Shane Stapleton: ‘If this is what rugby players go through, I don’t know how they go back into contact’

In February, Tipperary selector Shane Stapleton was concussed following an seemingly innocuous collision with Clare’s Jamie Malone at Cusack Park in Ennis. The incident triggered a frightening chain reaction with seizures, hospitalisation, and being unable to work for almost a month. Now fully recovered, he tells his story to John Fogarty

Shane Stapleton: ‘If this is what rugby players go through, I don’t know how they go back into contact’

Shane Stapleton would take you back there if he could but he is unable to do so. He has no memory of the incident that left him in hospital for a couple of days and kept him out of work for four weeks.

All the Tipperary selector can tell you about is the fright, not how his concussion and seizures spooked him but scared his wife Claire, their two girls and his parents.

When radio and social media reported on February 11 that he had collapsed after the collision with Clare’s Jamie Malone, it sent shockwaves through his nearest and dearest.

The video of the moment makes it look a lot less serious than it was. So does Stapleton’s reaction. After being pushed by Malone in the second half of the February 11’s Division 2 game in Ennis, he was straight back on his feet. However soon after he was down on the ground again and urgent medical attention was required.

If ever there was a scenario of just how deceptive concussion can be then Stapleton’s case was a textbook example. His head struck the concrete surface at the Ennis venue. His brother Micheál and friends in the stand saw the danger signs before Stapleton.

They knew after I got up off the ground that there was something wrong with me when they saw I was taking verbal abuse from the Clare maor foirne and another official because I would never accept it normally. They were really worried when I went down again the second time.

That worry was shared by his fellow Golden-Kilfeacle clubmates Shane O’Connell and Josh Keane who were playing that afternoon. Keeping their concentration on matters in hand was difficult when they looked to the sideline and realised Stapleton was in bad shape. He was moved to a medical room beside the dressing rooms where he experienced another seizure as an ambulance was called for.

“I had no history of it so it must have been whatever way the brain reacted to the trauma. The doctors thought my memory would come back when my brain got back to normal and the swelling went down but I still can’t remember anything about the incident at all.”

Stapleton was eventually brought to Limerick’s Mid Regional Hospital’s critical decisions unit, a place he likens to “a hotel” such was the attention and treatment he received. He would remain there until the following Tuesday morning. But the recovery had only just begun.

Rest and tests were to be his routine for the next five weeks. Driving was ruled out, as was returning to work as a teacher in Fermoy’s Coláiste an Chraoibhín. Though CT, MRI scans, and x-rays came back clear, he was under strict instructions to do as little as possible.

The grogginess eventually subsided but he couldn’t take any chances. “The overwhelming problem for me was that it was really uncomfortable. I was in a neck brace for a couple of days and I just couldn’t turn in the bed.

“It was difficult now looking back on it. It was tough being out of work and tough being home with the girls and not being able to do anything. You know yourself, when you’re used to meeting people and going to matches and whatever and then you’re sidelined at home it’s a big change. People were getting so-called cabin fever after two enforced days indoors during Storm Emma but I had five weeks on lockdown.”

He reckoned he might be allowed to attend Tipperary’s subsequent game against Meath but that request was given short shrift. “I thought I would just arrive on. It didn’t have to be a selector’s capacity but just to be around the dressing room. There wasn’t a hope. I was still sleeping 16 to 18 hours a day. If this is what rugby players go through, I don’t know how they go back into contact. I can’t imagine how they do that.”

He returned to work just before the Easter break having been given the all-clear by his neurologist Dr Paul Crowley. His GP Iver Hanrahan, a fellow Golden man, has been a godsend. He would have always have huge appreciation for Tipperary team doctor John Hynes and physio Ian Dowling but as his first responders that day in Ennis his respect for them has soared. The understanding provided by Coláiste an Chraoibhín principal Christy Healy was exceptional also.

“He and the staff have been been very supportive since they had all heard it in the media. They knew about it before I had to get onto them. I’m never out of work so I’m looking forward to the final school term. It’s a great school, I get on well with the staff and students alike and you’d nearly miss the banter with them. There would be a really good relationship with them, especially being involved in the football and hurling teams in there. You’d miss the craic around the place.

“I also missed the first round of the intermediate club championship. I’ve played the previous 22 or 23 years for the club so I can’t wait to get back playing this month.”

But if there’s a lesson he will take with him it’s the experience his family endured. “I now see impact this has had on my family and at the end of the day family has to come first.”

Stapleton knows he and his family weren’t the only victims either. His memory of the moment may not exist but he knows Malone never meant to hurt him. The pair have been in touch a lot since the game.

“Jamie Malone has been a gent. I’m glad he has moved on and is back playing so well for Clare. We’ve been texting forward and back since. At no stage did anybody think it was done on purpose. If he caught me and brought me to the ground after the push there wouldn’t have been anything more about it but, no, Jamie has been onto me, Colm Collins phoned and one of the stewards from Cusack Park even came into the hospital. It’s been tough for all involved.”

Jamie Malone
Jamie Malone

As if the injury wasn’t bad enough, insult was added to it when Stapleton was subjected to criticism in Clare, blamed for Malone’s two-match suspension.

“I know we got bad press in Clare but we had nothing to do with the sending off or the suspension. Looking back at the video, no Tipp player or backroom member brought any attention to it. The linesman was beside it and called it and it was done and dusted.

