Getting behind the rotten core of rugby with Dan Tuohy

Tuohy earned 11 caps for Ireland. Photo: Inpho

Dan Tuohy has plenty to say but he’s not looking to settle scores. After expressing distaste for the direction professional rugby is heading in the 2020s, this 34-year-old took his leave of the sport.

Official retirement came on February 19th. The announcement, in a two-page essay on Twitter, provided a rare glimpse behind the curtain. It went viral due to the innuendo about rugby being “rotten” to its core.

With a tap of the right forefinger – his left hand does not currently follow brain function – he pressed send and went on with slow recovery from life changing nerve damage.

The father of two and husband to Keely – “a catholic girl from Tyrone” – is a reluctant retiree. Career cooked before the intended swansong, the final speech as captain uttered, it ended with a five metre leap crashing to earth, leading to a psychedelic experience in an Emergency Room.

Time to come down.

Ideally a green card will begin their new family adventure in America. In the meantime, life in Brittany lingers into summer months as RC Vannes want the Bristol-born Ireland lock to stick around. Not to coach, more for the vibe he radiates.

See, there’s something about Dan Tuohy. Never an overtly special talent – more big, hard working nuisance – but it’s the way he carries himself.

A horrendous injury ended his 13-year career, spanning seven clubs, which could be described as nomadic if not for “7.5” seasons in Belfast. It was the Tipperary blood that led him to Lansdowne Road on a handful of Six Nations days.

He has plenty to say about how each and how every contract concluded, but having signed a “non disclosure agreement” with the IRFU’s northern branch only some of the facts can be put down on paper.

“I left Ulster with a very, very bitter taste in my mouth.”

Why?

“I just didn’t like the way it went down. I was embarrassed. I had given lots to the club for seven and a half years and it didn’t sit too well with me. But now, just over three years since I left, that bitterness is completely gone.”

Tuohy’s departure signalled the beginning of a mass exodus of retirements and dismissals which will forever cast a shadow over Ravenhill.

“I signed a three year contract at the end of 2014, until 2017/18, but halfway through I left. I think I was the first to go. After that came the Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding case. Ruan went, Tommy (Bowe) retired, Andrew (Trimble) retired, Roger Wilson retired and . . . maybe we’ll leave all that for another day.”

Last leap

That’s not all Tuohy has to say. Let’s start at the end. The last leap.

“It was our first home game of the season, a big match against Oyonnax. From kick off I was back tracking close to our 22. Got to the top of the jump, took the ball, but our winger was there as a safety net and he clashed feet with our tighthead prop, who was lifting me from behind. My prop dropped me, at the top of the jump, and I fell onto my upper left shoulder area, getting whiplash from the fall on my head.

“Despite being a little dazed I tried to get back up until I saw my left palm facing outward, completely rotated. ‘I must have dislocated my elbow,’ I thought, ‘why else would it be facing that way?’”

The humerus, the long bone in the upper arm, cracked. Not fractured, a disconnected break. The entire arm twisted and stayed that way.

Dan Tuohy is currently recovering from nerve damage which he says may never be fully better. Photo: Darren Kidd/Inpho
Dan Tuohy is currently recovering from nerve damage which he says may never be fully better. Photo: Darren Kidd/Inpho

“I grabbed my elbow, my tricep was further up my arm, it was a right mess.”

Even by rugby standards this sounds scary.

“The surgeon had never seen an injury like it before.”

But wait. Surgery came Monday. This was Friday night and Tuohy had to survive a weekend of pure agony. Morphine is understandable but seemingly French hospitals administer ketamine?

“Jesus Christ,” he begins, the memory taking hold. “I had some morphine pitchside and the doctors gave me some more in hospital and they were trying to convince me that for an x-ray they needed my arm straight. ‘Listen,’ I told them. ‘There is not a chance I can move this arm. You have to put me out.’

“Unbeknownst to me they slammed a load of ketamine into me. In that period of time, between them putting ketamine into me and coming back around again, I didn’t know what had happened but they moved my arm back into place and got the x-ray.

“So, I understand that ketamine is horse tranquiliser or something of a similar nature. I was sitting looking at the ceiling thinking I knew all these secrets about the world and that I couldn’t tell anybody. It was absolutely bananas. It blew my head off.”

Go on, we gently persist, reveal these secrets?

“I was looking at the roof tiles and they were moving and I felt that I was living in between the lines of life. I can’t tell anybody this but I know all these secrets about everybody. Now, there are no secrets to be had but I thought I knew everything. It was weird. Very strange.”

An unusual anecdote, but any profession that requires its employees to survive nine surgeries – a normal amount for heavyweight rugby bruisers – is equally weird and very strange.

“This was my fourth bone break. I’ve suffered two radius breaks on my right and one on my left, which is actually a common injury at the minute, you see it with [Toby] Faletau and Rory Best has done his.

“I had one surgery when I was younger then I was fit as a fiddle from 21 to 28. Barely ever injured, the odd concussion here and there, but nothing I couldn’t recover from quickly.

“After I did my radius playing for Ireland against Wales in the 2014 Six Nations, pretty much from there, excluding last season, I haven’t been able to put together more than 10 games [in a row].”

