The Slow Fade

Rugby careers come to an end in one of two ways; through injury, or on occasion, on a player’s own terms. Cases of the former are increasingly rare. Ronan O’Gara and – just about – Brian O’Driscoll are two appointed a retirement date and quit. The list of recent retirements through injury – serveral in their recent 20’s, others more fortunate to have had a longer career, is lengthy.

One thing notable about O’Driscoll and O’Gara is that they went out at the top. Ok, Radge had lost his place in the Ireland team, but there was no shame in that, and his swansong was a top-tier match (and performance) against Clermont Auvergne in a Heineken Cup semi-final. BOD’s last outing was in a Pro12 final and he was in the national team to the last breath.

Plenty of others have a final season in which they ‘wind down’ their career. Leo Cullen and Mal O’Kelly retreated to the role of first reserve in their final season and appeared to perform sort of ‘handover’ role.

One player who sadly won’t be going out at the top is Donncha ‘Stakhanov’ O’Callaghan, Ireland’s joker in the pack, who once pulled down Ian McGeechan’s trousers while on the Lions tour. When Saturday’s team was announced journeyman Billy Holland was selected on the bench behind O’Connell and Foley, depriving fans of the chance to see O’Callaghan’s windmilling technique on the touchline. If Ryan were fit, it means O’Callaghan would conceivably be fifth on the depth chart. But this is no final wind-down season for Stakhanov. He has a contract until 2016; he signed the contract in late 2013 when he was still in or around the Irish set-up (though it is a Munster contract and not a central one, whatever that really means).

It must be a strange time for the player, who has been there and done it all; 94 Ireland caps, played all games in the grand slam, four caps for the Lions (where he famously pulled down Ian McGeechan’s trousers), two Heineken Cup wins with Munster … but most recently found himself lining out for Munster A, where last weekend he packed down alongside Sean McCarthy and took on Tom Denton and Gavin Thornbury of Leinster A. At least they won 18-8, which is something I suppose.  What must it be like for a player who has scaled such heights, played in the biggest of games, to find himself overlooked for Billy Holland and playing with the A’s?  That’s show business for you.  One day, you’re the most important guy who ever lived.  The next day, you’re some schmo working in a box factory.

While it’s natural to wonder whether O’Callaghan is the most expensive fifth-choice lock in world rugby, it’s also hard not to feel some sympathy for the once stalwart lock whose decline has been inexorable. By all accounts, O’Callaghan is a hard worker and a good character and not one to feel sorry for himself – after all, this is the man who pulled Ian McGeechan’s trousers down on the Lions tour. And to be fair to the old dog, he adapted surprsingly well to Penney’s second-rows-on-the-wing tactics.  He can’t be faulted for effort, or trouser-removing japery, but theold energy levels just aren’t there, and he doesn’t have much else to fall back on. The chances of an Indian summer feel slim, and it looks like a long, slow fade out to Donncha O’Callaghan’s career.

Also, did we mention that he once pulled down Ian McGeechan’s trousers on the Lions tour?



  1. I think it was spin doctor Alistair Campbell who got his trousers pulled down by DOC. Woodward brought Campbell on the tour to handle the meeja.

    • You are correct and apparently it was actually O’Connell who did it, but unsurprisingly O’Callaghan got the blame.

      • You’d better be wrong, or Donncha O’Callaghan will have gone down seriously in our estimation! I was certain – CERTAIN- that the story was that he pulled down Geech’s trousers, which is so much better than pulling down Campbell’s, and certainly a lot better than Paul O’Connell doing it.

        Say it ain’t so… maybe he pulled down both of their trousers?

  2. This article certainly came to bury Donncha, and not to praise him.

    • It did neither Henry – it came to wonder aloud on what it must be like for a player who has been at the top to gradually slide out of view.

      • He also captained a Lions side and engine-roomed his way through the golden generation. Bit of daycency here for Donnchers please.

        • As covered in the piece above – “the player, who has been there and done it all; 94 Ireland caps, played all games in the grand slam, four caps for the Lions (where he famously pulled down Ian McGeechan’s trousers), two Heineken Cup wins with Munster”. Nobody is belittling Donners’ career achievements which are many – the piece is merely wondering what it must be like to have done that and then found yourself facing 18 months at the less glamorous side of the game.

      • Away The Well

         /  October 9, 2014

        It is a cheap, sneery and unfunny piece of writing

    • For Axel is an honourable man.

