He was really helpful in getting me ready for life after rugby,” Jack says.
“You go from earning decent money to being no different to someone coming out of University. He helped me to bridge that gap, providing some of the tools to make the transition easier.”
Rugby has given Jack resilience and above-average communication skills.
“The benefit rugby gave me is the ability to talk to anyone and everyone.
“It is the confidence to walk into a room or strike up an authentic conversation, get to know someone on a real level quite quickly, rather than a surface level.
“Say what you want about rugby, you are stuck in a room with 30 lads for ten or 11 months of the year.
“You go through some pain together and you learn how to deal with people.”