Sport Rugby

Tuesday 19 November 2019

'Not being there will be hard but I've a different challenge'

His World Cup ambition is over but David Wallace can still look on the bright side, writes John O'Brien

David Wallace looks at the scene around him and figures he could do with a bigger room. His huge frame is stretched out on a bed in the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry. Frankie Sheahan sits facing him on one side while Malcolm O'Kelly towers over him on the other. Four days have passed since a crunching challenge from Manu Tuilagi ended his interest in the World Cup. Little peals of laughter have entered his life again.

Frankie has been cranking it up for a while now. "It's no coincidence," he says gravely, "that we're all retired in this room. That's what this meeting is all about." Wallace knows protest is futile. He listens distractedly while his visitors swap acerbic comments about old coaches and team-mates, stubbornly refusing invitations to engage. "Come on Wally," Frankie urges. "Start bitching with us. It feels good."

It feels better anyway. The steady stream of visitors who have poured through his door all week. The realisation of the tight bonds he had forged through the years, the goodwill he had fostered. By Tuesday, he thinks, he had already put the darkness of the first difficult days behind him. His mind had turned to the future and what needed to be done. He was as ready as he could be to confront the challenge that lay ahead of him.

"Once I figured out what this meant, the different scenarios that might play out and I had in my mind what might happen, then I found it easier to deal with. I think the first few days, I won't say they were dark, but they were definitely tough. Saturday night especially was a difficult place to be. It was extremely intense but you can't continue with that forever.

"Everything was in flux, the carpet was ripped out from beneath you. The worst thing is that you don't know. You're just trying to gather information and make sense of it. I was probably quite negative in certain ways, thinking this was it, but since then I've gotten more positive about it. No matter what way it goes, I think that if I remain positive it'll do wonders for me."

Even before he'd hit the ground from Tuilagi's challenge, he knew his World Cup was history. When he started clawing the grass with his hands, people took it as a sign of his mental anguish although the horrible, jabbing pain was like nothing he'd ever experienced before. And when they'd filled him with morphine and he'd started thinking clearly again, he began to think of his career. Was that it? Was there any way back from this?

They brought him to St Vincent's for a scan and then returned to the stadium where he watched the rest of the game. By the end, Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip had joined him in the medical room and the sheer chaos of it stays with him. "Like a battle scene," he remembers his wife Aileen saying. Nobody offered him any consoling words and that was fair enough. There was nothing to be said anyway.

He hasn't seen a replay of the challenge but has no issues about it. It was two powerfully-built athletes coming together with harsh, unfortunate consequences for one of them. "It was just awkward," he says, "the way I fell, the way I planted my foot at the same time, the way my studs took the ground or whatever. It was just one of those things. He's a big guy, a lot of force hitting you side on and that's something you don't normally get. Our combined weights probably did the damage."

You wonder how he can appear so sanguine after such a devastating blow. He bears no recriminations towards Tuilagi. He doesn't blame the world for his shattered knee. In a few days the merest traces of remorse and self-pity have been cleaned from his hard-drive. However many stages of grief there are, he sprinted through them until he arrived at acceptance. He supposes he has always been one of those people certain that behind every dark cloud is a bright sun waiting patiently to peer out. Lying in bed, tying a brace around his damaged knee, he thinks about ways he can exploit his situation. "I have time to see what I can do after rugby, maybe work on a few things," he says. "I tend to look for opportunities to see what you can get out of it. It's not where you want to be, but you can still make something good from it."

In ways his misfortune has reminded him how lucky he's been. He had ankle and shoulder problems at the start of his career but since 2005, he figures, he's had a remarkably clear run and enjoyed great days with Munster and Ireland. He thinks of others who weren't so blessed. His eldest brother Richard who was forced out of the game at 30. And Paul, still in the shape and form of his life, gone by 32. Or Ian Dowling, the Munster winger, who didn't make his 30th birthday and walks with a pronounced limp as a legacy of his playing days.

Wallace can tell you about luck. It was approaching 3.0 when Tuilagi barged him over the sideline at Lansdowne Road last Saturday. By 9.0 the following morning, he was in Santry, ready to go under surgeon Ray Moran's knife and he reckons the surprising promptness of the entire process might ultimately make the difference when it comes to salvaging his career.

