Last weekend was a huge weekend in sport. The Aviva was home to two super Six Nations wins by the national men’s and women’s rugby teams.
As well as the emotion of the victories, sentiments were running high, as fans said farewell to Brian O’Driscoll in his last home international.
The curtain coming down on every great sports person’s career is an inevitability of sport. Goodbyes from sporting legends come in different ways. It seems fitting Brian O’Driscoll got to have a fairytale ending, after a magnificent career in an Irish jersey. Watching him jogging off the pitch for the final time left a lump in the throat for most and it was wonderful to see the crowd giving him a sustained standing ovation.
Unfortunately, very few sportspeople get the fairytale ending O’Driscoll received. At my first Olympics in Athens 2004, I watched Sonia O’Sullivan run and in the final laps she waved at the Irish fans there to support her. It was a lovely gesture to the people who had been on a great journey supporting her through Olympic glory and heartache. It was to be her last appearance at an Olympics and it felt like the start of her goodbye.
Regrettably, most sports don’t lend themselves to glamorous exits and people tend to wind down in a low-key manner.
Recent months have seen the retirement of two Irish sporting greats. Just a few days ago, Eoin Rheinisch, the three times Olympian in canoe slalom, called it a day on his amazing career. I was glued to a tv at my apartment in the Olympic Village in Beijing 2008, as he came agonisingly close to winning an Olympic medal. He was barely beaten for the bronze and had to settle for fourth, perhaps the toughest position to finish at in an Olympics. Rheinisch was a truly great athlete who has done wonders for his sport in Ireland.
Trent Johnston is another remarkable sportsman who has recently stepped away from the international scene. Johnston and the men’s cricket team began training in Santry stadium, the same venue where I was training, about three years ago. When they first arrived at the track, I was a little perplexed as to how it was going to work. I wondered how there would be space for everyone in a small facility. As it turned out, I don’t think I could have asked for a better group to share the track with. The team work incredibly hard and were very generous in giving space to the athletes. A few of them have even attempted to jump hurdles!
Sharing the track with the cricketers coincided with the last few years of Trent Johnston’s international career. A career that’s seen 198 caps, 12 titles in a 10-year span and he’s featured in two World Cups and three World Twenty 20’s. Johnston has been putting in the hard graft with his team, not an easy feat as the years have ticked on and the niggling injuries took their toll. When he played his last game in December, he was 39. He played exceptionally well and helped the team qualify for the World Twenty 20’s. After years of guiding the Irish men’s team, maybe his fairytale ending was to play incredibly well and help the side qualify for their next big event and to walk away leaving Irish cricket in a very healthy state.
Both Rheinisch and Johnston have been trailblazers in their sports but what now? Happily for their sports, both will remain involved. Rheinisch is the first ever home-grown high performance coach and will be a huge asset to canoe slalom, while Johnston has become coach to the Irish women’s cricket team and fast bowling coach at the newly formed national academy.
Johnston and his women’s team have a huge few weeks coming up. Next week, they travel to Bangladesh for the World Twenty 20 finals. This trip comes after a sensational win over Pakistan in Qatar last month.
I presented the women with their jerseys and had dinner with them last weekend. The influence of having Trent Johnston as their coach is already visible.
There is clearly an exciting buzz around the women’s cricket team. They are incredibly committed with all of them either holding down jobs or attending college while fitting in training in the early mornings or late evenings. They are working hard to hold their own internationally against teams that are often made up of professional players.
This women’s team has an opportunity to start doing something really special. They’ll be guided by a sporting great and have bucket-loads of passion for their journey ahead.
Sporting exits come in all shapes and sizes. Whilst most are never near the intensity of O’Driscoll, each has it’s own merits. As one door closes, inevitably others open and the future starts to look exciting.