  3. Hairy Naomh Mhuire

     /  October 8, 2014

    Think I’d have more sympathy for the Jirry’s or Eoin O’Malley’s of this world than I have for Stakhanov. In fact I’m not sure he is due any sympathy at all. A long and (by Irish standards) massively successful career & now has a payday to 2016 while figuring out his transition to civilian life. What am I missing?

    • I think that’s a reasonable line, but one doesn’t have a finite supply of sympathy to dish out. O’Callaghan is in all likelihood being handsomely paid for his marginal contribution to the team, but I’d be willing to bet that he is a competitive animal who would give it all away to play another test match etc.

      • Hairy Naomh Mhuire

         /  October 8, 2014

        Maybe – but a certain Pat Rabbitte line re butter & parsnips springs to mind!!

    • D6W

       /  October 8, 2014

      Agree with you. Although I would not necessarily equate Eoin O’Malley and Jirry. Eoin had to retire before he really had broken through and achieved to his full potential. He would have been fighting for the 12/13 vacancy, and IMO he would have been the frontrunner.

      On the other hand Jirry, although he had to retire young, still had a distinguished career behind him and achieved much of what he could have achieved as a player. Enough anyway for him to declare himself “Ireland’s most successful hooker”.

  4. SportingBench

     /  October 8, 2014

    Maybe he genuinely enjoys playing and is happy to be around a team and getting muddy long after the lights have dimmed? Plenty of ex-pros talk about the emptiness that comes from not playing and training every day so maybe Donnacha is self aware enough to know he’ll miss training and lining out for Munster A more than any loss of prestige. He was certainly selfless enough in his prime to suggest that maybe his ego doesn’t mean hehas to be centre stage.

    • I’d say there’s a lot of truth in this SportingBench. The lesser of two evils maybe? On l’autre hand, we know how badly the players take not getting selected for big games, and I’d say it was a wrench not to be involved in the real Munster v Leinster match at the weekend.

      • Mike

         /  October 8, 2014

        I always liked that Andy Ward played for Ballynahinch after he no longer felt up for it at professional level. Its a sign of someone who has no ego and just loves the game. I think that DoC should be praised in this regard. The only problem comes when the old timers are preventing new blood coming through, but that’s not the case here.

        As for the big contract, aren’t we always going on about players having a short career and taking what they can? Besides, I bet he’s on a lot less than you’d think..

        • A lot of people eem to be working on teh assumption that O’Callaghan will simply be happy to wind down his contract and trundle out when required. I’d be surprised if that’s the case, but that’s just our take on it.

          “As for the big contract, aren’t we always going on about players having a short career and taking what they can?”

          Too right! I don’t think anyone would question his wisdom there; the only question we’d have would be whether Munster are getting good value out of it.

          • Hairy Naomh Mhuire

             /  October 8, 2014

            I don’t think it’s a case of believing him being to be happy to trundle out. No doubt he would do almost anything to be back playing alongside Paulie, to play like he was 28 again (rather than wearing 28…). It’s more about whether he is due a share of our limitless supply of sympathy. Does he feel sorry for himself? I guess that depends on his world view. The rational perspective is that careers inevitably end and as endings go, his is not so bad. In fact he’s one of the luckier ones. He may not take this view – indeed, as you surmise, he probably does not. But even if that is the case, should we then feel sorry for him? He’s still part of a set-up he loves, hanging out with the big dogs, the younger lads in awe of his achievements. He still gets to lace up the boots – ok only with the A’s but how bad – and the contract renewal means that reality can be postposed for another few years. As you will no doubt agree, Munster gave him the contract & if it’s poor value that’s their issue – he’s hardly a candidate for their infamous gravy train!. And whatever the value is, we can be pretty certain that it’s a fair whack more than big Mal is getting up at Malahide!!!

  5. SlowCentre

     /  October 8, 2014

    I can’t speak for DoC but in his position I’d be a pretty happy man.He has a had a long and successful career and while he is getting older and no longer able to do it at the top level he doesn’t seem to have any significant injury issues so he will proabably keep going as long as Munster keep him on.

    He’s still living the dream of playing a game he loves and getting paid for it,I’m sure he’d love to still be doing it in big Munster and Ireland matches but if that’s not an option at least he can do it at a lower level.Imo it’s respect he deserves,not sympathy.

