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Ryan Caldwell on the training ground punch that nearly took his life

By Ian Cameron
Ryan Caldwell of Bath looks on during the Aviva Premiership match between Harlequins and Bath Rugby at Twickenham Stoop on March 24, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Ireland legend Paul O’Connell described the incident as the worst moment in his career in his autobiography and now his former teammate Ryan Caldwell – the recipient of a near-fatal punch in 2007 – has given his account of the story.

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Caldwell played for Ulster, Bath and Exeter in a career that came to an end at the age of 30 in 2014. The 6’7, 112kg second row won two caps for Ireland but it was a freak incident in an Ireland training camp in 2007 that left many who witnessed it traumatised.

Writing in his 2016 autobiography, the 6’6, 111kg O’Connell said the episode was a turning point in his own career regarding on-pitch brawling, which had been very much part of his repertoire up to that point.

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“In training, I continued getting into scraps, until the day in 2007 when I realised that a lot of us had become so powerful through lifting weights that a single punch could hurt someone badly,” wrote O’Connell in The Battle.  “It happened at an Ireland camp before the World Cup, when Eddie (O’Sullivan) was close to naming his squad for France. We were training at the University of Limerick and Ryan Caldwell, the Ulster second-row, was trying to make an impression.

“He’d been spoiling rucks all week, making a nuisance of himself. That was all fair enough – he was like me at the same age – but when he put me on the floor with a tackle in a non-contact session my went and I got up and threw a punch.

“I didn’t think I hit him too hard, but my right hand struck the side of his face and he went down, unconscious. What I didn’t know then was that one of his teeth had burst his cheek and he was swallowing a lot of blood.

“The rest of us had to move away when the team doctor, Gary O’Driscoll, rushed over to him.

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“I kept looking over, from a distance, and the situation just kept getting worse and worse. Gary was trying to resuscitate him and he had blood all over his mouth. He was roaring for an ambulance. Then he started cutting the jersey off Ryan.”

Ryan Caldwell
Ryan Caldwell (Getty Images)

The incident left O’Connell devastated, with the Ireland great fearing that he had inadvertently taken his teammate’s life.

“I was shaking by the time the ambulance came to take him away. I was starting to fear the worst, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking that. The ambulance drove off and Eddie came across the pitch towards us.

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“‘What’s the story?’, I asked him.

“The story is, you nearly killed him”.

Paul O'Connell
Paul O’Connell following a game against Toulon in 2014

Luckily for O’Connell – and more pointedly Caldwell – the medical staff took him to hospital and stabilised his condition.

“I was absolutely devastated that I’d put a fellow player in hospital with a punch, someone who was only trying to put down a marker in a training session,” admitted O’Connell.

“The first guy to console me was Neil Best, one of Ryan’s teammates at Ulster and a good friend of his. He said: ‘You didn’t mean for that to happen.’

“It was very decent of him, and I remember John Hayes being supportive too when the horror of the situation was at its worst, but back in my room at the Castletroy Park Hotel I was disgusted with myself, embarrassed and in tears when I called Dad. Eddie came to the room, and talking about it helped. Other guys rang me and I felt bad that they had to make the calls, but I appreciated them too.”

O’Connell visited Caldwell in hospital to make his amends and the Ulsterman graciously accepted his apology, acknowledging that the Munsterman hadn’t wished to cause the damage that he did.

Seven years after the punch, Caldwell’s life took a dark turn after his professional rugby career ended due to ongoing problems with his hips and repeated concussions. He turned to drugs – both consuming and selling them – and found himself imprisoned in Northern Ireland as a result of his lifestyle.

His career in Belfast’s underworld led him to the point of attempting to take his own life.

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He has since turned his life around and is now running a business in Belfast called Inner Evolution – where he teaches people meditation and breath work. He is now a Kambo practitioner, having come full circle from the violent and murky lifestyle he had been living just a few years ago.

Now in a wide-ranging interview with the Irish Times, Caldwell has given his side of the story of the incident with O’Connell, admitting that he never truly dealt with the trauma of the incident that day in 2007.

“That is a trauma that I never addressed. That punch,” Caldwell told journalist Jonathan Drennan. “I didn’t know what had happened, I was knocked out cold, so I didn’t know the whole story until other people like Rory [Best], Stephen Ferris and people like that told me what had happened.

“I wasn’t even looking at him when the punch landed, I was completely facing the other way.

“I understand tempers rise and it’s all in the past now, but it was a complete trauma.

“I had to be resuscitated on the side of the pitch because Paulie is a massive guy. So I woke up with my shirt cut the whole way open and them giving me CPR.

“Paulie came to the hospital after, I was 22 at the time, in my first camp with Ireland rugby.”

While it was devastating for O’Connell, it had an equally traumatising effect on Caldwell.

“I was obviously trying to keep myself right and saying ‘nah don’t worry about it’, even though inside I was like, ‘flipping hell, man, he nearly killed me today.’”

Caldwell’s life is now far removed from the at times macho world of professional rugby and he acknowledges that while the game gave him a lot, it also left him bereft when he career came to it’s inevitable end.

“There’s toxic masculinity in these rugby circles. It’s really bullshit. Then we’re carrying around all of this negative stuff, and we don’t know how to talk about it with our friends. Stuff like ‘man up’, all that. You can’t be vulnerable, because they just see it as a weakness.

“Rugby gave me a lot of good stuff and good times, but when it crashed, that was brutal, because I was so mentally into it. All of my life was in it.”

You can read the full Irish Times interview with Caldwell here.

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