Wednesday 29 March 2017

‘I don’t believe any player at the end of his career deserves to be treated like a piece of meat’

Everyone is afraid of Michael Cheika. After a few years of the 'new' Cheika, he's regressed, back to the 'old' Cheika -- the Cheika who first arrived in Leinster five years ago. Then, it was his way all of the time. He was nearly always angry. He was also a control freak. He wanted to do everything himself, run the game-plans, run our fitness schedules, run everyone's lives, always his way.

Now, it's like that again. He's behaving like that all over again. Last Saturday we lost our Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse, but, in the run-up to the game, he was his old self.

In fact, he was that way for weeks and months, certainly since it was announced that he was taking up the head coach position in Stade Francais next season. The pressure of successfully defending the Heineken Cup title and finishing off his five years in Leinster became all-consuming for him and, the more mistakes he has made, the more you can see that look in his eyes.

He's especially mad with me. Not that I care at the moment. I doubt that I could ever play for him again, even if my body was up to it. At this moment in time, I'd be quite happy never to speak with him again. And he's equally angry with me, it seems. To me, it's as though he's actually using me as the focal point for his anger these last few days.

He's giving the impression that everyone is against him, and that I am trying to cause him more problems than anyone else.

I didn't play against Toulouse in the Heineken Cup semi-final five days ago. I sat on the bench the whole game, and watched our scrum being murdered.

I'll never play for Leinster again.

I've known that my professional career was ending since last January when Leinster told me that they would not be renewing my contract. Six weeks after that, they changed their minds and we were discussing the option of a one-year contract extension, but I failed a subsequent medical examination and Leinster took the offer off the table.

I wasn't surprised that I failed that medical. My body is screwed. My knees are gone and my head can't take any more bangs. I've suffered more concussions in the last three months than I have experienced in the last three years.

Last Tuesday, I went to Cheika. He was a little late that morning, but, when he arrived shortly after 8.30, I was waiting for him in the corridor and asked if I could have a word.

He probably thought I was going to give him a piece of my mind for not getting any game-time against Toulouse, but he brought me into his office. I hadn't expected him to be surprised by my decision. I expected him to treat me with a bit of understanding, and humanity. That's how I think he should have behaved.

The three hookers who are signed up for Leinster next season, Fogs (John Fogarty), Richardt Strauss, and Jason Harris-Wright, are all fit and available to him. He didn't want to use me in the Heineken Cup semi-final, so I'd figured he would have no problem accepting my decision to finally call an end to a career which has meant the whole world to me. But Cheika didn't take my news well that Tuesday morning. He told me to re-think my decision, and come back to him the next morning.

On Wednesday morning, I told him I was sure I was ready to retire because I didn't think I would be able to do myself, or the team, justice over the final few matches of the season.

And then he went crazy on me.

"You don't decide when you retire!" he told me. "I decide when you retire!"

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I'll never forget those words . . . "I decide when you retire . . . I decide when you retire . . . I decide when you retire!"

I was supposed to do the press conference with Girvan Dempsey that afternoon, because he and Mal O'Kelly are announcing this week that they are both retiring at the end of the season.

Girv and myself were going to announce our retirements simultaneously. Our PR man, Peter Breen, had completed all of our career stats for the media and everything was ready for the pair of us to say our official goodbyes and do our photo-calls for the next morning's papers.

But Cheika told me he was pulling me out of the press conference. He told me I was dropped from the squad and he told me to go home.

I was in a state of shock. It was pathetic from someone in his position.

I had a quick word with Mal and with Gordon D'Arcy before heading off, but I told them not to say anything to anybody. I didn't want the players getting distracted and getting dragged into my problem with Cheika. I also spoke to Leo Cullen. Leo is always very straight up and, if he had thought I was being selfish he would have told me. It was very important to me that he backed my decision. He told me I was dead right.

All of the senior players know that I am wrecked. It's been a constant joke around the place for the last year and a half, every time someone sees me limping down the corridor or limping into the dressing-room, someone, Shaggy, Drico, someone, will always pipe up and announce: "You're moving great, Berch!" and then they'll burst their arses laughing at me.

During my meeting with Cheika, I'd actually said to him: "I'll announce my retirement, but I'll still do whatever I can to stay fit with the fitness coaches. And, if there is a massive injury crisis, I'll sit on the bench.

"I will not let you or the team down." The only reply I got was, "No, mate."

It was all unbelievable stuff. I don't believe that any player at the end of his career deserves to be treated like a piece of meat. It amazes me.

As an organisation, Leinster are so professional in every tiny little detail, every day of the season, but they have no idea how to work with or act towards players who are reaching the end of their careers.

It's not just me: Mal O'Kelly heard from his mate in Ulster, Jeremy Davidson, that Leinster were looking for another second-row.

Compared to Mal, who's been here nearly all his adult life, I'm only a blow-in. But surely my five years of service deserve some respect? What are the young lads like the McFaddens and the O'Malleys going to think when they see Leinster treating players like this at the end of their careers? Leinster, ultimately, will pay a price for this sort of behaviour.

You could say the team already has paid a price this season because, in addition to myself, there has been a lot of dressing-room talk among other players about how much they felt mistreated by Leinster during contract negotiations.

All that has been going on against the background of a possible season finale in the Heineken Cup final in Paris. With that kind of backdrop, how could we ever have been as focused as a group of players as we were last season, when we were crowned champions of Europe?

When we finally lifted the trophy in May 2009, we had only three points to spare over Leicester in the final and we had had only one point to spare over Harlequins in the quarter-final.

It shows how tough it is to win the big one. To expect us to be able to defend our title, with all of these distractions going on, was probably naive at best. We made things so much more difficult for ourselves this season.

I'm going to go back into the camp tomorrow. I'll do my weights, but I'm not sure what will happen after that. I bumped into Cheika yesterday, before leaving, and I couldn't bring myself to say anything to him. I don't want to see him or talk to him tomorrow either.

It's all so ridiculous and so unnecessary.

I don't understand why there has to be this drama, and friction, in my last few weeks with the team as a player. But, I know this is happening because Cheika wishes it to happen.

How can he make me play, if I am not fit to play? In any other career, if you are physically incapable of doing your job, then nobody can make you do that job. I have failed a medical and I have been refused a contract for next season on foot of failing that medical.

It's absurd. It's madness. If I am injured and I make the decision that I want to play and risk further pain and concussions, then that's my business.

But not this way, this way is not fair and not right.

Irish Independent

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