"I was exceptionally lucky. Within 18 hours of the injury I was here having surgery and that couldn't have happened without the clinic opening on a Sunday and Ray coming in to do the job. The whole team and the staff were brilliant. You pay for it now because you have the double trauma of the injury and the surgery and all the work they have to do. But in the long run you're starting back quicker, not six or seven weeks down the line. That's huge."

Little regrets will eat away at him as they must, of course. Eight days ago he was facing into a Test game feeling in the best shape of his life. A minor hamstring injury had cleared up and England would provide exactly the kind of stern examination he needed prior to leaving for New Zealand. An ankle injury had ruled him out of all the build-up games before the 2007 World Cup but, this time, he would have one hard game at least.

The summer had passed serenely. He'd slogged away for two tough months, mostly away from his young family, but he savoured it because he felt himself getting fitter every day. Even at 35 his speed and power tests were up there with the best of the squad. He felt as strong and as agile as ever, lacking nothing but match sharpness. And being David Wallace he can take a positive from it.

"I certainly don't feel old on the pitch," he says. "I don't feel old in the gym. I don't feel old on the sprint track. I was very excited going into this World Cup the way things were going for me. And if I feel this good in August I can't see why I won't feel the same in December or January. I'm not sure if I'll be there as early as that but you have to be positive."

He'll be honest and say there are one or two things that nag away at him. When he was undergoing rehab after a shoulder operation some years ago, he suffered an infection that held him up for a further six months and he remembers the gnawing frustration that inflicted. Thinking about it makes him fidgety now, hoping it was a one-off, knowing he has precious little time to spare if his rehab hits the skids this time.

What athletes fear most of all is uncertainty. The things they can't control. And how he feels when Ireland take the field against the USA at New Plymouth next Sunday is another unknowable. As of yet, he hasn't given it much thought but a part of him can't help wondering what kind of repressed feelings might be unleashed. Nothing to do but cross that bridge when he reaches it.

"I think I'll be in an okay place," he says. "You worry you'll be very disappointed alright. But like I said I got a lot of the disappointment and emotion out in the first 24 hours. Hopefully I've moved on. It's about getting things right now. Focus on what's ahead not behind. I'm sure not being out there will be hard but I've got a different challenge now and I have to come to terms with that."

Before they went their separate ways, he saw enough encouragement in the way things were going. The defeats were unwelcome but bearable. If it caused other teams to start taking them more lightly, then that would suit Ireland for sure. On top of that it shredded any notion that a sense of complacency could take root. Even now, so cruelly divorced from the squad, Wallace can still find positives on their behalf.

"I think this summer series was slightly different in that you had a big turnover of players every week and with players not training together you get this huge flux of people coming in and out. It's not like a normal team environment. Guys are coming back and looking for game-time. It's maybe a bit more player- than team-oriented. Once the 30 go off and get to the World Cup they'll gel a lot more and focus on winning matches and playing winning rugby."

For now, his own life has drifted away on a cruel tangent. No remorse or tears, though. He left hospital on Friday and returned to the comforting embrace of his family, back to Aileen and their two kids, Andrew and Harvey, neither old enough to feel the need to make allowance for the fact that daddy might be feeling a little sorry for himself. No harm in that, he thinks.

In his mind rehab has begun. He'll be back to see Moran in four weeks and he'll know then how well his right knee is healing. Moran has already spoken tentatively about a New Year return and he likes the sound of that. He's been in touch with Tony McGahan too, although just a courtesy call, he insists, nothing more than that. "Not in terms of getting game-time yet," he laughs.

Soon he expects to be talking to the Munster medical and fitness staff, eager to get plans in place, anxious to kick the wheels of rehabilitation into gear. "I look at it as a challenge," he says. "And in a weird way I'm looking forward to it. It's not where you want to be but you have to embrace it as best you can. The more I think about it, the fact that I'm 35 is even motivating me more to get back."

If you doubt him, then you still don't know David Wallace and the hard granite from which he was hewn.

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