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True greats will never go gentle into that good night

There's no available manual that tells sports stars how they should run the uncertain last lap of a great career, no blueprint that guides them safely through to the final bell with their honour and reputation intact.

It was Dylan Thomas who penned the oft-quoted lines urging us to rage against the dying of the light, but then the Welsh poet hardly made a great fist of it himself, drinking himself to an early grave by the age of 39.

Ageing champions have no other choice but to muddle through as best they can, grappling with the increasing signs of their own mortality and the harsh truth that the next generation of kids on the way up hold neither the fear nor respect that others once did. The aura fades and lesser mortals grow a few inches, sensing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take down a big name, even if he or she is a shadow of their former self.

Yet that's not strictly accurate, either. Because there is a choice: the option to leave at the top and exit the stage before the inevitable decline sets in. Bjorn Borg was 26 when he called time in 1983, Rocky Marciano just 32 when he retired as undefeated world heavyweight champion in 1956. Eric Cantona walked away from football at the tender age of 30. Joe Calzaghe was 38 when he quit the ring with an unblemished 46-fight record, but there was indisputably more left in the tank.

The list of those who have done so is a lengthy one, yet it remains a difficult trick to execute neatly. Borg was drawn back for another round of the tennis circuit in his 30s and a long line of others have trod the same ground, unable to resist the lure of a few more days in the sunshine: Michael Jordan, Justine Henin, Lester Piggott, Lance Armstrong, Magic Johnson, DJ Carey. The human impulse is to stay going, drain every drop of potential from the body while it remains strong.

And it is good that it is so. For there can be few more poignant and ennobling sights in sport that to witness the wilting champion rail against his own decline, the once steely, seemingly invulnerable hotshot suddenly showing his human side. We can always marvel at talent and athletic brilliance. But great champions give us something more. They have a vulnerable side, a human dimension.

Last week, Setanta screened a documentary on the career of Barry McGuigan. The high point of McGuigan's career, of course, was the unforgettable night in 1985 when he beat Eusebio Pedroza to claim the world featherweight title. McGuigan was 24, not yet in his prime. Pedroza had been champion for six years, travelling the globe to defend his title a remarkable 18 times. At 32, he was far from old, but the years and the tough fights had taken their toll. No disrespect to McGuigan, but the abiding memories of that night are of the extraordinary dignity with which Pedroza met his end. At the end of the seventh, in which McGuigan had knocked him to the canvas, the camera flashed on Pedroza in his corner, casting a wistful glance towards his wife seated among the crowd, as if to say: "Don't be upset. We had a good innings anyway."

Pedroza still had eight rounds to face, though, and McGuigan, spurred on by a raucous mob, came looking to finish him. At one stage the force of McGuigan's punches had Pedroza staggering across the ring but, no matter how furious the assault became, the Panamanian would not go down, heroically staying on his feet to the final bell, a reminder that champions could enhance their reputations even as the light went out.

And that's the thing: there is dignity and humanity in the fall that isn't generally achievable during the ascent to the top. Contrast Brian Cody's reaction, for instance, when he was needlessly prickly with Marty Morrissey after Kilkenny secured the four-in-a-row in 2009 with the grace and honour he showed when their historic drive for five came unstuck last September. It was a side of Cody that was unexpected and all the more impressive for it.

Horses aren't in a position to express their feelings, of course, so it's no surprise that connections sometimes tend to get tetchy on their behalf. Kauto Star's reputation as one of the greatest steeplechasers of all time won't have been unduly affected by last week's failure to win his fifth King George, but Paul Nicholls was noticeably irritated by suggestions that his stable star was no longer a serious force against the rising stars of the jumping game.

Nicholls was right to dismiss such claims as nonsense. Kauto Star, after all, is just 11 and has only a relatively light 35 races behind him. The former champion going to the well one more time in March is a compelling subplot the Gold Cup can't afford to be without. Accusations of cruelty aren't new territory for anyone who has lived a life in racing. Henrietta Knight couldn't have handled Best Mate any more tenderly, yet the great horse was dead to a heart attack at 10.

We do all the right things, you see, and yet the ending can still mock us. Nobody reckoned Munster would go to Toulon last Sunday, their European Cup lives on the line, and fail as meekly as they did. Yet it wasn't a time for recriminations as much as to remember how far they'd come. No Irish sporting team had undergone such an extraordinary journey in living memory. No Irish team had given more to its public.

And while they themselves would rail against the thought, the odds are that the guts of a great team will gradually disintegrate now. It's sad to think so, of course, but heartwarming in some ways too. A new generation is filtering through and the most vibrant legacy has been left for them to follow. Life goes on. The cycle continues. When they corralled him after the greatest team of them all had breathed their last against Cork in 1987, the Bomber Liston had only a few words to offer.

"The circus is over," he said. "Time to fold the tent and move on."

Sunday Indo Sport