Here it is! The 2014 Line-out.
September 5, 2014
‘Rugby Legends’ Do Mayo in Style
September 24, 2014

Last Sunday week I found myself aboard my racing bike. I should have left it in a hedge at Mizen Head last year for all the action it got since. The previous day it had taken me from Mizen Head to Kenmare over Caha Pass and into the arms of my room-mate Serge Betsen. What followed was horrific.

We climbed into bed at 6.30am that Saturday night/Sunday morning and 120 minutes later, missing breakfast, armed with bananas and Yorkees, found ourselves on Molls Gap. This is no place to be for your second cycle in a year – belly empty, bar the gallon-and-a-half Kenmare offered the night before; it was Betsen’s first cycle!
This horror afforded me time to think. Two recurring thoughts on this CROSS Cancer Research Rugby Legends cycle (crossrugbylegends.com) organised by Paul Wallace: what is a “legend”; and what’s the difference between “management and leadership?” Was I managing Molls Gap or was it leading me?

All four provincial coaches are already caught up in this delicate balance. Ulster have been managing their director of rugby and head coach situation, but who will step up to lead? The difference between the management and leadership is more than academic. How iconic players, all natural leaders manage the ever-changing coaching environment of controversy, injury and results will be fascinating and one this column will explore as the season evolves.

Then I recalled a real legend and his recent observation that the two things we take for granted in life are “time and health”.

Meanwhile, half way up Molls Gap the MND Ice Bucket Challenge came to mind. How much fun we’ve all had this summer pouring buckets of ice over ourselves with ladies electing to scream their way post-pouring and men in various state of undress (pending their six pack) manfully accepting their fate before all nominating.
Then I recalled a real legend and his recent observation that the two things we take for granted in life are “time and health”.

Joost van der Westhuizen, the Springbok legend is 16 months older than me and has for the past three years been living with the three worst letters in the alphabet: MND. His choices have been diminishing over those passing months, not unlike those of Donal Walsh from Kerry, the land of sporting legends. Walsh, like van der Westhuizen, chose to make an impact in life which has rippled far and wide. Take his father Fionnbar, who matched me toe-for-toe, by night and by day, and even followed me off the boards at Blackrock in Salthill, Galway in his Viviscal cycling shorts; beautiful, like a Greco-Roman wrestler is beautiful.

The sport of rugby is not unique in bringing so many together post-career, but it is in bringing international legends together. How Paul Wallace convinced double RWC (1991 and 1999) Wallaby-winning hooker Phil Kearns to tog out after what David Campese endured last year is testament to the Wallace vision and the power of CROSS cancer research. Alongside him was yet another hooker and legend, Springbok RWC-winning captain from 2007 John Smit. Hearing his Nelson Mandela stories was a privilege.

The highlights of this cycle were many. In Lisdoonvarna’s Ritz Bar, where Betsen clad in his Viviscal outfit, matchmaking in full flight, danced his way on to the floor and like an alien simply took what was his and danced with the women most unaccustomed with the French waltz. In Lisdoon old warriors embraced: Ginger McLoughlin, the legend that scored for Ireland in Twickenham was present; moments earlier in that rush for the English line, the legendPeter Winterbottom flattened Ollie Campbell as Campbell off-loaded to Willie Duggan. Well, 32 years later Winterbottom and McLoughlin were matched once more. This time in the world-famous matchmaking festival in Lisdoonvarna!

Later, after a lovely rest in Peacocks Hotel at Maam Cross with Connemara’s R335 road unfolding in front of us from Leenane around Ashleigh Falls, past Doo Lough and on into Louisburgh was majestic. That my grandmother hails from Louisburgh and my mother from Leenane has me slightly biased. And the welcome we received in SanctaMaria Secondary School in Louisburgh was off the charts. Yes the World Cup winners stood tall but Fionnbar Walsh stole the show. As all sat patiently Fionnbar rose and asked the first-year students to stand. They did so and Fionnbar told his son’s story.

“Donal was diagnosed with Osteo Sarcoma [bone cancer] in his tibia at the same age as you first years.” He then recounted Donal’s operation to give him a prosthetic knee and the nine months of chemotherapy before he came back to the playing field not as a trainer but as a coach.

Outside I met a young lad, Patrick Kitterick, serene in the madness of a school bursting with the excitement of “no homework” and iPhone’s clicking. There was but one thing to do and that was for me and Wallace to introduce him to his first lineout lift.

To see the smile on his face, the sun shining, the road behind us with miles ahead, I could not but help feel a gratitude and think of Donal when he said: “I’ve climbed God’s mountains, faced many struggles for my life and dealt with so much loss. And as much as I’d love to go around to every fool on this planet and open their eyes to the mountains that surround them in life, I can’t. But maybe if I shout from mine they’ll pay attention.”

What a legend.

liamtoland@yahoo.com