Mark Pollock’s inspirational words to Ireland’s rugby players

Belfast explorer, who is blind and paralysed, stressed importance of a positive mindset

Ireland’s Devin Toner and Jack McGrath tackle New Zealand’s Ben Smith. Photograph: Kamil Krzaczynski/AP Photo

Nine days before the Ireland team arrived in Soldier Field they were grouped in their base in Carton House. A few years earlier Ireland team manager Mick Kearney, centre Robbie Henshaw and Connacht outhalf Jack Carty had shared a platform with Mark Pollock and just days out from facing the All Blacks the Belfast explorer was back with them.

Blind from the age of 22 and paralysed following an almost-fatal fall in London in 2010, the Ireland management team believed Pollock had something to share.

In the never-ending search for improvement, Joe Schmidt has never shied away from possible added value. In head space, there is always vast common ground.

Pollock, for his work in finding a cure for paralysis and for his mindset in being able to face so many obstacles, seemed a snug fit as the New Zealand challenge approached.


The best team in the world and a bleak history of over 100 years of failing to beat them are the sort of odds Pollock faces every day. The Ireland team invited him in.

“I kept in touch with Mick and he had discussions with Joe. I was invited in for 20 minutes at the start of the camp,” he says. “I think it was the expected 23 starters who were there,” he adds.

“I said to them that if they were in the business of writing a new account of history, where the impossible is made possible through their human endeavour. Then I suggested that they think like explorers. I don’t suppose it would have been that relevant if they were playing Scotland, England or France, anyone bar the All Blacks.”

Conventional wisdom

Subsequent to going blind at the age of 22, Pollock won silver and bronze in the Commonwealth Rowing Championships. He trains daily to challenge the conventional wisdom that says his central nervous system cannot recover. Driven, he has pushed his Run In The Dark Trust to 50 countries.

"I suppose when you say motivational talk to these rugby players . . . in general terms people think you are into whipping up a frenzy or like Al Pacino in that film Every Given Sunday, he says.

“What I tried to share is how I’m approaching something right now that is absolutely impossible and in order to do it I’m drawing on my South Pole experience [he was the first blind man to race to the South Pole]. It was a mindset I was trying to get across to them.

“What was interesting for me and what I had to say is that up to this point in history it has proven impossible to find a cure for paralysis. But history is full of accounts of the impossible made possible.

“That was the framing for what I was trying to do. I spoke to the players about the scientists we are working with, the technologists we are working with, the group of people I am working with that I described as explorers.”

At the Ireland team base he fell into and elite world of data, support, video analysis, nutrition, technology and “the right calm feeling”. It was a privileged glimpse into another world.


"In rugby you don't really see that many upsets . . . It's why rugby captures the imagination because a result like Saturday can happen. In the Six Nations, Italy can beat France. Scotland can beat England."

Afterwards, Pollock spoke to some players, to Schmidt and to Simon Easterby and hopes some values may have stuck.

The sense of exploring new territory, the lack of a fear of failing and the willingness for calculated risk and trusting team members is familiar ground for all.

“Challenges are different but mindset is probably common,” he says of rugby and his exploration. Mindset may be a word over-used in rugby but it is also one that is not always fully understood.

“I have to be convinced that my mindset is important,” he adds. “I’m going to the gym everyday in the knowledge that the chances are it’s not going to work. But there’s a one per cent chance that it will.”

Last Saturday, that one per cent multiplied. History and change, it’s possible.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times