One of the things thedoes really well — and in fairness it does quite a few, bias aside — is the daily e-edition of the paper.
On Monday morning, I was poring over coverage of the All-Ireland hurling semi-finals from afar when I happened upon a book excerpt of Damien Lawlor’s When the world stops watching: Life after the game.
Former Galway hurler Tony Óg Regan was describing what it was like when the end of his inter-county career came down like a cleaver. He employed the phrase a “death in the family”.
This wasn’t for effect or a cheap headline. He didn’t say it lightly. A death in the family is how it can feel.
Don’t be one bit surprised when you read about a number of elite sportspeople who struggle with their mental health. It is horrendous. A good friend of mine was chatting to me about the loss, the grieving, he feels every day knowing a special loved one is never coming back.
I was too embarrassed to compare the end of my playing days to his grief, but I could totally empathise at the same time.
That’s how brutal this addiction can be, that’s the finality of it. You’ve had it for so long, your second family, the most intense moments of fulfilment and crushing disappointment. What Regan was exploring is the difficulty finding a natural equilibrium after those soaring highs and plunging lows. I had plenty of both. You do something for a decade and a half, then it’s gone. It is the ultimate kick in the bollo*ks.
I can provide date and time when it hit me like a truck. November 24, 2013. Ireland versus the All Blacks. I’ve an RTÉ microphone in my hand at pitch level, but I might as well be 100 miles away. Ireland are 22-17 in front, history is in their sights but I am utterly conflicted. Many of these were my brothers, my team-mates. But now my career is done, littered with several failed efforts to beat New Zealand for the first time. Do I really want this to happen now, just a few months after I’ve retired?
That first season outside the bubble, are you really giving it the ‘c’mon Ireland, let’s do this’? It’s a horrible feeling, really. I’m neither proud or ashamed to say I didn’t want Ireland to win that afternoon. You felt you had given your lot, only to be deprived on every occasion. There were some lads who were there with you, about to get over the line and you’re thrilled for them. Others, though, you’re resentful, almost bitter; they’d done very little in the green jersey and they’re going to achieve this milestone without even suffering?
That burning, destructive competitor in you is saying this isn’t fair on me, when any normal person would be wagging a finger and saying ‘No Rog, you are wrong’. But if you are not feeling that sense of being torn in some way, then you are not a competitor, not in the real sense.
Ryan Crotty goes over in the corner. 22-22. It’s all ok now. Ireland won’t beat the All Blacks this day. But now I don’t want them to lose! So, I’m hoping Aaron Cruden’s conversion is unsuccessful. Worse to come. He misses the first time, but Nigel Owens gives him a second chance. I’ve flip-flopped back to Ireland. He converts. The full-time whistle. A shameful sense of Phew — for the fact Ireland didn’t win!
That’s what happens in the brutal, early stages of retirement when you struggle to accept the circus has moved on quickly. Eventually, you learn to accept transition.
You mine some perspective: Like ‘How good was my time in that jersey? I am so grateful’. But it took a bit of self-talking to get to that stage.
It’s no harm to put that out in the open.
How my international career finished, I have zero issue with. It honestly doesn’t cost me a thought. That it was finished with Ireland and with Munster — that took acclimatising.
Moments you craved but are now gone. Extinct. When you kick off the boots in the dressing room and look around you. That’s a moment. The lads horse-shoed arounds, from numbers 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15.
Fellas on the ground, trying to stretch, creaking and cramping. Busted up. Fellas in tears, through ecstasy or dejection. More getting stitched, more just spent, broken, staring the 100-yard stare. The end of a war, the end of a season. Family around and about you.
And when it’s gone, you begin the process of understanding that it’s never coming back. That’s why Tony Óg Regan said it was like a death. They are strong words. He played in mammoth GAA games with a band of brothers. Then it was just him.
I played in a European Cup final when I was 23 and missed four key kicks. In that Munster bubble, I felt a weight, a crushing weight of responsibility for that. I was bereft.
To what extent? When we lost the final to Leicester by two points a couple of years later, there was selfish comfort that I did my kicking and didn’t let the side down again. It was more powerful than the grief of losing.
It’s a selfish ‘Well I kept my side of the bargain’ that day. I didn’t in 2000.
When I packed playing in, in 2013, the mind was moving fast. When the Heineken Cup semi-final kicked off against Clermont Auvergne in France, I had no intention of retiring, but afterwards it felt right. I remember it very clearly to this moment. Then I went home and stared at the ceiling.
The prospect of what would come next terrified me. If I had taken six, nine months out of the game to relax, I couldn’t guarantee I’d emerge from the black hole I feared I was heading into with retirement. The better bet was to keep myself busy. Get up the next day and start again.
Unquestionably, that’s the main reason I went straight into the next project. A good friend of mine counselled me: Don’t announce your retirement —announce what you are doing next. That makes the grieving process a little easier. I’ve never lay in bed a morning in my life. I have to keep moving. I get that from my father.
In France for instance, when a player retires he is entitled to chomage, which is essentially a parachute unemployment payment to break the fall back to reality. Someone can net up to €72,000 a year, and many players just live off that for a couple of years. But for me, 24 months of nothing is over 600 days of lying in bed without a real purpose.
I had to move on and move on fast. Some ex-players don’t break the chain and they keep talking about themselves and their careers. After a while that becomes a little uncomfortable if you are around it. The sight of someone hanging around the club for a period after they retire is as understandable as it is sad. Everybody else moves on. It’s hard, but it’s life.
There are some lads — I can think of a few — who were between a rock and a hard place because they were asked back to give a hand on the basis of the aura, the charisma, that they might be able to pass to the new generation. That doesn’t make the parting any easier, probably harder if anything.
Next thing you are removed from the WhatsApp group. It’s sudden, it’s brutal, and it’s best. You’d like to think that on a social basis, the door remains open to former colleagues, but not for me. It was best that I was on a flight to Paris and out of Cork within a couple of months of that Clermont game.
I was removing myself from the social discourse, from the coffee in the South County or the chance meeting in Douglas Court Shopping centre: ‘How will Munster go at the weekend?’
That would have been mental turmoil.
The same as me going from a player in Munster right into the coaching set up. If you do that, then you better be prepared to lose most of the friendships you have built up, real friendships, over 15 years. For me, that wasn’t a good idea.
I was already 35 when I finished playing and I felt I needed to shake a leg in the coaching sphere. Now there isn’t time to pause. A career, five children. Which is why the Covid lockdown was probably a good thing; it allowed me time to press pause and reflect.
Same as Regan’s article did on Monday. It made me pause and think. Which was the greater loss? Leaving those moments, that brotherhood, your other family, realising those dressing room snapshots were gone forever? Or actually retiring from the game, and all the insane challenges?
To be honest, both are brutal. In Munster, we were very, very tight. But you also miss the challenge of testing your craft. You wake up today thinking ‘Shit, I get no chance to drill a spiral or bang a drop goal over, put a chip in there’. You miss the competition in your life, the skill side of the game.’ And you ain’t getting it back.
Life after the game? Not easy.