Scally wags finger at life's cruel hand of fate

Six months ago Ciaran Scally's promising rugby career was ended through injury. KARL MacGINTY talks to the former Irish scrum-half about what the...

Six months ago Ciaran Scally's promising rugby career was ended through injury. KARL MacGINTY talks to the former Irish scrum-half about what the future holds.

CIARAN SCALLY awoke to every footballer's nightmare. The expression on the face of his surgeon said almost as much as the words he was about to hear.

Scally's memories of that black Wednesday last September are crystal clear. ``I woke up in the clinic and Ray Moran was standing over me. He said `this doesn't look good.'

``I didn't know what was wrong at all. He compared what he had seen inside my knee to one of those Christmas shakers, with fragments of bone everywhere instead of snow.''

Just weeks away from his 21st birthday, Scally's career as a professional rugby player was over. How ironic that this moment of sheer desolation should come just a couple of hundred yards from the fields of Blackrock College, where, only a few years earlier, his sporting dream had begun.


Scally's schooldays' memories are crowded with names and faces destined for rugby stardom. Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland's latest sensation, is just one of them.

O'Driscoll's staggering feats in the green jersey this season may stand in stark contrast to the misfortune of one of his best friends, but Scally's acceptance of the cruel hand fate dealt him has been no less heroic.

Stephen Aboud, director of the IRFU's elite rugby academy, where Scally rated alongside O'Driscoll as one of the brightest pupils, was in the youngster's corner as he grappled with despair six months ago at the Blackrock Clinic.

``I remember meeting Ciaran when he came out of the Clinic. It was absolutely terrible for him. Devastating,'' recalled Aboud. ``Yet he is such a well-balanced individual that he was able to put it behind him and get straight down to his studies and the business of building a career for himself outside the game.''

Indeed, just hours after being told that his playing days were over, Ciaran could be found pouring over his accountancy text books in the library at UCD. Dr Moran's news had been cataclysmic but it caused barely a blip on Scally's Richter Scale.

He even went out golfing with his mates on the Friday and, when his birthday came around on October 15, he was excitedly filling out application forms on foot of a job offer from KPMG, an opportunity he plans to take up once his studies are complete next year.


``I don't want to make a hero out of the guy because it would embarrass him,'' Aboud added. ``I have been lucky to work at the academy with a number of people that you would run through a brick wall for and Ciaran Scally is one of them.

``He is one of those very lucky people who can focus completely on their goals and have the gift of bringing success to whatever they try. He'll do well, believe me.

``Of course, Ciaran was a tremendous prospect but I don't view his playing career in terms of his potential. Instead, I look at all that he achieved in such a short time and see it as an inspiration to other young players.

``Scrum-halves usually don't mature until their late 20s, yet there he was, barely out of his teens, playing for Ireland and scoring tries. Phenomenal.''

Incredibly, Scally takes an equally positive view of his playing career, betraying not one hint of the frustration, despair or even bitterness one might expect from a young man in his situation.

``I wouldn't swop my memories for the world,'' he said. ``I know people might think I'm unfortunate with my injury but I have represented my country, something which I will treasure until the day I die.

``That last year, when I was involved in 10 games for Ireland and was capped in four, was the best in my life. There have been many, many players who never had that chance so I consider myself incredibly lucky.''

Fortune certainly smiled on Scally all through his schooldays - especially from the time Rock Junior Cup team coach Alan MacGinty plucked the burly youngster from the pack and created an outstanding scrum-half.

Scally went on to play a pivotal role on the sensational all-conquering side which skipper Barry Gibney was to lead into Leinster rugby folklore as `The Dream Team.' Not even O'Driscoll, his remarkable football talent concealed in a waif-like frame, could make that famous first XV.

``Brian was a late developer,'' recalled Ciaran with a smile. ``He had always been a bit smaller than everyone else. I first played with him on the U-13's at Willow Park and at that stage he struggled on the physical side of things, whereas now he thrives on it. He looks for it and it's a big part of his game.


