Friday 28 July 2017

Paul Kimmage: Matt Hampson's story is a tale to make us appreciate our lives

Matt Hampson and Paul Kimmage at yesterday’s Six Nations match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Matt Hampson and Paul Kimmage at yesterday’s Six Nations match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Read Paul Kimmage every week in the Sunday Independent.

I follow the security men back down the tunnel and out the players' entrance. The ground feels different. Something has changed. A young boy is staring at me like he has just seen an alien. Nobody is stopping to cheer or call my name. We reach the lift and an official hurries inside to hold the doors for me. I stare at him, bewildered. My pulse has started to race. The only thing that makes sense is the screaming voice in my head: 'You have got to get back to the changing room!' I bolt from the lift and start sprinting down the corridor towards the players' entrance. I'm almost there now. The guys are stripped and ready to go. Haskell is standing at the door with my jersey in his hand. He is waving and urging me to quicken, but it's as if I'm running on a conveyor belt. I can't close the gap. I can't get back to the changing room.

- 'Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson'

One of my favourite scenes from the movies is from Von Ryan's Express, a classic oldie-but-goldie wartime adventure starring Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard as two rivals who become friends and liberate hundreds of Allied troops from a German POW camp before breaking for the border in a hijacked train.

In a barnstorming climax, the train has almost reached Switzerland when it is attacked by German aircraft, forcing them to stop and repair the track, as a group of SS Stormtroopers race up from behind. A frantic battle of machine guns ensues. The track is repaired, the train starts to move and in the final scene we see our two heroes sprinting for the safety of the rear carriage under fire from the SS.

Fincham reaches the platform first and stretches back to help his friend. Ryan throws away his gun and extends his hand. Ol' Blue Eyes is smiling. He has almost made it. He is almost there. It is almost the perfect ending. But life is never perfect.

The Germans gun him down.

A blustery Friday evening in Dublin. Matt Hampson is sitting in the back of a black Mercedes van on the Stillorgan Road, transfixed by the lights of the stadium. Twelve years have passed since his last visit here.

"That's Donnybrook, Matt," a friend observes.

"I know," Hampson replies, tears streaming down his face.

Jonathan Sexton of Ireland is tackled by James Haskell
Jonathan Sexton of Ireland is tackled by James Haskell

The month was February, 2005. England had beaten Ireland in the under 21 Six Nations and Hampson and his team-mates had swapped their sweat-stained kit for Hackett suits and a night on the town. Toby Flood was made to drink an absinthe for each of the six penalties he had missed. A round of vodka was followed by a round of flaming sambuca and spirits were high.

Somebody mentioned a place called 'Temple Bar'. Hampson followed his friends out the door and watched as James Haskell hailed a rickshaw. "Wait for me," he said, chasing the rickshaw down the street. "Keep going, you fat bastard," Haskell guffawed.

Hampson's feet were starting to blister. He had a dead leg, a cut lip and his face was soaked with sweat. The next morning, he woke up in a Travelodge close to the airport with a bottle of wine in his suit pocket and a woman he did not remember meeting. It might have been the last time he had sex.

Haskell and he went back a long way. They first met in 2002, when they were paired together during a training weekend for the England under 18s.

"I nearly freaked when I saw the room list," Haskell says. "I thought 'Oh Christ! They've put me with a prop!'

"I thought he was going to be a right posh twat," Hampson counters.

"I thought he'd smell," Haskell says.

"We were both right," Hampson laughs.

Two weeks after the Dublin game, on March 15, 2005, they travelled to Franklin's Gardens in Northampton to prepare for the final game of the Six Nations against Scotland. There was a video made of the training session: Hampson and Haskell are wearing the same orange-coloured track tops.

A drinks break is called after an hour. Nigel Redman, the team coach, commends the players on their work and reminds them of how well they played against Ireland. Richard Blaze, the second row, is worried about the Scottish scrum and their habit of 'crabbing' prior to engagement.

"Then we'll hit in and fucking pile through them," Hampson says. "If they are coming around, put the ball in and we'll go all the way through them. Let's fuck them up, yeah?"

Haskell often laughed at how combative he was in training: "You're a fucking nause, Hambo. We're training! We shouldn't be going at each other like this." But Hampson was formed in the tradition of his club, Leicester: the training ground was a place to earn respect and show what you could do.

The session resumes with a contested scrum. Tony Spreadbury has been brought in to referee the session and calls the mark. The squad have been split into two packs, A and B. Neill Briggs lifts his hands above his head and drops his arms over the shoulder of his loosehead, Martin Halsall, and his tighthead, Matt Hampson. Tom Ryder and Dan Smith slot in behind. Haskell and David Seymour are linked on the flanks. Mark Hopley stands at No 8. Pack A is ready.

Dave Ward lifts his hands above his head and drops his hands on the shoulders of Michael Cusack and Wayne Thompson. Sean Cox and Richard Blaze slot in behind. Tim Weighman and Tom Rees are linked up on the flanks. Will Skinner stands at No 8. Pack B is ready.

Spreadbury gives the order and the packs engage, but the scrum collapses almost immediately. The 16 players pile into a heap and slowly regain their footing, but one hasn't moved. Tom Ryder reaches down to pull his team-mate off the floor but then straightens and backs away. There is a look of complete horror on his face.

Matt Hampson is paralysed from the neck down and will spend the rest of his life breathing through a ventilator. He is 20 years and four months old.

Two years later, on March 17, 2007, he watched Haskell make his full England debut against Wales. Yesterday, he was in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, when his friend walked out for his 75th cap against Ireland.

He travelled to the game with a smile on his face and a song from Ol' Blue Eyes blaring from his speakers, that only made sense to those who love him.

That's life,

That's what people say

You're riding high in April

Shot down in May

But I know I'm gonna change that tune,

When I'm back on top,

Back on top in June...

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