These are precarious times. We’ve all had to slam on the brakes. Mercifully, everybody has time to think, and not about what they must do right now. It might seem like the oddest thing to be contemplating but this sudden halt to life’s hectic pace has finally provided an outlet for headspace. That’s something I haven’t had room for since 2013.
That was the spring I played with Munster for the last time. Within weeks I was in a hotel in London with Jacky Lorenzetti, the president of Racing 92, signing up to my first coaching contract. There was no distance or separation, no hiatus, no headspace. And perhaps there should have been. I have been on the treadmill since. Just chasing the next victory, chasing the next game, the next session, the next prep meeting with players and staff. In this moment’s respite, you ask yourself how wise was that?
The problem is you can’t stop the hamster wheel in terms of applying a full stop unless you get sacked — or you are landed in an unprecedented situation like we have now. A noteworthy change in my body clock has been the ability to sleep for 10 hours on consecutive nights. It’s something I haven’t done for years. I am usually up with the birds, thinking, strategising. I think I just got quite tired without noticing — or because I just accepted it as the norm.
Around Île de Ré outside La Rochelle, there are places, many of them, where you can walk today in 16 degrees and empty your head. It’s a time for taking stock, and uniquely, there’s actual time to do so. Everyone is very good at looking and scrutinising other people. How about looking at yourself?
I’ve started to remind myself of this: Know yourself and see the journey, be yourself and enjoy the journey, mind yourself and extend the journey.
These days, you are seen as some sort of a weirdo if you refer to a higher power. Some things are pre-determined. I am convinced of that. But human traits, especially in the area of social interaction, may change forever after all this.
All of which will materially influence how we interact, how we understand contact, all of which will be disappointing from an Irish point of view, because we are a naturally friendly race.
But Dublin apart, we are a country of small, modest-sized cities and towns. Only when you have lived in a society where time is lost commuting and on cramped buses, trains, and undergrounds does it make you to wonder to yourself how we haven’t picked up bugs and viruses before. The volume of people, the scale of population, the freedom to walk in your own space was never as compromised as it is in 2020.
Ten years ago, we were all swigging from the same water bottles. Soon we won’t be able to shake hands after a game. Rugby is a game of physical grunt and grind, from scrum to maul. Will all this fundamentally alter how the game is approached, and coached? Could rugby become more of a Sevens-type affair. If this episode has taught anything, it’s that nothing is sacrosanct.
I fervently hope the world of sport isn’t so new, and that within six months we will be back to what passes nowadays for normality, even if life continues to reshape our perspective of normal.
Jess, myself, and the kids have lived through the Paris terror attacks and the Bataclan horror, the insanity and evil of the Christchurch mosque massacre. I lost great friends such as Pat Geraghty and Garrett Fitzgerald and others in tragic and abnormal circumstances like Paul Darbyshire and Anthony Foley. This current situation will ultimately prove the most far-reaching in terms of fundamental change.
Maybe we were inoculated by what happened around us in Paris when the mosque attacks happened in Christchurch, but because the New Zealand city is so much smaller, it felt so much closer to home. It was like 50 people being murdered in Mallow. This virus is a global pandemic and it is everywhere around us. When the kids football went over the garden fence to a neighbour’s, she went inside for gloves before tossing it back to us. Anyone and everyone will appreciate what sport means to them after all this.
The separation from day-to-day rugby at La Rochelle isn’t entirely of my making. The total lockdown in France means we are all essentially on ‘chomage’, which essentially means we are unemployed. The club is basically closed down, and if one was to break that curfew, both the individual and the club would pay a price. It’s more stringent than that even.
I am not allowed to dispatch formal training programmes to the players, who are now also on ‘chomage’ and so are, strictly speaking, currently not in the employ of the club. We are all in receipt of state subsistence to supplement our incomes while the lockdown continues.
Any contact between coach and player is deemed wholly and legally inappropriate at the current time. Not every Top 14 club has a president with deep pockets. So this will hit small-town clubs hard, the ones who rely on footfall every other week.
And this will continue for the foreseeable future, certainly into May. I still, perhaps optimistically, believe we might see rugby sometime in June. At this moment that still seems like a long time away. There is no one looking too far ahead. That’s the lesson.
When so much of sport comes down to finance and contracts, it would still be unusual to see a season which does not crown a winner of the Bouclier. There is a lot of television contract money tied up in delivering the product. It may even be that a truncated season is accelerated through June, perhaps without the play-offs. There are key issues like relegation from the Top 14, promotion from Pro D2 and who plays in Europe next season, so it may end up being a winner-takes-all league, which would obviously benefit leaders Lyon and Bordeaux. I would anticipate powerful opposition to that, however.
All of which is outside of our control. For the moment, nobody thinks beyond tomorrow. Priorities change. I bought a hair trimmer the other day for the kids. BaByblissMEN. The first thought in the morning? Who’s next for the chop?