“I guess I was unlucky in terms of timing at the moment because maor foirnes seem to be more high-profile figures recently with Dan (Shanahan) and The Rock (Diarmuid O’Sullivan) the past couple of years and Jayo (Sherlock) and (Tony) McEntee.

“Third parties who weren’t there felt I went looking for trouble, but if you look at the video I was just standing there. It’s not like the Jason Forde and Davy Fitz thing from last year, that’s for sure. I was standing three yards behind the line even behind Liam (Kearns) and I just wasn’t ready for the impact. I just couldn’t brace myself for it.”

Stapleton has kept a quiet profile in Kearns’ management team so to see his name in headlines was uneasy for him. “I’m a fairly private fella. I’ve been with Tipp for the last six or seven years in different capacities and I didn’t go into Tipp football for publicity. I went into learn and give a tiny bit back but this was the first time my name was out there and it was almost a bit embarrassing.

“People were coming into the house showing paper clippings and showing me that this fella said this and that online.

I used to train the Fermoy footballers and the Kildorrery hurlers and I know a few of the lads from Mary I and they’d would be talking about nice a fella Jamie Malone is. I was hoping he knew nobody in Tipp was blaming him or it was a personal thing. It was just a freak result of the push but before people comment about any incident they might realise that they don’t know how it can affect those involved.

Stapleton eventually returned to the sideline for the Cavan game and the re-fixed match against Down in Newry on Saturday having had to make do with following the wins over Meath and Louth on the wireless. That victory over Meath prompted an unusual reaction in him. “Maybe a side-effect of the concussion was emotions. I felt a small bit emotional when the final whistle came against Meath. I remember hearing (fellow selector) Paul Fitzgerald on Tipp FM on the Monday night afterwards and he namechecked me and said the win would have been nice for me. Jesus, I started welling up. That was kind of difficult. I was more used to it by the Louth match and they had played so well in the first half. It was great to see them bounce back after a really poor performance in Clare.”

That Tipperary narrowly missed out on promotion to Division 1 was obviously a disappointment but hardly a crushing one. “We never spoke about going up or aimed to go up. It makes no difference to our plans. We had intended to win all our home matches and that was the only goal we spoke about. We knew we had a good away record. Cavan had been only our second away defeat in three years so we knew we’d pick points up away from home but we didn’t know where.

“The lads have trained well, we won Division 3 last year and that really only saved our blushes for the year after a poor performance against Cork and then against Armagh. We could look back and say, ‘Well, at least we got out of the league’. We’re going to be judged on Championship and if we could beat Waterford and have another good battle with Cork maybe Tipp people would say that’s a good year and we can forget about the league.

“But I don’t think people realise just how difficult the league is. You’re trying to train really hard on a Tuesday and Thursday, trying to do a bit on the opposition and you’re travelling up to Down and Cavan and it almost takes over the week. We have up to 13 lads in Dublin and I know it’s first-world problems but it’s not easy for them.”

Football’s relationship with hurling in Tipperary is healthier than it was and Stapleton believes the county’s investment in the bigger ball game is now showing returns. “Liam and Michael Ryan also have a very good relationship. There’s no hurling-football divide in terms of the two senior set-ups. We both know that people can go from one panel to the other and it just makes sense when they’ve come up through a dual structure since they were 14/15.

Shane Stapleton
Shane Stapleton

“Steven (O’Brien) and John Meagher have been making the headlines after coming over to the football panel but you’ve Bill Maher, Liam McGrath, Emmet Moloney and Josh Keane were dual players up all along. Then it goes the other way. We’d love to have Paudie Feehan, Paul Shanahan, Willie Connors, Paul Maher etc but you can only play 15.

“We’ve had a good pre-season. We were reasonably happy at this stage last year and then April went totally backwards for us because we couldn’t get lads fit and we picked up a knock after knock. We’re going into this club month hoping that they come back to us in the shape they’re in now other than Shane O’Connell and Philip Austin. It’s going to be a tough month.

“Tipp are going to be the most affected county in the land because a lot are going to be playing four or five matches. It’ll be interesting to see what Liam Kearns and Michael Ryan are saying in a month’s time because it’s going to be tough on all parties involved, including the clubs themselves.”

Of course, two of Tipperary football’s favourite sons are abroad: Former captain and 2016 All-Star nominee Peter Acheson working in Dubai and 2014 All-Star nominee Colin O’Riordan plying his trade with the Sydney Swans. Oh, to have them back.

“Achey was our leader,” Stapleton states. “He still has huge influence on the group and he knows the door is always open for his return. There were even comments that if we got to Division 1 Achey would have to come home. It’s all tongue-in-cheek but maybe he might collect Colin O’Riordan on the way back and bring a couple of new hips for Ciaran McDonald and we are sorted!

“Seriously though, the lads would miss him (Acheson) even socially because he is such a good character. But when himself and (his girlfriend) Roisín are happy over there, it’s hard to wish he was back. I think at some stage they will be home but maybe Tipp football mightn’t be at that stage able to take advantage of it because the timing mightn’t be right. Once the pair of them are happy over there, the lads are content and we all wish them well in their adventure.”

You might even say it’s been that for Stapleton this past while but he’s certainly glad that his is over.

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