Monday 1 May 2017

Joe Brolly: 'I felt waves of pride' - Pros can't match bond of community

Shane Williams and Michael Murphy in a promotion shot for The Toughest Trade. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Shane Williams and Michael Murphy in a promotion shot for The Toughest Trade. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

I caught up with the Shane Williams-Michael Murphy sport-swapping documentary last week. When Williams, once the world's number one rugby player, took to the field for his debut against Convoy, the blizzard was so heavy you could barely see the ball for the snow.

It reminded me of an old billboard ad for Donegal Bus. A mother, wearing a yellow waterproof coat and a sou'wester, is pulling her reluctant son behind her. He is also wearing a yellow waterproof coat. The rain is so heavy you can only see their outline. The mother says to the boy, "Would you houl your whisht son, sure it's only a lock of water." The ad reads, "Take the Bus."

Williams must have wished he was in a nice warm Donegal bus. In every scene, we see him shivering in rain or snow. Then, as if things aren't bad enough, the Swilly men introduce him to their state-of-the-art ice-bath system. The ocean . . . in the middle of winter. We see the Welsh rugby great cresting the sand dunes wearing his gear and wrapped in a towel.

The Swilly men are wearing short-sleeved shirts and shorts, chatting and laughing amongst themselves. In Glenswilly, central heating is an open fire in the living room. The lads troop into the freezing sea, with Williams giving the camera man a sideways look that says, 'Are these people completely mental?' (Answer: More or less.) Within 10 seconds Williams has turned and is fleeing back to the beach, shivering and shaking his head, as the Glen men chat casually among themselves like hotel residents in a warm spa.

The Glenswilly coach Gary McDaid explains that they are having a skills session to help bring Williams up to speed. So, we see the little genius learning the two skills closest to every Donegal heart - the solo and the handpass. A bit of kicking is thrown in, presumably in case of emergencies. As a very typical GAA session comes to an end, Williams says to camera, "That is the most tiring skills session I've ever done. They love to run you. It's very old-school training."

In another scene, a sleepy-looking Williams arrives for a 6am strength and conditioning session with the group. Normally, he would be going for a nice nap after this, but not in our world. In our world, you train, work and train again. So, it's off to Michael Murphy Sports for him, where he proves a dab hand at the boot sales.

"I can't believe this," he says, "how they train like this and work as well." The Swilly fitness coach made a good point about the state of Gaelic football. "We used to do S&C to give ourselves an advantage over our opposition. Now, everyone is doing it. So, if we don't do it, we are left behind."

What was striking about his experience, compared to Michael Murphy's at the professional rugby club Clermont, is the warmth of the welcome and the natural bond of the team and community. It is something we take for granted and something we all know well. Even so, as I watched, I felt waves of pride. The easy way Shane was taken to the hearts of the people. The welcome he got at Glenswilly National School, where he was so overcome he muttered "astonishing, astonishing".

At Clermont, meanwhile, it was strictly business. There is a rule that the players must meet for breakfast every morning and shake hands with every player before eating. The emphasis here is on career. The individual is a commodity. Murphy, a magnificent beast, had no trouble with the training. "His squats need to be stronger, he is behind us in that area. But his arm strength is stronger than ours," explained the French weights coach.

In his first one-on-one skills session with trainer Jono Gibbes, Jono was teaching him the important art of rolling on the ground, contact and how to keep the chest and shoulder lowered to avoid being driven back. After the first few exhausting exchanges, the narrator asked Michael how he was finding it. "I'm just trying to avoid suffocating." Gibbes, struggling a bit to understand, said, "Our guys can barely understand Michael's English." He should get a load of Wee Martin McHugh.

Next up was a place-kicking competition with the French national team kicker. After two kicks each it was 1-1. For the deciding kick, the Frenchman was on the right touchline kicking off his favoured left foot. Murphy, meanwhile, was kicking from the same spot with his right. The Frenchman landed his. Now it was Michael's turn.

The camera gave us a close-up of his face. It was a mask of concentration and determination. He stepped up, and drove it through the black spot. 2-2. It was a small example of why Murphy is special. Very special. During a training session with the first team, where he didn't look in the slightest bit out of place, the Clermont manager said, "He's keen for contact which is unusual for a newcomer. We might keep him. Is he under contract?" Which chimed with something Shane Williams said halfway through his stint in Donegal. "I cannot believe this is an amateur sport."

The bemused Clermont boss's last word was: "It teaches us you can be a professional without necessarily being paid to play." Murphy's contributions reminded us why he is one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Asked if he'd be tempted by the pro life, he said, "I had an opportunity to play in Australia. But my love is for Donegal. Playing for Donegal is my only dream. I'm happy where I am." David Strettle, one of Clermont's English internationals, said, "I didn't realise that the town that you're born in, that's the team you play for, which I think is amazing. I could just imagine the unity that builds in a team."

"I definitely got the best end of this swap," said Williams before he headed home to the Valleys. And in spite of the way Michael had been wined and dined amongst the millionaires, Williams was right. Sure it's only a lock of water. . .

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