Friday 19 January 2018

'There was blood spread all across the dressing room' - Neil Francis recalls a time when team-mates dealt with a thief

Laptop retrieval incident can drive this tight-knit squad on to even greater heights

Breheny: Laptop retrieval incident can drive this tight-knit squad on to even greater heights
Breheny: Laptop retrieval incident can drive this tight-knit squad on to even greater heights
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A good while ago in my playing days, in rugby grounds outside this jurisdiction, an extra training session had just finished early for the backs. The forwards stayed on for more.

It was a bad practice session, symptomatic of how we were playing. Our pack leader's exhortations for more effort were not exactly of Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George standards. Apathy reigned as a distant call came from one of the backs to come to the dressing-rooms, pronto!

As we all filed in there was unexplained tension. There was this wretch standing in the corner of the dressing-room - he had been caught red-handed rifling through everybody's stuff.

About half of the dressing-room had been done. He had been disturbed, he hid in a vacant dressing-room and came back to finish the job. Where was all the stuff? He actually smirked when he said he didn't know where it was.

The violence of the next second or two caught everyone by surprise. One of our forwards who had previously been strolling around the paddock with casual indifference cracked the thief with a venomous stiff arm.

The thief was not expecting violence and the force of the blow caused a huge splash of blood to spread all over the right-hand side of the dressing-room. Nobody even blinked!

"Our stuff?" came the reprise - stuff meaning highly personal stuff like wedding bands, pictures of dead parents, pictures of our children, things like watches that were passed on through generations and then credit cards which would have to be cancelled and of course cash - hard-earned wages thieved by this unspeakable parasite.

Fagin had gauged the mood too late and his threats to bring his mates back with him or tell the cops what had happened did not help his cause - the cops wouldn't be coming.

Half of the team went to check the car park and the gate for dodgies and then checked the other dressing-rooms, where the valuables were located and brought back to the main dressing-room.

What to do now? The thief received a fearful doing. No pity. No mercy. No remorse. He wouldn't be able to shoot heroin into his veins for a good while after that. Nobody said a word after it was finished and we all went straight home.

The following Saturday the team played brilliantly. Very hard to judge whether the situation in the dressing-room had anything to do with kick-starting us out of our torpor. Surely beating up a thief in a dressing-room is a low-level keystone to motivate a team to play?

Nobody saw the act as a catalyst but that is what it was. In a perverse sort of way it united the team in a way that a coach's or captain's speech couldn't.

I don't know about you but I thought the sports story of the year happened last week. It involved Connacht, but it has very little to do with their rise to the top of the table, their hugely improved skill levels or the brand of rugby they are playing.

Robbie henshaw ca.png
Robbie Henshaw’s laptop was taken from his car after the window was smashed
Robbie Henshaw's car was broken into

The real story is Robbie Henshaw's stolen laptop. The bones of the story are that Henshaw had a window in his car smashed and his laptop stolen. About 10 people, most of them apparently members of the Connacht squad, turn up at a housing estate in Galway after tracking the laptop on an app called 'Find my Laptop'.

There is an altercation with a McDonagh family who had possession of the laptop. The Gardaí are called, the situation is defused and Henshaw has his laptop back. All's well that ends well.

I found the whole adventure fascinating on a number of fronts. Firstly, I could not for the life of me see Henshaw if he has his laptop stolen next season rocking up to some housing estate flanked by a phalanx of blue dandies demanding they return their mate's laptop.

Mrs Ellen McDonagh, the mother of the man who had possession of the laptop, noted that it was 'unprofessional' of these Connacht players to do what they did.

She is absolutely right, but she failed to make the point that very few people would have had the sense of brotherhood and vested interest in their own particular community to even think of doing such a thing. Mess with one of us, mess with all of us . . .

None of the players who turned up that day knew what to expect or what they would be dealing with. They could have met an armed gang of hardened criminals or Russian mafia. Did that element of danger not even cross their minds?

This adventure was not an exercise in retrieving a stolen laptop. It was a show of strength to each other. Yes, it was reckless, but recklessness with your own body on a rugby pitch often demonstrates how tight a team is.

How exactly did this extraordinary event come about?

Did anyone decide not to go? Why did they not just call the Gardaí? Why did Henshaw not just claim on insurance? I'm sure he has backed up his files.

16 April 2016; Robbie Henshaw, Connacht, following his side's victory. Guinness PRO12 Round 20, Connacht v Munster. The Sportsground, Galway. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

It was a very unorthodox way of dealing with the dilemma. I am reassured and invigorated that they chose to do it in the way they did.

Did senior management know about it in advance?

Did they not consider that there would be no chance that this would not appear in the media, whether there was good or adverse publicity (I think good)?

Did those on an IRFU contract go outside their terms and conditions on behavioural issues? Small beer!

I think it gives you an insight in the state of mind of this Connacht team.

Sometimes, from what I've seen, it is things out of left-field that motivate a team. Things you would not expect or even know about.

I remember an England team arriving on these shores in 1993 with 17 Lions in their ranks and getting routed at Lansdowne Road. A truly humbling visit to Our Lady's Hospital in Crumlin left us knowing that all our problems were very small ones in comparison to what we witnessed the Friday before the match.

I thought Connacht were mentally stronger than Glasgow two weeks ago and Gregor Townsend will have to be very clever to see a way of beating the Westerners in the mood they are in. Maybe get someone to rob his dressing-room . . .

The rain is due to pour again on Saturday. Glasgow won't be able to offload and the Scots will be left with no option but to confront a very confrontational group of people who have a habit of sticking together in tough times.

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