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Welsh rugby enveloped in its latest existential crisis

As Wayne Pivac teeters on the edge of finding new gainful employment after a series of disappointing results, the wider-lens story tells of dysfunction and frustration

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'I was in denial I was missing it, I didn't admit it to myself'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s taken eight years but Brian O’Driscoll, the legendary Ireland midfielder who retired in 2014 after 15 years at the very top of international rugby, finally sounds like he has come to peace with the sad fact his stellar playing career is over. He doesn’t want to come across as a sob story but having previously been one of his sport’s most guarded individuals, the shutters are finally lifting.

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In his pomp, he was always the type of personality who strove to keep the mask firmly on, to keep his feelings hidden and not yield an inch to a public that was very curious to get to know the real man wearing the famed No13 jersey.

Now, though, the times are a-changin’. At the age of 43, O’Driscoll appears to have found a safe haven and is going with the flow, tackling his feelings and ending the denial. He now openly accepts that the life he once revelled in as a star player is very much past tense and the story he tells RugbyPass to highlight this transformation dates back to ten months ago when Ireland cleaned out the All Blacks in Dublin.

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Fourteen times he took on New Zealand with Ireland and the Lions as a player. Fourteen times he trooped off beaten and worse, getting stretchered off in excruciating pain on the 2005 Lions when All Blacks ‘hospitality’ in Christchurch infamously extended to flinging him head over heels and crashing to the turf, busting up his shoulder in the process.

The tide of results in those fixtures has now dramatically changed since O’Driscoll hung up the boots and the sense of envy generated as he watched others savour the one victory that eluded him hurt terribly. Until last November, that is.

O'Driscoll Ireland All Blacks
Ireland’s James Ryan, Tadhg Furlong and Tadhg Beirne celebrate their November 2021 win over the All Blacks (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

“Only recently have I started going to games where I’m not working at them (as a broadcast pundit),” explained O’Driscoll after RugbyPass mentioned during our conversation how it had once bumped into another retired Test player striding out of the Aviva Stadium before a kick-off as he couldn’t bear to watch the match in person and couldn’t get out of the place quick enough following a pre-game speaking engagement.

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“I went to the All Blacks game with my son in November and it was probably the first live game that I have really enjoyed and been able to separate myself from what had gone on in my playing days. It is a strange emotion and in many ways, I don’t know if people will fully understand it unless you have been there.

“That point you make, I did the exact same in 2018. I went to an event before the All Blacks game, the first one we won at home, and then there were cars to drop everyone down to the game and I was like, ‘No, I’m getting a taxi back and watching the game at home in my gaff’. They couldn’t believe it.

“I wanted to be able to sit there and say what I wanted at the TV, pace up and down. Four years later (after retirement), I wasn’t ready to just go and sit at the match. You are also aware people are watching you at a game, watching your emotions and watching your reactions. It’s not The Truman Show, you want to be able to actually live it [the match] in real terms and that takes time.”

On the surface, O’Driscoll looked like the epitome of success very soon after his retirement. TV and radio had warmly welcomed him over to the other side of the fence and a number of business endeavours had also taken off. And yet the transition wasn’t as easy as he tried to publicly make it look.

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“You go from being around rugby players, never doubting you are adding value to something, to then going into the next walk of life and you’re not as talented and you’re not as good at it, that you are struggling a bit more and you’re lacking in self-confidence.

“From the outside, it might have looked as though the navigation was pretty seamless but it had its pitfalls, it had difficulties, sadness around not being involved anymore, not being able to do something that I had total confidence in doing.

“It’s not a sob story but it is an emotional feeling as to how you maybe had taken for granted the world that you are living in and then all of a sudden one day it finishes. Maybe it takes a while for it to hit you. I think I was in denial that I was missing it. I didn’t admit to myself that I was really missing it and I didn’t want people to have (that knowledge).

“People asked, ‘Did you miss it?’ First reaction was, ‘No, no, no’ and you’d find a way to say, ‘I don’t miss it’. Like, I don’t miss pre-season, I don’t need all the hardship. I don’t miss that but you missed the big occasions and I didn’t want to go to games that I wasn’t working at because you are still connected to the individuals that are playing and you are envious that they are still able to go and do something that they love doing and your time is up.”

This unease that your time is up is the topic brilliantly explored by O’Driscoll in After the Roar, the new film that premieres next Friday night on BT Sport, the channel where he does punditry throughout the Heineken Champions Cup season. The cast is a galaxy of stars. Horse racing’s AP McCoy, football’s Gareth Southgate and boxing’s Anthony Ogogo are all visited by O’Driscoll to capture their stories about how they have coped with their respective sports retirements in contrasting circumstances.

Cricket’s Jonny Bairstow also features, poignantly delving into his father David’s tragic suicide in 1998 not long after he had finished up his wicket-keeping days, while there are also contributions from current Argentina boss Michael Cheika, who coached O’Driscoll at Leinster, as well as the psychotherapist Richie Sadlier, the ex-Republic of Ireland football whose career was cut short by injury.

The latter’s questioning of O’Driscoll is uncomfortably direct but elicits a catalogue of insightful answers that blend sweetly into the overall narrative – that men’s mental health is a massive issue throughout the UK and Ireland and only by talking, by letting your guard down and exposing your true feelings, can the epidemic be properly challenged and alleviated.