Shameful

Bad luck or occupational reality?

“I actually get sick telling people I am injured. To be honest it is quite shameful. People don’t understand. Rugby players understand.

“Even my family, I don’t think they fully understand. They just think I am made of glass. There is an element of truth to that,” he laughs, “but there have been some really unfortunate injuries.”

Glass inevitably shatters during a three test series in New Zealand but Tuohy survived the punishing 2012 tour.

“When Declan Kidney called me into training camp in ‘09 – like the way they do now with young lads just to give them a taste of men’s rugby – I was thinking ‘Fuck me, I am way off this standard.’ These guys were monsters – Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan in their prime – and all I was thinking was ‘Fucking hell, this is serious.’

“In truth I wasn’t massively talented, I worked pretty hard and I was physical, but I have 11 caps for Ireland. I regret not getting 20 or 30.”

The “odd concussion here and there” is worth exploring. About 10 years ago, in an Ulster versus Ospreys match, Tuohy encountered another mythical monster, the All Black blindside.

“I had nasty concussion against the late Jerry Collins. All week we had been saying: ‘Don’t kick it to him because he runs it back and punches a few holes.’ Low and behold from a drop out Ian Humphreys, sweet as a nut, gave him a 30 metre run up. I looked to my left and to my right but everyone had put the brakes on.”

Tuohy dipped for impact but Collins went lower still. “Caught me with his shoulder on my chin. Out cold, sparked, before I hit the deck. I came back early from that one, got a few knocks, and a couple of weeks later against Connacht I forgot the game whilst I was playing in it. I took a bit of time out and recovered.”

His last injury is potentially permanent.

“The surgeon could not give me a time scale for recovery. Nerve damage can be anywhere from three weeks to three years and it might never fully repair. He did assure me that he saw the nerve was not [severed], that it was only damaged, so he has hopeful I would make a full recovery.”

Next week the process enters month seven.

“My fingers aren’t fully working. The risk of reinjuring this nerve, if I do come back and work it over again, I will be handicapped. I will be 35 with a limp wrist and none of my fingers working on my left hand.”

With two young children, the worry must cause sleepless nights.

“People see me lifting weights and think ‘aw you’ll be back playing’ but I’d reply: ‘Do you realise the selfish nature of me wanting to play for one more year? Do you realise what that would do to my wife every time she watches me take a tackle or fall from the lineout, knowing that I could potentially be left handicapped?’ For what? I am not earning 25 grand a month. Nowhere near that. It wasn’t a decision. It was done for me.”

Promises

Dan Tuohy has something to say. Promises to keep.

“On honeymoon last summer I told Keely, sort of with my fingers crossed, that this year was the last. I know now that she wants to move our lives forward, start her career, and if I played another 25 games this season I might have been inclined to go again.”

People in their 30s are not supposed to spend this amount of time in hospital.

“In the stadium, lying there with the doctor giving me a dose of morphine, she was at the foot of the bed and I said: ‘I am absolutely done. I won’t do this to you anymore.’”

Dan Tuohy catches a lineout while playing for Ulster in 2011. Photo: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
Dan Tuohy catches a lineout while playing for Ulster in 2011. Photo: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

What antagonises Tuohy, what sparked his “rotten from the core” epistle, was the recent RFU financial cuts to Championship clubs. He’s convinced it will prematurely finish multiple playing careers.

“That really does show a massive lack of human compassion. It just sums up the position rugby is in at the minute. If they want to turn the Championship into a semi-professional league they are going the right way about it.

“It is not feasible to live the [pro rugby] life on less than 20 grand a year. And really, why would you want to get your bag knocked in playing rugby when you probably don’t have any medical insurance?”

There’s more, much more. Having soldiered for Exeter Chiefs before Ulster came calling, he is disgusted that the word “Saracens” remains etched into Premiership records as champions of four of the past five seasons.

“I take a pretty dim view of people saying ‘Oh, Nigel Wray was a great bloke that wanted to help people.’ Yeah, there are great people around him but they knew they were cheating. Everyone else knew they were cheating.

“Exeter Chiefs and Rob Baxter run their ship the right way. They would have won three maybe four more Premierships if it wasn’t for Saracens.”

Cruel business

Mostly though, he cannot stand the treatment of individuals. After witnessing this maturing professional sport transform into a cruel business, he believes that “integrity and loyalty is a thing of the past.”

“I’ll give you an example of someone who was honest and gave me time to make other plans. I was 32, this week two years ago, at Bristol with Pat Lam. We sat down in his office, he looked me straight in the eye and said ‘Listen Dan, you are not an EQP [English qualified player], you are on a half decent contract. I am not going to keep you on for next season but what I can do is pay you for the rest of this year and release you now, so you can earn a little bit more money and I’ll give you my blessing, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone if you ever need a good reference, because you have worked hard here, but at the moment you don’t fit into my plans.’

“He knew I had another kid on the way, because he knew his players, and he knew what telling me would do for me. It’s one example of honesty. I had just been released but I shook that man’s hand.

“Normally it is done by agents so you find out from a third party. An email or a text. That’s the nature of it. We are entering the realm of football.”