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'It took about four years before I was happy' - Pollock at peace with his lost rugby career

Former Ireland U-20 captain became a doctor after injury cut short his dream

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David Pollock in action for Ireland U-20s against Wales at Donnybook in April 2004. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

David Pollock in action for Ireland U-20s against Wales at Donnybook in April 2004. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

David Pollock in action for Ireland U-20s against Wales at Donnybook in April 2004. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

To pass one of these interminable lockdown evenings, Keith Earls decided to fill some time by taking questions from fans on Instagram. Asked to consider what player he'd played with would have become a top operator had it not been for injury and the Ireland star chose David Pollock. 

Thirteen years ago, the Ulster flanker captained the Ireland U-20s to the Grand Slam and the side he led features a who's who of men who would go on to make big contributions to the game over the course of the next decade or so.

If you had suggested to the experts that eight of that team would play for Ireland and Pollock would not be one of them, they'd have looked at you sideways.

He starred at openside alongside Seán O'Brien and kept Tommy O'Donnell out of the team. Cian Healy was already a star in the making, while Jamie Hagan would go on to pick up a cap.

Behind the scrum Ian Keatley, Darren Cave, Earls and Felix Jones all went on to Test rugby.

As well as eight senior internationals, the squad produced three medical doctors in hooker Richard Sweeney, Kevin Sheahan and Pollock who retired in 2010 due to a recurring hip problem.

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Former Ulster and Ireland U-20 captain David Pollock at home with his children Meredith (4), Amy (2) and Arthur (6)

Former Ulster and Ireland U-20 captain David Pollock at home with his children Meredith (4), Amy (2) and Arthur (6)

Former Ulster and Ireland U-20 captain David Pollock at home with his children Meredith (4), Amy (2) and Arthur (6)

Bitterness

His U-20 jersey sits proudly on the wall of his office at Royal Victoria Hospital where he is training to become a consultant in radiology and it is clear from talking to the now 33-year-old father of three is that he holds no bitterness towards his lost rugby career.

He is an Ulster season ticket holder who has enjoyed watching his former team-mates go on and achieve so much. It wasn't easy in the years that followed his decision to hang up his boots in November 2010, but he's come to terms with it.

"The first three or four years out of rugby, going back to college and trying to study... at that time you're seeing Ulster doing well and making the European Cup final and semis. Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar came along, you're thinking, 'Jeepers, Ulster are flying'. Stephen Ferris and Chris Henry are doing well in the back-row, they went on and featured with Ireland - At that stage, you're looking at it thinking, 'It'd be great to be back there now'," the Omagh native explains.

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Pollock taking on Leinster’s Rocky Elsom with Isa Nacewa (right) looking on in a Magners League game at the RDS in 2009. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Pollock taking on Leinster’s Rocky Elsom with Isa Nacewa (right) looking on in a Magners League game at the RDS in 2009. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Pollock taking on Leinster’s Rocky Elsom with Isa Nacewa (right) looking on in a Magners League game at the RDS in 2009. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

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"It was difficult enough to watch, but I still went to those games and it was great to see them doing so well.

"But I would say it took about four years before I was happy.... Not happy, but more at ease with loving what I'm doing now. I kind of made peace with it.

"You are looking at it and thinking, 'I wish I would have been fit enough to give myself a fair crack at trying to achieve it'.

"Then, as the years go on you just watch them and look at how well they've done you're proud and happy to see the guys progress the way they did.

"I remember watching the Lions tour of South Africa where Keith, Rob (Kearney) and Luke Fitzgerald (who he played with at Ireland Schools) were on it and I was thinking, 'fair play'. It was unbelievable what those guys have done, you remember being with them at Irish Schools level - going to camps in Blackrock at the weekend - now those guys are playing with the best players in the British Isles. It was great to see."

It was at the age of 19 that Pollock first started to have problems with his hip and, even after surgery, the injury never truly cleared up.

He played on, captaining Ulster and playing for the Ireland 'A' side five times before receiving advice from a specialist that to continue would only inflict long-term damage to the joint.

"There was a couple of games where I really hurt it, but I probably had a bit of an underlying issue," he recalled.

"I hurt it initially in the academy set-up when I was 19, they thought it might go away but it didn't. It was fine until I was 22, but I injured it again quite badly. It settled down, but at that stage the damage was done in terms of the cartilage.

"The surgery definitely did help me, but it probably didn't do enough to try and return to elite performance.

"The injury did happen quite early on. It had been niggling me for a year beforehand and I didn't think it was as bad as it was. I had surgery on it, came back from that and while it was still going on I thought maybe there's something else that can be done there. Maybe there is another type of surgery that would help.

"It wasn't until you actually go over and you speak to all the medical team, you go down that road and they say: 'No, listen, Professional sports, your body is not going to withstand it.' At that point I was just thinking, well, at least I have a good focus to go back to medicine."

Pollock had already put down two years of a medical degree at Queen's University and, while he had paused the course to concentrate on his rugby, he returned after retirement. His father was a GP, so medicine always felt like a natural fit.

"Most of the guys who play professional rugby are competitive, goal-driven and know what they want to be," he explains.

"If you're leaving the sport, there's that void for people to fill and it's very difficult.

"Medicine is good because you can only progress and jump through so many hoops if you get exams, get your assessments ... it was a step-wise approach and that's what appealed to me as well. At least I had that to go back into.

"A couple of guys actually from my U-20 team have gone into medicine later on. I can see why it can fit some people, you've left a structured environment and you can relate to it. It makes it a bit easier."

He is keen to stress that he is not working on the front line as such, that his role in radiology has kept him removed from direct contact with patients who have Covid-19.

Still, he's contributing to the battle against the virus - even if his daily routine has been affected.

"I'm doing radiology training so it's diagnostics and imaging. Our work has changed, but I wouldn't be classified as a front-line worker seeing Covid patients," he explains.

"We see the scans, but from our perspective it is the radiographers that are doing the scans who are the front-line staff. They're the ones at the minute, from our field, the unsung heroes.

"From a Northern Ireland perspective, we've actually done relatively well so far. The hospitals are being managed, there's a knock-on effect in that it affects your work pattern. You're not in hospital as much, the shift pattern changes."

Although rugby didn't work out, he retains a love for the game. He coaches his six-year-old son Arthur at Instonians - "herding cats" as he laughingly describes it - and regularly attends games at the Kingspan.

Now, he's watching his old team-mates become veterans and join him in retirement.

He got there early, but he's no regrets about the way it all panned out.


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