Friday 13 December 2019

'There were times I felt it was over' - Mike Sherry targets Ireland call-up after two-year injury nightmare

Mike Sherry is back to his best after two years of injury torment and is targeting an Ireland call-up

Munster hooker Mike Sherry
Munster hooker Mike Sherry
Mike Sherry
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The reaction to Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad was broken down along expected lines last week: general satisfaction that Rory Best, who commands widespread respect, should get the top job; and pockets of outrage that Garry Ringrose, who is locked on course to be capped before the year is out, got no job at all.

Aside from that, a few commentators paused a while to look over a few other ins and outs. Nobody stopped off at Mike Sherry's empty space.

This afternoon in Treviso the Munster hooker has another chance to draw some positive attention to himself. Launching your candidacy for Ireland from a red shirt this season has been like firing a canon out of a row boat. And stability is something Sherry badly needs.

Today is his 11th start from 13 matches since September. When you have missed the guts of two years out of the game, during which period the end was almost at hand, that's a very healthy stat.

Shoulder operations for hookers are bad for business. Three of them in 12 months, on the same joint, is just cause to shut up shop and move on to something else. Sherry stayed, because he was not prepared to consider something he had no preparation for: the afterlife.

"I'm more in tune with what my plan B will be now if rugby ever does go to the wayside," he says. "But I was extremely determined and playing for Munster and hopefully for Ireland in the future was all I ever wanted to do. To have it as a career and a lifestyle was just a dream come true.

"I was on a team with fellas that I came up playing rugby with. I knew from a young age, they were all my closest friends and there we were, being paid to go out and train and play. So for that to be taken away from me just wasn't an option. I didn't want to think about what the alternative was. So there were many times when I thought it was over, and was it worth going through what I was going through both mentally and physically. But luckily I stuck with it. And it came right in the end."

What started with an ACL job in November 2013 developed into three other surgeries - the last in December 2014 - before finally getting back on the field four months ago, for the start of the Guinness Pro 12. Rugby squads can be split roughly into three groups: those who are fit, happy and being selected; those who are fit, unhappy and are not being selected; and those who are simply not fit. And depressed. Of the third group, the long-term inmates need real mental toughness to survive.

It helps if you have support of others who understand your predicament. In Sherry's case, step forward Damien Varley. Both hookers, both Garryowen men also, Varley is the polar opposite to the bland, academy type product now common in the pro game. They discussed all sorts en route to tunnelling their way back to fitness and freedom. Varley was very much the right man in the right place.

So too, naturally enough, was Sherry's dad. Mick senior played twice in the back row for Ireland in the 1975 Five Nations campaign. He would know his way around a rugby field.

"Obviously I didn't get to see him play but from what I hear, he was a very good player," junior says. "I like to think he helped me a lot. While I was injured he was a great sounding board. I told him my concerns about life after rugby, about all that kind of stuff. He was a good fella to tell me: if rugby doesn't work out, there is life after rugby, you can develop a different career path. He was always pushing me to finish my degree - I have one module to do between January and May.

"Not only that, I think he's a good rugby brain. When I go to a match and when he goes to match. . . maybe it's because I'm used to watching it on TV, I don't see as much as he sees when I'm at a game with him, because he's there with his binoculars looking in at everything. He just has a good knowledge of the game, an opinion I'd respect."

In getting back to full fitness, though, the opinion that mattered most was that of surgeon Ian Bayley, whose name would be known in this country for getting Keith Wood to the 2003 World Cup. Sherry felt he was on the edge of giving up when Bayley took up his case.

"He saw one or two things and he was extremely positive, and it just kind of changed my mindset. Whereas before it was all bleak, and just I couldn't get past a certain barrier. There were no real answers as to why I couldn't. Once I met him, and the time and effort he put in to reassuring me, and answering questions. . . He said: 'I know you can't think of the questions right now, but if you go home and at 3am something pops into your head write it down, and email me the next morning' - which I did quite a lot - 'and get back to me within a day or two.' It just reassured me and put my mind at rest, and once that surgery was complete, it just made the process a lot easier. I wasn't constantly worrying about what if? I knew I was on the right track from then on."

Mike Sherry is still only 27. The bad news is he has an arthritic shoulder; the good news is that the time lost to injury means miles saved on the clock. So he has a bit to run yet. When in 2011 he was called out to the World Cup as cover for Rory Best, he believed that was the start of something special. He was 23. A few months earlier he had won a Magners League medal with Munster, his first piece of silverware since a Munster schools Junior Cup with Ard Scoil Ris. He recalls that League final win over Leinster as a beautiful sunny day in Thomond Park when all was right with the world. It would change shape long before the 2015 World Cup rolled around.

The time out was torturous but at least it offered Sherry space to think of others in worse predicaments. Looking back, it was space unexplored. And he's regretful of the time wasted. Trawl back through his Twitter feed now and there's an even spread of updates from various hospital beds, along with news on the charity front. He comes across as someone in touch with his social conscience.

"Yeah, it's something I'd like to develop," he says. "Duncan Casey is a fella most of us can learn from. He's brilliant with stuff like that. Recently he sent out a text, if fellas were interested in getting involved with the Samaritans, and I put myself forward for that. It's hopefully something I can develop on. It probably fell by the wayside when I was injured and I was a bit insular, focusing on myself. I did have a lot of spare time and I didn't make the most of it, in terms of college, in terms of that (social justice) side of things, which I think is very important. He's a fella I'd like to take example from and develop that side of my personality, that side of my role as a Munster rugby player."

It's significant that he sees that position as involving a bit more than 80 minutes of a weekend. Having grown up on Limerick's North Circular Road, a short hop from Thomond Park, Sherry is tuned in to what goes with the job. It's a privileged position - even when it's not going very well - so make the most of it while it lasts.

That spirit governs his outlook nowadays. Every time he runs out in red is an opportunity to do something positive, for he wants it to lead further than that. The comeback has been painful, but he looks like a contender again.

"The first few games I really struggled fitness-wise being back, getting bangs and being sore for three or four days after matches because I just wasn't used to it. Now it's Sunday recovery and I'm back training on Monday and I feel normal again.

"Hopefully I'm putting my best foot forward but I know there's big competition there. I know the number one in the country, Rory Best, is playing brilliant rugby and doing it consistently so it is going to be very hard. I can't do anything but keep playing well for Munster and we need to start winning regularly and not losing three, four, five in a row. That can't help our chances of getting into the Ireland squad, me in particular."

Between now and the end of the Six Nations any changes to Joe Schmidt's Ireland panel will be minimal. But South Africa, and three Tests there, looms in the summer, followed by an autumn stuffed with another four games - three of them against New Zealand (two) and Australia. Before we get to the end of that road Mike Sherry's name may be featuring large.

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