“The world is changing,” suggested O’Driscoll, the 141-cap ex-rugby player whose After the Roar film is a co-production between BT Sport and 3Rock, O’Driscoll’s own production company. “It is not just in sports but society, in general, is now opening up to the fact that we aren’t robots, that we are human, that we do have personal needs and you see it in the entertainment business, Jonah Hill talking about not doing promotion around his movies because they are not good for his health, Sean Mendes pulling out of a tour because he needed to work on himself, Ben Stokes doing it, Michael Hooper.

“These situations are all to the benefit of normalising people minding themselves because as much as you love doing what you do and you love your work, your work is just one component of what you do and if it is making you unhappy and is decreasing the enjoyment you are getting in life, you have got to do something about it.

“All these different campaigns like Tackle Your Feelings, I have seen James Lowe involved in them, Jack McGrath, they are brilliant for normalising the conversation that people realise that they can go and find help if they have issues. If the individuals put on a pedestal (as stars) are talking about these topics it will help it to become mainstream.”

It was 2008 when suicide directly impacted O’Driscoll. He was set to tour New Zealand and Australia with Ireland when he learned that his close friend Barry Twomey had tragically taken his own life. The dark place memories of that time haven’t left him. “I didn’t miss the tour, I was late down to it, but it [Twomey’s suicide] had a big impact on me for a number of years.

“It’s not something you can ever look back and think you are over because when someone close to you, particularly in those circumstances where there were no signs in advance, it’s very hard to make head nor tail of it but that makes it all the more important to even those that appear to be great and the life and soul of the party, they still need to be asked are they okay, are they doing well.

“People put on a front so often that there is an expectation for them to behave a particular way. That is where good friends come in, where good teammates come in and make sure that you are doing okay and reinforce asking whether you are alright. If you scratch the surface sometimes people are ready to tell you exactly what they want to get off their chest.

“I subsequently talked it [the suicide] through with someone. It was not specifically just about that incident. I never went for counselling around it but I probably in hindsight could have done with that, probably could have done with going and just getting it off my chest.

“I’d imagine I did probably talk to my wife an awful lot about it so there was a version of pencilling in that. I guess I am lucky that she will give me good advice, not impartial but will steer me in the right direction. But not everyone has that person.”

Does O’Driscoll feel that the ultra-macho culture of the rugby dressing room has mellowed as a consequence of some players finally finding the courage to let it all out if they are mentally feeling not so well? “I haven’t been there for a number of years but I definitely feel there is a lot more empathy and emotional intelligence in coaching set-ups that I have been privy to and that showing your vulnerability, even saying that you have a head knock, that you are not right is okay.

“Fifteen years ago you would never have done that but now it is commonplace where players are taking themselves away for the betterment of their health and that is what mental health is about. Mental health is intrinsically linked to physical health and you have to do the best for yourself as to what is going to make you happy. There is a long time beyond professional sport to be living and not be miserable.”

What O’Driscoll does to help keep his own mental health in check is to exercise on a daily basis, to get that hit-out he used to have in his decade-and-a-half as a rugby professional. “I try and do an hour a day,” he revealed. “Today I am travelling and was gone out of the house at half five (in the morning). I’ll go to the hotel later on and if I get 15, 20 minutes (in the gym) or sometimes even just a walk, it is not always vigorous exercise.

“It’s something that feels as though I have got a sweat up and endorphins are being released, that is such an important part of what I do now. Even when I go away for a break I try to find a good gym close by where I know that I am going to get my outlet.”

One of the revelations mined during the film by Sadlier’s matter-of-fact questioning is that O’Driscoll abhors mediocrity and would never want to do something badly post-rugby, yet he accepts that he will always be known as a rugby player first and that everything else will be secondary no matter what he goes on to achieve in the rest of his post-playing life.

“I’m lucky that I have got five or six different areas that keep me interested and no two weeks are the same, no two days are the same, but you are always trying to improve. Would I say I am a world-class pundit, am I as good a pundit as I was a rugby player? Probably not but you aspire to work hard and improve your performance and get days when you might be world-class or you say world-class things or you add value to people’s experience.

“I’m not saying that I have to be world-class to the levels that I achieved as a rugby player but I definitely won’t be happy with mediocrity or my own perception of mediocre performance, that will never be something that will sit well.

“When you are made a particular way you are always looking for the next hit, the next win, the next success and so sometimes you need to be reflective, to be able to look back and go do you know what, they were good times and I’m pretty thankful with what I have managed to achieve and do.

“In all likelihood, I am going to be recognisable for what I did on a rugby pitch rather than what I do after it, that is the reality of it. And so it is easiest to connect yourself to people the way that I think you will see yourself perceived.

“You’d be hopeful that there would be other things that you might achieve given time that will get a paragraph below the international rugby player but if it isn’t, if there aren’t, that’s not the end of the world. In those 15 years, I packed a lot in and I did as well as I could and left nothing behind. You don’t get to achieve everything you want to achieve but that’s life.”

  • After The Roar, the latest in the BT Sport Films series, will premiere on Friday, September 9, at 10pm on BT Sport 1

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