Tuesday 12 December 2017

Paul Kimmage: Sometimes in rugby, as in cycling, we can only see the truth that suits

Paul Kimmage during his professional cycling career (left), and Sam Cane tackles Robbie Henshaw during last weekend's clash between Ireland and the All Blacks (right).
Paul Kimmage during his professional cycling career (left), and Sam Cane tackles Robbie Henshaw during last weekend's clash between Ireland and the All Blacks (right).
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

'I can't listen to the nonsense debate that rugby is a dangerous game. That's being sensationalist, and the game is being harmed by ill-informed debate. Because there are so many more cameras and angles, it makes things look higher impact and more ferocious. Rory Best makes his 100th cap for Ireland tomorrow, Sean Cronin too has been around for a decade and more, and both are making good impacts on the modern game. Let's keep some balance.' - Ronan O’Gara, Irish Examiner

My first conscious memory of my father was the finish of a bike race in the Phoenix Park, and the gasp of the crowd as the bunch swarmed across the road and he somersaulted over the roof of a parked car.

I remember peering through the legs at his prostrate body on the grass and feeling almost excited - "That's my Da!" - as they loaded him into the ambulance.

Read more: Tommy Conlon: Some Kiwi journalists adopt a belligerent tone to conceal that they are more like teenage cheerleaders

There's a lot you don't understand, I guess, when you're four years old.

Bike racing has always been a dangerous game but my father had few reservations, six years later, when he brought me for my first training ride - a ten-mile loop to Balgriffin and Portmarnock that left me absolutely shattered. Dad wasn't a man for sugar-coating. "This is a hard game, perhaps the hardest," he announced, after we had returned home. "Do you still want to race?"

"Yeah," I replied.

"Fine, but remember - it will bring you more heartbreak than happiness."

He never mentioned crashing.

If falling off has always been a hazard of riding a bike, then crashing has always been a hazard of racing. I was 12 or 13 when one registered for the first time - "Fuck! That really hurt!" - and at least 10 years retired before I stopped waking in the middle of the night, heart-racing and breathless, after dreaming I had just 'hit' a wheel.

By the age of 23, I'd broken a vertebra, two wrists and ripped practically every inch of skin from my arms, ass, knees, ankles and hips. And then I turned professional and spent the next four years competing without a helmet. Why? Because racing was a game of skill - positioning, cornering, descending, sprinting. Each bike had two brakes and you controlled your own destiny.

Okay, so there were things you could not control:

"Bang!"

A front-tyre blow-out on a descent.

Crunch!

The guy who fell in front of you.

Screech!

A plaque of oil or gravel or melting tar on a corner.

Hey!

But you rolled the dice.

Sometimes you thought about it: the Tour de Haut Var in 1987, and that long and narrow descent where Michel Goffin went down, two places in front of you, and died two weeks later. The Tour de France five months later, and that hair-raising descent in the Pyrenees when the rims were over-heating, and the tyres were blowing and you landed in a heap with a Frenchman and an Italian and watched the Belgian, Henrick de Vos, miss the corner completely and go straight over the edge.

The Tour of Italy in 1989 and that crazy finish on the 12th stage to Mira: the terrifying screech of metal that is the soundtrack to every crash; the hum of panic and grating skin and burning rubber; and the Dane, Rolf Sorensen, lying on the ground with a head like a split melon and his blood oozing onto the road.

'Why do we take these risks?' you wonder. 'This sport is fucking insane!'

But a day later you're racing through freezing rain to the summit of the Tre Cime de Laveredo. And a day after that, it's pelting down with snow when the race enters the Dolomites. And you keep going because it's exciting and it's your job and you've aspired to nothing else since that first ride to Portmarnock.

But if either of my sons had aspired to the same career, I think I'd have reached for a gun and shot them. But it has nothing to do with crashing.

I'm watching the Netflix series 'The Crown' at the moment and there's a brilliant scene between Sir Winston Churchill and the artist Graham Sutherland, who has been commissioned by the House of Lords to paint a portrait of Churchill on his 80th birthday. But the Great Briton is wary.

"Will we be engaged in flattery or reality?" Churchill inquires. "Are you going to paint me as a cherub or a bulldog?"

"I imagine there are a great number of Mister Churchills," Sutherland says.

"Well, as you search for him, perhaps I can implore you not to feel the need to be too accurate," Churchill replies.

"Why, accuracy is truth," Sutherland counters.

But Churchill is not having it: "Nooo," he says. "For accuracy we have the camera - painting is the higher art . . . I paint a bit myself, you know."

"Yes sir, I know."

"And I never let accuracy get in the way of truth if I don't want it to . . . if I see some landscape I like and I wish there wasn't a factory in the background, I leave the factory out!"

And so it goes with professional sport.

We see the heroes of the Tour de France soaring like angels in the mountains and pretend that all the doping ended with Lance. We watch a compelling battle between Ireland and the All Blacks at the Aviva and pretend, as ROG insists, that rugby is not a dangerous game.

But sometimes the truth is what you feel.

John Greene, the sports editor of this newspaper, was one of many who left the Aviva with conflicted emotions last week. He had enjoyed the game and the Irish performance but was disturbed by the collisions and the image of Robbie Henshaw being stretched from the ground. But when he checked his Twitter feed it was mostly about the ref and the decisions he had made.

Was he missing something here?

He got into his car and drove home. His wife, Catherine, was watching television. Their kids Eleanor (7) and John (6) were in bed. He had been thinking about John most of the way home and his burgeoning interest in the game. A week ago, it had cheered him - but now he wasn't sure, so he asked Catherine if she would mind watching the highlights. "I want you to tell me if I'm overreacting," he said. "Because over my dead body, there's no way John will play rugby."

So Ronan O'Gara can deny it. And Joe Schmidt and Steve Hansen can ignore it. And World Rugby can dish out their paltry justice and pretend the problem is fixed. But there are plenty of parents like John who feel exactly the same.

Sunday Indo Sport

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