Tuesday 20 February 2018

We've had more than a few regrets

Paul O’Connell could have suffered a career-ending injury long before the nation fell in love with him. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Paul O’Connell could have suffered a career-ending injury long before the nation fell in love with him. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

This is not going to be a column about Paul O'Connell. Not really. I know it's the big story of the week and that he is one of the most admirable Irish sportsmen of modern times, but the fact is that it's not long since I was writing about his departure from Munster and his retirement from international rugby. I'm tributed out to tell you the truth.

I presumed that by the time the next O'Connell farewell was due we'd have a couple of great years with Toulon to take into account, a French title or two, some memorable European Cup showdowns, a glorious swansong from a player relieved of the necessity of putting the team up on his back and trying to carry it. But it turns out that when we watched him being stretchered off against France in the World Cup we were actually seeing the last we'd ever see of Paul O'Connell on a rugby field.

We didn't expect that. And neither did he. Presumably for the last year he'd been imagining the possibilities offered by the move to France, a new way of playing the game, new team-mates, a new place to live, a new culture to experience. And now that's all gone. None of the things he planned is going to happen.

There aren't many better illustrations of the precarious nature of a professional sportsman's life. Between the money and the adulation, it looks an enviable existence to most of us. But there are few other walks of life where a moment's ill luck can end your career for good. As he entered that ruck just before half-time in Cardiff, Paul O'Connell knew what he was going to be doing for the next two years. One injury later and it's all gone up in smoke.

Perhaps you're inclined to withhold your sympathy on the grounds that O'Connell has been well, if not exorbitantly, rewarded for playing the game. But even for a professional, money isn't everything. The top-class player forced to retire through injury is forced to come to terms with the fact that he will never again be able to do the thing he did better than anything else in the world. Many of us, I think, live in dread of entering retirement and regretting that we didn't achieve our potential. How much more difficult must it be when that failure is the result of a freak injury you could have done nothing about.

O'Connell at least has the satisfaction of knowing that by the time his luck ran out he had already completed an enviable international career. But his retirement set me thinking about various players who were forced into retirement when they still had an awful lot left in the tank.

Ireland's 1979 tour to Australia still remains the greatest ever overseas expedition by our rugby team. Only two years previously Ireland had been whitewashed in the Five Nations and they'd won just two since then. They were given little chance against a Wallabies side which had defeated the All Blacks 30-16 in the last meeting between those two sides and would turn New Zealand over again a month after Ireland had gone home.

Yet Ireland won both Tests on the tour. One reason was the goalkicking of Ollie Campbell, whose controversial preferment over Tony Ward is probably the main reason the tour is remembered now. But those Tests also featured tremendous performances from a couple of young players who seemed to have the world at their feet. The 27-12 victory in the first Test featured two brilliant tries from Colin Patterson, an Irish scrumhalf unlike any other Irish scrumhalf. The 24-year-old Ulsterman always seemed to be thinking about making a break for the line and he got there five times in his 11 internationals which is quite a strike rate when you consider that Conor Murray, who's no attacking slouch, has the same number of tries from 43 internationals. The great English rugby journalist John Reason described Patterson as a "jet-powered mole," and pretty much nailed it in doing so.

In that first Test the Irish fullback Rodney O'Donnell, a 22-year-old from the St Mary's College club, was stretchered off after a ferocious late hit. Selected for the second Test, O'Donnell faced a barrage of high balls and dealt with them all, giving a truly heroic performance as Ireland won 9-3.

A year later both men were selected for the Lions tour to South Africa and both made the Test team. By the time the tour was over, so were their careers. Patterson suffered a knee injury so bad the doctor who treated it compared it to something you'd see after a car crash while O'Donnell suffered a neck injury which could have paralysed him had he not undergone an operation the day after. At 25 and 23 their careers were over. They would miss Ireland's Triple Crown seasons in both 1982 and 1985 and remain two of the most haunting stories of unfulfilled potential in Irish rugby. The game was amateur then and both men had jobs to go back to, but it can hardly have lessened the pain for the next few years.

But O'Donnell and Patterson were lucky compared to Ciarán Scally. Scally had a glittering career in schools rugby with Blackrock College where, among other things, he was once injured in a Junior Cup match, and replaced by an up-and-comer named Brian O'Driscoll. By the time he was just 20 he had four caps and two tries for Ireland at scrumhalf and looked a safe bet for a long and illustrious international career.

Instead a knee injury saw him forced to quit the game before his 21st birthday in 1999. Scally is the member of the Golden Generation who never got to take part in the great Irish rugby revival for no other reason but sheer bad luck.

Every sport has similar stories. Soccer had Kevin Beattie, an absolute colossus once described by Bobby Robson as the greatest English player he'd ever seen, better than Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton or Duncan Edwards. Equally dominant at the back or in midfield, Beattie made his top-flight debut for Ipswich Town at the age of 18 and was in the England team at 21. But he was dogged by injuries and only won nine England caps before retiring at the age of 27.

Someone else forced into retirement at the age of 27 was Brian Clough who suffered a knee injury which more or less ended his career on St Stephen's Day 1962. At the time Clough had scored 251 goals in 274 league games. Years later he was asked by a reporter if he ever thought that the injury had prevented him from playing for England in the 1966 World Cup final. "Only every day," he said. It is the might-have-beens which haunt both the player forced to curtail his career and the fans who will never be done imagining a future that never happened.

Those imaginings aren't confined to human competitors. The story of Golden Cygnet will always strike a chord with racing people. Edward O'Grady's horse won the Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham in 1978 by 15 lengths and remains the highest rated novice hurdler of all-time. A few months later he took on the Champion Hurdle winner Night Nurse in the Scottish Champion Hurdle. Despite having to give Night Nurse five pounds in weight, Golden Cygnet looked like a winner going to the last where he fell heavily and died a few days later.

Further back, there was the legend of The Tetrarch, regarded by many as the best two-year-old of all-time after winning seven races by wide margins in 1913. He never raced as a three-year-old due to injury. Then there was Welsh Garden, Irish champion two-year-old filly in 1975, a prodigy which would have won classics had she not been so terrified of starting stalls her career was spent at small provincial tracks.

It's not just sporting injuries which can deprive the gifted of their destiny. In basketball, Len Bias, the outstanding college player of his day, died of a drug-induced heart attack at the age of 23 in 1986 just after signing for the Boston Celtics. Benji Wilson, the best high school player of his year and another potential superstar, didn't even make college. He was murdered in 1984 in a random street shooting in Chicago. And of course the Busby Babes are the ultimate example of promise cut short, the tragic nature of their fate exacerbated by the fact that they were so young and had so much left to offer. Had Liam Whelan lived, for example, he'd probably hold the same undisputed number one status in Irish soccer that Christy Ring does in hurling.

They say that the great players make their own luck. But if you make it yourself, it's not luck. Even the greatest are at the mercy of fate. Paul O'Connell could, after all, have suffered a career-ending injury long before the nation fell in love with him. In his case there aren't so many unanswered questions. But you can bet the few there are will be on his mind for the rest of his days.

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