    • As a 94-cap test player, Donners has the respect of everyone. But respect and sympathy needn’t be mutually exclusive. You make lots of valid points, but don’t forget that these guys are competitive animals, and don’t tend to take being sidleined easily. You can be sure DoC isn’t happy to be playing in the B&I Cup and is hell-bent on getting his place back, whatever you make of his chances of doing so.

      • SlowCentre

         /  October 8, 2014

        I don’t know,I can only speak from my own experience of playing (at a much lower level) but when I was in my early 20’s I had that fight and belief that I was always the best player in my position and a belief that I could always get my place.

        As I got older and slower I’ve come to appreciate that while I can still do a job there are younger guys who just have me beat on sheer athletic ability.I still love the game and won’t stop playing until my body or more likely my wife tell me it’s time to quit.Obvioulsy there’s no way of telling how DoC feels but in his place I know I’d be fairly content while still giving it everything I had each week.

        • Thanks SC. Like you say, we won’t know for sure unless we actually are Donncha O’Callaghan (which we’re not). It would be interesting to see him interviewed and get his side of things; but most meeja agents tend to do interviews with ‘success sotiries’ rather than those on the way out, even though the latter are probably more interesting.

          My impression of top sportsmen (not just in rugby) is that they talk about their selfish streak and drive to succeed (in fact more often to avoid failing) an awful lot. If you look at ROG, you could see that even when his abilities were waning, he had to be crowbarred out of the Ireland jersey. The guys at the top rarely go in for resting on laurels. O’Callaghan always struck me as pretty driven.

          • SlowCentre

             /  October 8, 2014

            Yeah you could definitely be right about that.I know that if I had been lucky enough to have the talent to play any sport for a living I still probably wouldn’t have made it as while I would work my ass off at training and during a match,I wasn’t nearly disciplined enough in my own down time to get to the kind of level these guys do.

            Pro sportsmen and women tend to have a drive that most people can’t match so it’s quite possible that DoC is sitting at home thinking of how he’s going to earn the Munster shirt back in time for the new European Cup.

          • Interesting what you say WoC about RO’G having to be crowbarred out of the Irish ten jersey. As I understood him back then, he reckoned it was his jersey to keep until someone else took it off him – and in doing so proved that they deserved it. I think he was right in general terms both from the position of the place-holder and the person trying to replace him. However in the case as it was at the time, I think Declan Kidney as coach should have been somewhat more decisive and gone with Johnny Sexton sooner.

  6. SportingBench

     /  October 8, 2014

    Also ROG had a decent streak of arrogance and entitlement to him which arguably made him both the player he was and more attracted to the centre stage than DOC. players are motivated by many things and my impression is that ROG was partly motivated by a desire to be the star which helped him do many of the nerve jangling things he achieved and the fact that if he failed he wasn’t put off sticking his hand up for responsibility again (so is definitely not a criticism) but that makes him unlike to want to continue after the limelight has faded. Others are motivated in different ways such as by terrifying fear of failure which means contributing to a team performance at any level, bizarre as it sounds) is sufficient to give a similar buzz as playing for Ireland. It might be that DOC is as happy playing well for a lower level team as he was playing well for Ireland and happier playing well at a lower level than contributing little to the Munster Senior team. People really do define personal success in very different ways.
    Now you have brought it out, the fade out to black of professional careers and the different attitude players have to it really is a fascinating subject. For me anyway.
    Wonder if DOC is involved in coaching much and if he is also contributing in that way?

  7. Cian

     /  October 8, 2014

    An interesting and fair enough piece, WoC. It must be noted that most Munster fans would have been very happy with Donncha’s performances last season, and it’s only in the first few games this year that his form really seems to have fallen off a cliff. With that in mind it’s not too ridiculous to think that he might be able to pull off a temporary resurgence, at least to the point of continuing to be a valuable squad member.

    Even if Munster are wasting money they don’t have on him, I can’t bring myself to wish they’d do otherwise. He’s been a part of some amazing history, as you say seems a decent fellow, and more generally I like to see the old horses hanging around and contributing for as long as possible. SportingBench makes a great point about personal definitions of success, and I think DOC (as compared to ROG or BOD) might well be someone to enjoy giving his all in whatever capacity.

  8. POM played on the wing before it was cool.

  9. paddyo

     /  October 8, 2014

    I agree with sportingbench that this is a very interesting subject. I am often told that studies have been done which have found an injury can impact on a player to the same level as a bereavement. Admittedly I haven’t read the research myself, so can’t totally stand over that, but it is a reliable source and when I questioned I was told these are well respected questionnaires which measure what they are supposed to. It’s a bit of a jump here and not to lower the mood but I would suggest it’s not impossible that players psychologically on some level view retirement a bit like death. Mood well and truly lowered!

