McCarthy finally hitting the heights after taking longer run-up than most
Life in the relative rugby backwaters out west has worked out well for proud grandson of Connacht, writes GERRY THORNLEY,Rugby Correspondent
Mike McCarthy is a proud son of Connacht, indeed a proud grandson of Connacht. When, last August, he finally lined up for his Ireland debut at 29 against Scotland at Murrayfield, and they played the anthems, he thought of his maternal grandfather, Patrick Coyle, from Belmullet in Mayo, and of representing Connacht for six seasons, and he swelled with pride.
McCarthy’s debut was made all the more poignant in that his Irish grandfather had passed away weeks beforehand, and both his mother Anna and Geordie girlfriend Jessica were in the crowd. Patrick Coyle had never returned to Ireland, in part because he felt it would have been too sad to do so, and also having emigrated by boat, he had never boarded a plane in his life.
McCarthy has felt the same pride in his four subsequent caps, and will do so again today. “I feel massively proud, especially knowing my granddad is from the west, from Belmullet. It’s why I’m always proud to wear the Connacht jersey. He hadn’t passed away long before I got that first cap so it was a massive day for my mum and myself.”
That Patrick Coyle hailed from Fox Point, near Belmullet, is of further significance given that, for the first time, today’s game will be played for the Admiral William Brown Cup, in honour of the Argentinian navy hero who hailed from Foxford in Mayo.
“He (Coyle) was the oldest of the family and when his mum died he moved across to England to work on the railways and send the money home,” explains McCarthy. “Before that, he actually built the house that my cousin lives in, in Belmullet now.
“He married when he met my grandma when he was working in London, so when my mum comes she’s always over to Galway, and we’d go up quite often to Belmullet to see my cousin.”
Through his mother especially, McCarthy had always been aware of his Irish heritage, and both his mother and Belmullet-based cousin have been at Connacht games in the Sportsground, while McCarthy also has relatives in Portlaoise and Dublin.
For all the young players breaking into the squad, there are those like Chris Henry and McCarthy, and before them Mike Ross, who have had to bide their time and travel a longer road; none longer than McCarthy’s.
Although, as he himself is quick to note, McCarthy turns 31 next Tuesday, now he’s made perhaps the biggest breakthrough of his career he is encouraged by the longevity of others in his position.
“There’s a lot of locks still going, like Simon Shaw, Brad Thorn and Swifty”, he says, in reference to his secondrow partner at Connacht, Michael Swift. “I think he’s 36 now,” he says of Swift. “Nah, I think he’s 35. I think he’ll kill me if I say he’s 36.”
As strong as a horse, with a huge engine and warrior spirit, McCarthy could conceivably have another five or six years left in his career. All the more so now that, finally, he has cracked it as such.
“I was gutted to miss out on the World Cup, especially after doing the whole pre-season with Ireland, but it was just one of those things you have to take on the chin and keep working hard and eventually you get a crack.”
Today, he starts his second Test in succession, although he admits: “To be honest as time had gone on I kind of felt the ship had sailed, so to speak, and my chance had gone. I’ve just always kept working hard and thankfully, I’ve gotten the chance.”
The defeat ruined the day a fortnight ago. On learning of his elevation three days’ beforehand due to Paul O’Connell’s withdrawal, he hadn’t done nearly as many practice sessions as he’d have like and has rarely been so nervous. But once the game kicked off, he felt good physically, and it showed.