Saturday 21 October 2017

'Matt O’Connor used to call me 'sausages'' - Fan favourite McCarthy brings curtain down on career

20 February 2017; Mike McCarthy of Leinster arrives for squad training at Thornfields, UCD in Belfield, Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
20 February 2017; Mike McCarthy of Leinster arrives for squad training at Thornfields, UCD in Belfield, Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Des Berry

THERE are the characters in the game that make the workplace better for their presence.

Then, there is the character it takes to make it and keep on making it in the combat arena of professional rugby for 17 stamina-sapping seasons.    

Leinster and Ireland second-row Mike McCarthy is one of those unusual humans blessed with a gift for unique comedy.

For instance, from the 15 PRO12 and Champions Cup home matches played this season, there was a section in the match programme, always on Page 57, which asked for ‘The Joker’ in the dressing-room.

Of the 15 surveyed, seven of them nominated McCarthy.

When it comes to the media, what you see and hear is definitely not what the club gets.

In front of a tape recorder, the sense is of a mild-mannered, uncertain and genuinely shy man.

It was this side of his personality that McCarthy accessed to give a heartfelt review of his four seasons and 75 appearances in blue. 

“On a personal level, I wish I’d joined earlier and I wish I was staying longer. But, I’m not,” he said.

The man behind the camera is a “larger than life” character, his comedic outbursts often arriving unexpectedly.

“I just love having banter with the boys in the dressing-room,” he said.

It was almost always left there when McCarthy crossed the white line. Almost.

“Matt O’Connor used to call me sausages,” he said. “When I joined Leinster from Connacht, my first game away was at Scarlets and Jimmy Gopperth scored in the corner.

“I didn’t realise it, but Jono Gibbes and Matt could hear me screaming ‘sausages’, through the referee’s microphone, to Jimmy. For no reason.” 

The tales are many and can generally be filed in under the category, ‘you had to be there to get it’.

The scourge of back and el-bow injuries stalled the Ireland international’s season and, ultimately, turned it into his last.

It has been a frustrating 15 months from the concussion that wiped out last season after playing against Wales and France in the Six Nations. 

It is a testament to McCarthy that Brett Wilkinson, Michael Swift, Johnny O’Connor, Adrian Flavin, Frank Murphy, Shane Jennings and Eoin Reddan have all been there to guide him mentally from the plummet of a two-year contract in the beautiful seaside town of Narbonne into the abyss that retirement can be.

Before the end of the journey, there was the journey itself.

It was never an easy one for the woman who will always be “an inspiration”.

For, there has always been his mum Anna and there were his grandparents Patrick and Florence Coyle.

‘Grandad’ was the oldest of five children and moved to England to labour on the railways in a well-worn story of emigration to earn a keep for those left behind.

It was just last year when Mike and Anna brought Patrick’s ashes back to his native Belmullet to scatter them into the waters of Carrowmore Lake and Blacksod Bay. Mother and son lived and moved together from London to Eastbourne to Norfolk to Yorkshire, all in pursuit of a better life.

“I have not seen my Dad since I was twelve,” he shared, matter-of-factly.

“I had just got back in contact with him when he passed away last year,” he said. 

The physical gifts McCarthy inherited were enhanced by his love of competition.

It was what earned him a coveted sports scholarship to heralded Sedbergh School in Cumbria, north-west England.

“I went through stages of wanting to be a professional swimmer, a professional tennis player, a professional athlete and a professional rugby player.”

He came to settle on the latter.

Warren Gatland was a valued mentor at Wasps where Joe Worsley, Paul Volley and Lawrence Dallaglio blocked McCarthy’s path to being a better player. 

The Ireland international, followed in his mother’s footsteps, by keeping on the move, through Wasps (2000-2003), Connacht twice (2003-2004 and 2007-2013), Newcastle Falcons (2004-2007) and on to Leinster where he gave it everything for the last four seasons. 

“Until you retire, you don’t realise the mindset you are in and what you go through,” he said.

“It is an emotional roller-coaster. I’ve done it most of my life. I feel real sad because Scarlets was my last game and I didn’t realise it.

“I feel sad because I am going to miss that adrenalin rush from running out for those big games.

“When you go on the pitch, you throw your weight around. You give it and you take it.

“I suppose, that starts to become ingrained in you and – this sounds strange – but, I will miss being bashed up.” 

The Ireland lock, capped 19 times, will miss the rush and punishment of playing.

Perhaps, the pain that propelled his career has always been there, lurking in the background. 

The man not in his life for the last 23 years has been overtaken by the woman who gave him life and those who have come into it, his wife, Jess, and his daughter, Lola.

“They are my life,” he said.

As he is theirs.

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