    From the cheap seats it seems to me that O’Callaghan has behaved admirably both regarding Ireland and Munster. It is pretty easy to talk about how you are just the temporary holder of the geansai and about the gra for the team when you are the current person in possession of said geansai. It becomes much more difficult to prove it when you are out of favour. Whatever your feelings on his contributions in the past and potential contributions in the future (do I feel another bet for a pint of ginger lashing beer whiff-I thinks there’s a good chance he will play in Europe this season!) O’Callaghan has impressed me with the way he has talked about Ireland last season (along the lines of : I’m not getting picked but believe I have something to offer and will work to show that) and also that he appears to bring a similar attitude to Munster now.

    I believe there is a responsibility on the exiting members of these squads to behave like that to maintain the dignity and integrity of the whole thing. When the time comes that I ain’t getting picked anymore at my level of sport, I kind of look forward to showing my team mates how selfless i am for them and that I will put in just as much, irrespective of being picked or not. For me it is a good legacy to leave behind to the next wave of players – showing them how to face the end of it, face on. I don’t think you have to be uncompetitive to think like that and it wouldn’t surprise me if O’Callaghan thought like that. Bring it on old age, I’m going to go down fighting.

    • Jaysus, Paddyo, you should bottle that and sell it as “The Way of the Ligind”. You’d make a fortune!!! All jokes aside though, those are sentiments I too wholeheartedly endorse. DO’C is someone all Irish rugby fans will always hold in the highest respect

    • ROG and BOD would have played on if their bodies let them. So it goes with DOC. When you said some athletes feel bereaved when they retire, it made me think of this article, a very interesting take on what it can like for less celebrated players:

      • paddyo

         /  October 8, 2014

        Aye, interesting piece and he is hardly on his own. I do think leinster in particular have been pretty good at having a balance to things in the past and arguably that showed in how confidently they could express themselves. A lot of the craic about heaslip not really watching rugby…..maybe he should know better than to say it but on the other hand maybe he was being courageous to just tell the truth. The criticism of him on that basis was a load of crap in my view. Bakkies used to say how he never watched a line out, matfield did all that and told him what to do. You don’t hear too many slagging bakkies! Even on anonymous message boards! Anyway I apologise as am feeling like I’ve got too serious for all this. Quick someone tell a joke or better yet, pull someone’s trousers down.

        • Brian O’Driscoll said the same thing about not watching rugby years ago (he made the point he got to watch enough of it in video analysis sessions). And got no stick at all about it.

  10. SportingBench

     /  October 8, 2014

    The POC trouser story from the very unreliable horse’s mouth:

    Given past history, it is still possible that it was DOC on McGeechan of course and this blog post has just been sexed up…

  11. Lop12

     /  October 9, 2014

    The article makes a fair point at its core. But too many cheap jokes at DOC expense for my liking. But maybe I am just overly sensitive as a fellow Cork man. DOC drained every ounce of talent he had into his career, never drank or smoked, ultimate professional. He also gives more time to young players and gives his time to clubs around the province more than any other player in the Munster squad.

    I wouldnt bet stolen money that we have seen the end of DOC either. Like an old car he maybe takes a bit longer to get going these days and expecting all players to hit the ground running at this early stage of the season is unrealistic. For example we have no idea if he did the same pre-season as the rest, or if Axl sensibly told him take an extra month with his young family and we will ensure you have gas in the tank when the season really kicks into gear. That would have been an eminintly sensible approach.

  12. Yossarian

     /  October 9, 2014

    It’s internesting to note how form can drop off a cliff for a player in his 30’s. As pointed out when he got the 3 year deal he was around the Irish set up. Boss and Reddan at Leinster have also had serious dips in form this season. Hopefully Mike Ross doesn’t have one as he is still key to Ireland despite the emergence of guys like Moore and Furlong.

    • Yes, it’s a real danger. It happened to John Hayes and could have had serious consequences, but we got lucky with Mike Ross.

      Boss and Reddan are a concern. Boss’ form has been poor since December, and while Reddan played very well last season, if he loses his speed to the ruck he’s in trouble, as he doesn’t really have a ‘strategiser’s brain’ on which to fall back.

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