``In fact, I had to smile to myself over the past few months as some of the papers, while praising all his attacking qualities, wondered about Brian defensively. People just didn't know him.''

When it comes to the physical side of rugby, Scally and O'Driscoll were soul brothers. Indeed, Ciaran revelled more in the bone-jarring physical confrontations he used to encounter around the fringes of the scrum than any other aspect of the game.

``As a scrum-half, I have always been a bulkier figure than most others and I prided myself on defence,'' he said. ``My favourite time of the match was when forwards, either prop or second row, came peeling around the rucks. I thought it was brilliant.


``I just enjoyed having people running at me. It's the only part of the game where it's a kind of individual duel. Great.''

And for all the excitement surrounding his startling call-up for Ireland's World Cup qualifiers in the autumn of '98, his try-scoring debut as a sub during the rout of Georgia, his first start against Romania and being capped against Scotland and Italy the following spring, Scally's fondest memory of a splendid year with the Irish senior squad came on Tour in Australia last summer.

``They play a different brand of rugby down there,'' he explained. ``I got to play against New South Wales and even though we lost, it was one of my most enjoyable games.

``I had always admired Matt Burke and he has always come across on TV as a supreme athlete. In real life he's a huge guy and very fast. I always hoped I'd come up against him and every time I saw an Australian back row move develop, I watched out for him.

``I just wanted to see how I would do. I think I fared reasonably well against him. Looking at the video, I think I got him three or four times. It was great to go up against someone like that. Burke has class. He's up there with Tim Horan.''

And so, too, according to Scally, is O'Driscoll. ``I've known him since first year at school. He always was an incredibly skilful footballer but once he started developing, getting faster and getting stronger in fifth year, people really started noticing his talent.

``By sixth year, everyone knew what a talent he was. Even in friendlies and training sessions, the lads could see his brilliance. He was showing some extraordinary stuff. He has progressed brilliantly since then and I think he is now the ultimate player - certainly the best I have ever played with.

``I remember David Humphreys asking me in Australia what Brian was like as he had not played with him before and all I could say was `just wait and see for yourself.' Well, David came up to me afterwards and said: `Jesus, you were right. He is incredible.'''

Ironically, while O'Driscoll was taking his first steps in international rugby, Scally was enjoying his last, though he didn't know it at the time.


Okay, the right knee, which required a cruciate ligament operation following a crunching challenge in his final schoolboys international against England, had occasionally niggled at him, but a little swelling was easily forgotten in the post-match euphoria which followed his international appearances.

However, a serious problem emerged last September when he went for routine physical testing with the academy. ``I had lost a ridiculous amount of pace, while in the vertical jumps I scored the lowest out of anyone there - prop forwards, everyone,'' he recalled.

``It was frightening and academy doctor Liam Hennessy said we'd have to get it sorted out and I went to Ray Moran for the scan.''

The doctor's verdict was brutally simple. Scally might play the occasional social game in the future but his knee would never stand up to professional rugby or any sport which requires a lot of running.


Yet, Ciaran's love affair with the sport is far from over. He misses the camaraderie of the dressing room; the craic with the Irish squad; and especially Peter Clohessy's card school where ``I lost my jocks on several occasions.

``I still love going to matches. All matches, though I'd give anything to be out there playing,'' he admitted. ``When I am finished my studies, I'm sure I could once again become involved in the sport, though I don't think coaching is for me. Maybe refereeing, if the knee would stand up to it.''

Work pressure prevented Scally from going to Paris, so he watched the match on television, roaring with excitement on his settee as he watched his friend O'Driscoll become a superstar.

``Brian's life will change after that match but he'll be able to handle that. It certainly won't get to him. He's such a cool customer, he'll take it all in his stride.''

Did Scally harbour even the slightest twinge of envy as O'Driscoll strutted the Parisien stage? ``Not at all. To see your best mate on TV going in for the first Irish try and then the second, you wondered how it could possibly get any better. Then to see him score the third was unbelievable.

``When I see Brian playing, I am so proud of him. I know him so well that I feel a bit of me is out there with him.''