Andrew Conway diary: Damn, am I still able to play rugby?
It will be the longest off-season without an injury any of us will ever have had
Munster’s Andrew Conway contests a high ball with Leinster’s James Lowe during the Guinness Pro 14 game at Thomond Park in December 2018. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
We were meant to return to team training next week, May 18th, but in the last few weeks it became clear that was not going to happen. Now, by early June, it looks like we should have a clearer idea as to when the return date for team training will be along with some plan, even a loose one, of when we might all be back playing again.
That would be something. All sports people work off timelines and targets, and the knowledge of something coming up, whether it’s next week’s match, the start of a new season or a return date from injury. This is completely alien for us all, but, again, it is what it is and we’ve nothing to complain about.
It’s also a boost to hear of rugby returning in New Zealand and Australia, and it will be very interesting to see how that plays out because you’d imagine we’ll benefit from their experiences.
We’re all going to have to be ultra careful when we get back to training, both within the squad and in the real world, so that we don’t pick up the virus, and one will be as tricky as the other.
Any sports with designs on coming back soon are doing so behind closed doors, or without fans. Me and Liz got up at 3am last Saturday night to watch a UFC event in Jacksonville, Florida, the fist proper live sport that I was aware of. One – because I’m a big fan, and two – because we hadn’t see live sport in two months.
All the fighters had to undergo different measures in the lead-up and be tested pretty much every day while observing guidelines.
The main event was Justin Gaethje fighting Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight belt. It was an unreal fight, but barbaric and tough to watch. Khabib Nurmagomedov, who had beaten Conor McGregor, was meant to be fighting Ferguson but couldn’t get back into the States from Russia. But UFC were pretty bullish about being the first sport back so they booked Gaethje to fight Ferguson instead.
Gaethje is an American brawler but he had a great performance, and won. His motto is the same at all times. “Humans appreciate maximum effort so that’s all I concern myself about.” It’s a cool attitude.
While it was strange not having a crowd, with no background noise you almost felt like you were in the front row. You could hear the fighters breathing, and the punches and kicks landing.
Team sports are different and playing in front of supporters is an absolutely key part of what we do. To not have anyone in the stadium, whether it’s Thomond Park, the RDS or wherever, would be strange.
Full houses add an edge, whereas normally even small crowds can suck the life out of you. But these aren’t normal times. When rugby matches return the likely absence of fans in the ground would be offset by knowing that so many people will be watching from home.
Millions of people, in Ireland and elsewhere, are fans and have missed their sports more than ever was the case before in off seasons. As players we’d be happy for them, as well as ourselves, to be back playing. Plus, we know that the crowds should return one day and that will be another cause for celebration.
Of course, rugby is confrontational so when you’re preparing for a match you’re using all the emotions you can to make sure you’re right on the edge. You need an aggressive mindset coming into a game. The crowd adds to that.
The absence of crowds, the passage of time, everything that’s happened and our collective relief at being able to play again, will make the return of games fairly unique.
Normally, whenever Munster played Leinster in the Aviva Stadium, the players from both teams would try to ignore each other before kick-off because we’re all preparing to go into a bit of a war. But that could be harder if each set of players is seeing the other for the first time in months.
Then again, while they’ll be interpros, they’ll probably be Guinness Pro 14 matches, with four points at stake, and potentially home advantage in the playoffs, a European seeding and a shot at a title, all on the line. Then it’s going to be the same as it ever was.
In any case, you’d still be as nervous as hell. Usually the first games of the season are the ones I’m most anxious about anyway because you haven’t played in so long. They’re always in the top three toughest games of the year and being a winger I’d usually play 80 minutes.
It will also be the longest off-season without an injury any of us will ever have had. Even with a normal off-season, the thought of coming back to play provokes doubts. ‘Damn, am I still able to play rugby?’ All these natural fears which enter your mind would come back and grow as the first match back comes closer.
But then, as soon as the match kicks off, all those doubts disappear and the thrill of playing again takes over.