Wednesday 23 October 2019

Spare a thought for those who soldier for years and miss out on the biggest occasions

Review

Gavin O’Mahony watched his former Limerick team-mates finally end the long wait to claim the Liam MacCarthy Cup. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Gavin O’Mahony watched his former Limerick team-mates finally end the long wait to claim the Liam MacCarthy Cup. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

It was easy to spot them, the players who experienced a different version of the same story. After Leinster won the Champions Cup final in Bilbao last May, the players wearing suits ran on to the pitch at San Mamés Stadium to celebrate with their team-mates.

James Lowe wore a huge smile even though he couldn't play in the final because of an eligibility rule. Sean O'Brien and Josh van der Flier were there but they couldn't play because of injury.

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They say history is written by the victors, but the same story can have different versions.

On the morning of Sunday, August 5, 2018, Ireland hockey captain Katie Mullan, Anna O'Flanagan and Nikki Evans knocked on the bedroom door of their team-mate Megan Frazer in their hotel in London.

They'd just heard that Frazer had to withdraw from the Ireland squad with one game left to play. That one game left to play was a World Cup final later that day. The injury which ruled Frazer out was her hamstring, but the problem was her knee.

To appreciate how Frazer felt at that moment is to understand what she went through to get to that moment.

Megan Frazer was forced to withdraw from the Ireland hockey squad with one game left in the World Cup. Photo: Craig Mercer/Sportsfile
Megan Frazer was forced to withdraw from the Ireland hockey squad with one game left in the World Cup. Photo: Craig Mercer/Sportsfile

She had to have three operations on her knee, the first in November 2016 which was an ACL reconstruction. The aim was to be back for the World Cup qualifying tournament the following summer. But in March 2017, an MRI scan showed scar tissue which was why she couldn't straighten her leg. Another surgery booked, more rehab to come, comeback delayed.

The summer of 2017 passed with the Ireland team away in South Africa playing in the World Cup qualifying event which was followed by a tournament in the Netherlands.

Frazer's team-mates used to FaceTime her but, damn it, she wished she was there.

"That was definitely a low point for me," Frazer admits.

"I was living with Shirley (McCay) off the team at the time and they were my best pals. They were away all summer and I was on my own trying to do this rehab. I think I experienced every emotion possible in that year."

In January this year Frazer was finally able to run again, but she was running in pain. Three months later Frazer was able to play again, but she was playing in pain. She was beyond frustrated: why wasn't her knee back to normal?

Surgery

Then the club she plays with in Germany, Mannheimer HC, started working with a new sports surgery and their surgeon, Steffen Their, concluded that Frazer's knee required more surgery. She did it. It was only five weeks before the start of the World Cup.

"It was pretty insane," Frazer admits.

Frazer's mother took a week off work and flew over to her in Germany to help with her recovery after the surgery.

"You lose all sense of decency when your mother has to wash you in the shower," Frazer says.

"The key thing was to keep the swelling down. I was on a schedule of food, ice, medication, anti-inflammatories."

She had already changed her diet a few months previously after deciding to become vegan because she read somewhere that being vegan could help with swelling. Frazer was given a 5pc chance of playing in the World Cup - and that 5pc doesn't leave much room for indulgent hope.

Ireland head coach Graham Shaw wanted her to play in the warm-up games against Japan at the start of July which left her with 21 days to get fit.

Who needs numbers when you've got incalculable spirit and fight? But even when Frazer came through those games, even when she was named in the World Cup squad, nothing was certain.

"It pretty much was never a definite thing even going to the tournament, it was still a risk," Frazer admits.

"I remember going to the shirt ceremony where they presented our shirts for the World Cup and at that stage I was selected for the team but I didn't know if I was going to make it or not."

She made it. She made it all the way to the World Cup semi-final. But because of her competitive nature which made her the player she was, she wrestled with not being the same kind of player she was before she got injured.

It was the team psychologist, Gary Longwell, who pointed out to her that she had to show some respect for the game, that she shouldn't expect herself to be the same as she was before she got injured nearly two years previously.

"I was really enjoying the moment and enjoying being in there. But there weren't many matches that I was happy with my performances and it was kind of hard to talk to anyone about it because people were like, 'look, where you've come from'.

"And that fell on deaf ears a little bit for me because I always wanted to be that impactful player that I have been in the past," Frazer adds.

Frazer injured her hamstring in the semi-final win over Spain but her knee was causing problems again.

For her playing future, it was decided on the morning of the World Cup final that she should withdraw. Half an hour later, she opened the door to Katie, Anna and Nikki.

"The four of us just burst into tears. I wouldn't be one for crying in front of people very often but the four of us just lost it," Frazer said.

"They were just so sorry for me and I was really touched that they felt that much about me even though I had personally felt like I didn't impact the World Cup as much as I wanted. I've never had more bittersweet moments I think than in those two weeks".

Competing

They really are the odd couple, those competing feelings of bitter and sweet. It was something which also came up in conversation with former Limerick hurling captain Gavin O'Mahony.

When he watched his friends and former team-mates in a huddle with the soundtrack of Dolores O'Riordan playing in Croke Park after Limerick's All-Ireland semi-final win over Cork last August, he was "100pc convinced after that they were going to win" the final.

In November 2017, O'Mahony announced his retirement from inter-county hurling.

Even though John Kiely tried to convince him to hold off he knew it was time because his body told him so. But breaking it off with team-mates was tougher than expected.

"You go from meeting them six days a week or talking to them on the phone and you're texting. But then when you finish and you just completely switch off from that," O'Mahony says.

"You might meet them for lunch or whatever but it's amazing how quickly you kind of get removed from it and switch off from it. And that's probably the strangest element for me".

After Limerick went on to win the Liam MacCarthy for the first time in 45 years, there was a gambit of emotions for O'Mahony - from relief to the surreal to the bittersweet.

"That's me being honest and anyone that says (they're) completely happy to be removed from it would be telling you lies because you'd love to be part of it, love to have experienced it. I think the sweet side took over from there on, once the celebrations kicked off."

O'Mahony travelled back down to Limerick on the Sunday night as he was working the Monday and Tuesday but on Wednesday he got to meet with them all.

He knew that win was coming but what he didn't expect were the kind and thoughtful words from the players.

"Some of the words and text messages that came in was just brilliant," O'Mahony says.

"You don't for a second think that anyone stops and thinks about you in a moment like that. That's when it all kind of hits home.

"You kind of say, 'well at least when you were in there, you do what you could do, train as hard as you could, get the respect of the players and that kind of means more to me now than collecting a medal".

So, here's to former team-mates like O'Mahony, who missed out on an All-Ireland medal but who trained with and even coached some of those players who were on the pitch for the sweetest day last August.

To players like Frazer, who is only recently coming around to appreciating the work she put in to be part of Ireland's historic World Cup run.

To those who missed out on some unforgettable days in the greatest year in Irish rugby. To those who took the bitter with the sweet. History might be written by the victors, but everyone has their own version to share and tell.

Irish Independent

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