Batterings, I've had a few but I made it to the end

 

FROM THE BLINDSIDE:I have my post-career aches and pains, but the more guys I see having to retire early, like Jerry Flannery, the more I appreciate how lucky I am

WHEN I was in the States last week, I met a guy called Franco Harris. Franco is an NFL legend, a Hall Of Fame full-back who won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. He was a cult hero for them, a real tough nut who even today gets people coming up to him and talking about how hard those Steelers teams of the 1970s and 1980s were. When Franco heard I was a retired rugby player, he just shook his head and went, “Man, I just don’t know how you guys play that rugby with no pads and no helmets. You guys are crazy”.

In a week where Jerry Flannery finally had to admit defeat and retire through injury, an NFL old-timer saying that about rugby has to make you stop and think.

I played through two different generations of the game and watched it go through a complete fitness and conditioning revolution from the time I started until I finished up. Injuries are always going to happen in a physical game but it’s definitely true to say rugby injuries at the highest level now are different to what they used to be.

Franco would say the same about NFL. The pair of us were comparing injuries like a couple of old soldiers. He’s near enough crippled now with arthritis in his leg and in his back because of all the abuse he took over the years.

I’m not as bad but I was still able to give him a decent enough list of complaints. I couldn’t let the side down, you know? I have a touch of arthritis myself from time to time these days.

The combination of dislocating my left shoulder in 2003 and dislocating my right elbow against Connacht the Christmas before last has basically left me with two arthritic elbows. So if I’m lying in bed reading a newspaper, I can only hold it up for about 10 minutes before the ache in the elbows becomes too much and I have to put it down. It’s torture, Franco. Pure torture, I tell you.

All in all, I’ve been pretty lucky to come out the other side of the game in one piece. I have a bit of a problem with my groin – a touch of osteitis pubis that plays up when I try to do any bit of running or even a bit of indoor soccer. I’ll probably get an operation on it at some point just to straighten it once and for all. But beyond that and a bit of a sore knee that’s still there from the time I got it reconstructed in 2006, I’m not too broken up at all. I can go to the gym, lift weights, play golf, get out on the bike. Plenty of retired players would take that.

The truth is, I’m pretty relieved about it. I got to play until I was ready to retire and I got to choose my own time to go. I was injured plenty of times along the way – I got a broken jaw, both thumbs broken twice, dislocated shoulder and elbow, busted knee, the whole lot. But to be able to play until I was nearly 37 and then not to have any major problems afterwards apart from a few aches and pains now and then, I know well how lucky I am.

I was with Munster when Barry Murphy had to retire. I was there when Ian Dowling had to call it a day as well. I played my 200th match for Munster the night Dowls dislocated his hip and nobody had any notion that night how serious it would turn out to be. These guys had so much more rugby in them but they didn’t make it to the end of their 20s in the game.

Jerry is a bit older but there’s no doubt he had another few years in him as well.

We’re seeing it more and more these days. Guys aren’t quite making it to the end and are having to walk away before they’d like to. Bernard Jackman and John Fogarty are the same.

Tom Rees, the Wasps flanker who was a huge prospect, had to retire at 27. Even Lewis Moody had to call it a day earlier than he would have liked and for all the success he had over the years, there will still be that regret he wasn’t able to call his own way out.

There must be nothing worse than a doctor making that decision for you – after years of trying to make everything you can out of your rugby career, the one thing you want to have as you get near the end is control over the timing.

In Ireland, IRUPA have been doing great work for guys who have had to go early. The Arachas sports insurance scheme has helped a lot of guys out, giving some bit of a comfort and breathing space.

It has given lads a chance to go to college and still be able to pay the mortgage and build a future even after retirement.

The thing about having to retire because of injury is it’s rarely sudden. You’ve usually gone through a long period of rehab and of trying to get back into action. It’s usually drawn out and dispiriting and players understandably don’t want to let go. What the insurance scheme does is it gives you some bit of peace of mind. You know that if the worst comes to the worst, you’re going to have a bit of time on your side.

It was vital IRUPA came up with something like that because the more ferocious the game becomes, the more of these retirements we’re going to see.

There’s not as many soft tissue injuries now as there used to be because so much more work and planning and prehab goes into the players these days. All professional clubs have great medical staffs and fitness staffs who take care of players and control the amount of work they do on a daily basis.

A professional player’s day will start with fatigue tests and flexibility tests and your training for the day will depend on the results. If your hamstring is tight, if your back is stiff, if you’re losing a bit of power, that will all be taken into account. Every little clue is looked for – you do a questionnaire where you give a number between one and five to rate how you’re feeling, how the body is. Then they tailor your training to that and lo and behold, you get a lot fewer muscle strains.

You feel a lot fitter for a lot longer and ultimately, you can train a lot better.

The flip-side of that is what Franco Harris sees when he comes across a rugby match on television. Huge players at the peak of their physical fitness colliding into each other with massive force. The bigger they are, the harder they fall and there’s only so much prehab you can do to build up the smaller muscles around the joints to protect them.

If you’re getting tackled by two guys and they drive you back on to your shoulder at the wrong angle, you’re going to dislocate it no matter what you’ve done to prevent it.

You don’t have to pull out the old videos to know the players today are bigger and the hits are more physical. Any kid in the stands can see that. But what might not be just as clear to the naked eye is it’s the type of rugby coaches are looking for that is producing the collisions and forcing players into impact situations.

Defence is where every team starts these days. The game has become one where stopping the other crowd getting quick ball is first and foremost on everyone’s mind. Slow down ball, cut out line breaks – that’s what a defence coach’s holy grail is. So there’s a lot more close impact between players around the sides of rucks, with guys running straight at each other.

You’re taught to tackle in combinations, for two guys to push back and dump the opposition on their backsides.

All of this is direct collision stuff between players who are bigger and stronger and faster than they’ve ever been. It’s one of the big reasons where you’re seeing a lot more knee reconstructions, a lot more ankle breaks, hip injuries, shoulder and collarbone injuries, even concussions. I find it hard to see how players can sustain long careers through all of that. The likes of John Hayes and I were lucky in that we started in an era when the players weren’t as huge and the game wasn’t as defence oriented.

Some of the guys just starting out now, I’m not sure how they can hope to make it to 36 or 37.

Flannery has had to call it a day at 33, which is a very sad loss. Nobody was more enthusiastic about the game or about the teams he played on than Jerry and very few people made more out of their careers than he did. Two Heineken Cups, a Grand Slam, picked for the Lions – you can’t ask for much more than that.

When Frankie Sheahan retired – another who had to go before his time – Jerry kind of appeared from nowhere to take his place. He was always at training an hour before everyone practising his throwing, 100 balls every morning while the rest of us were only arriving. He proved one thing above all – that work ethic and desire will get you a long way. That’s why a lot of kids really look up to him.

He owes nothing to the game and neither does Bob Casey, another ex-Ireland international who announced his retirement this week.

Bob is different in that he got to pick his own time to retire and will play until the end of the season with London Irish. He’s a player who probably should have got a few more caps for Ireland but he was always a very positive guy who never seemed in any way bitter about it.

It’s only human to sometimes wish you’d made more out of your career and I do sometimes have regrets over missing out on this team or that team. But the more guys I see having to retire early, the more I appreciate how lucky I am.

I’d say Bob feels pretty much the same. I wish him well with his retirement.