Dublin: 18°C Tuesday 19 October 2021
Advertisement

'It's an unbelievable privilege to play professional sport, but there are ups and downs'

Brendan Macken has retired at the age of 29 after a career with Leinster, Wasps, and London Irish.

Macken playing for Wasps against his native Leinster in 2016.
Macken playing for Wasps against his native Leinster in 2016.

IN THE END, Brendan Macken feels lucky he spent the last year of his rugby career injured. The slow conclusion allowed the 29-year-old to ready himself for the next chapter and he’s thankful he avoided the sudden ending others are confronted with.

Nearly 50 caps for his native Leinster, Premiership rugby with Gloucester, Wasps, and London Irish, as well as representing the Ireland U20s and Emerging Ireland – the Dublin native reflects on his time in the game with fondness. 

He retires with some lingering nerve damage in his shoulder – an issue that meant an option to play on in France would have come with an injury clause akin to a sword of Damocles.

“It meant that even if I stubbed my toe and missed training for a week, that it was done, contract gone,” explains Macken.

He could have waited – hoping the injury would fully heal and then looking for a deal – but with a new job in finance lined up, Macken has decided to pull the plug on his rugby career. Happily settled in the UK and with a 16-month-old daughter, it’s time to move on.

“I have a family now and I didn’t really want to go to France, to be honest. My fiancée, Jane, has a good job here. This was always in my mind, even before I got injured.

“Once that happened, I knew I was in trouble, then the pandemic hit and I was in big trouble but it didn’t all just happen over two weeks.”

When he was at Wasps, Macken lived with an excellent young player named Sam Jones who suffered a horror knee and ankle injury at an England training camp and was forced to retire. Jones told Macken to get his life after rugby sorted before he actually had to.

In 2018, Macken contacted a company called David James Wealth and asked if he could come in one day a week to learn the ropes, putting his Accounting and Finance degree into use. As soon as he injured his shoulder in November 2019, Macken ramped up his involvement with the company.

“I don’t think enough guys do it, especially in Ireland,” says Macken. “Some guys could be close to playing for Ireland or even going on a Lions tour and that’s all they’re thinking about. They’re not thinking about anything else but rugby. I see it over here as well, it’s scary.

“I’ve had friends who have been on good deals, playing well, but suddenly the club might tell them there’s no new contract for them. They’re suddenly on the phone to their dad and their dad’s friends looking for a job.

“No matter what level you’re at, you need to be thinking about what you’re going to do when you finish up.”

brendan-macken Macken during his time with Leinster. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Having made his plans, Macken isn’t feeling any sudden terror about being out of rugby. He’ll miss the social side of it and the warm feeling of happiness after winning a game, but he’s ready for what lies ahead.

Looking back, he doesn’t have regrets that keep him awake at night but he is very honest about what he achieved and how it could have been more.

A Leinster Schools Senior Cup winner with Blackrock College in 2009, Macken was highly-rated as a teenager. Many saw him as a future Ireland international. He remembers then-Leinster boss Michael Cheika arriving into the school one day and asking him to come to senior squad training soon before the 2009 Heineken Cup final.

Macken went straight into the Leinster academy that year and Cheika brought him on a pre-season tour of France, giving the 18-year-old his first taste of senior rugby. His competitive debut followed in 2010 and he played two years of Ireland U20s rugby. Macken reflects that it might have been too much too soon.

“You go to Blackrock and your hand is kind of held the whole way up and you’re told how great you are. I went straight into the academy in Leinster and probably believed my hype a bit more than I should have.

“Making my debut at 18, I thought I was a bit bigger than I actually was. In Dublin, people might build you up, you’re a Leinster player, you have a car with a Leinster sticker on it, the red carpet might be rolled out a bit when you’re on a night out.

“Hindsight is great but I probably wish I didn’t have any of that hype when I came out of school. At the end of the day, I will wholeheartedly say that I don’t think I fulfilled the potential that I had. That’s just because I thought I was a bit bigger than I was and that I had made it.”

Joe Schmidt came in as Leinster boss in 2010 and Macken admits “it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to realise I didn’t get on particularly well with Joe.” There was no hostility, Macken stresses, but he never felt Schmidt backed him to be the player he wanted to be.

“He wanted me to be crash, bang, and wallop, which wasn’t how I played. I liked using my pass but I was told not to throw miss passes.”

SEE SPORT
DIFFERENTLY

Get closer to the stories that matter with exclusive analysis, insight and debate in The42 Membership.

Become a Member

With Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy still playing in those years, opportunities were slim and though things improved for Macken when Matt O’Connor took over for the 2013/14 campaign – including his first two Heineken Cup starts – the centre realised during the 2014/15 season that it was time to leave.

“I had to grow as a person and a player,” says Macken. “I was still living at home back then, I was probably immature and I was an immature rugby player as well. 

brendan-macken-makes-a-break Macken was a schoolboy star for Blackrock College. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Don’t get me wrong, I still adored my time with Leinster. It was incredible to play with the players I played with, to be around when Leinster won trophies, it was amazing. But as a person, I definitely had to go and mature and thankfully I was able to do that.”

He joined Gloucester on a loan deal before a permanent move to Wasps in 2015 and enjoyed playing under Dai Young – who told Macken to go out and be himself.

Among the highlights was a 51-10 hammering of Leinster in January 2016, an emotional occasion for Macken. Beating Northampton in Franklin’s Gardens that same month was another as he delighted in Wasps’ ambitious attacking approach.

However, Macken’s three seasons with Wasps ended in frustrating circumstances as he was offered a new two-year contract only for his representatives at the time to suggest a better deal might come up.

Macken had been happy to go with the terms Wasps offered but his agent – who ended up serving a ban for betting - suggested there was a chance he could get a better contract from the club or even a move back to Ireland. They stalled.

“I didn’t go to speak with Dai, he didn’t come to speak with me, somewhere along the line Wasps thought I was leaving,” says Macken. “I was in good form around the club at the time, I was playing, I wasn’t going around like someone who was stressed about a contract.

“Then the agent got banned and I realised what was happening and tried to take the deal, but Dai just said, ‘We have filled the position, we thought you and Kyle Eastmond were both leaving, so there’s no room now.’

“It was a shame because I did love it there, I was really involved, had close friends there, and was looking to buy a house at the time. It ended up with me ringing up coaches asking for a job.”

Declan Kidney and Les Kiss brought Macken to London Irish and he helped them to promotion from the Championship in 2019 in what was an injury-hit season for him.

He was fully fit for the start of the 2019/20 season but his shoulder – which he had previously hurt at Leinster – was dislocated in a clash with Scarlets. 

The injury involved a nerve in Macken’s rotator cuff essentially switching off and though it slowly regained some function, allowing him to attempt a comeback with London Irish last year, it was a real struggle.

wasps-v-harlequins-aviva-premiership-ricoh-arena Macken celebrates a try with Christian Wade. Source: Joe Giddens

His last appearance in pro rugby was a 20-minute cameo off the bench against Harlequins in the Premiership last September, when he knew his body wasn’t right.

Macken has done some media work in recent times, including co-commenting for BT Sport on Munster’s comeback win over Clermont, and may have other opportunities to stay involved in the game.

“Rugby is a great career but you have to know what you’re getting into,” says Macken.

“It’s an unbelievable privilege to play professional sport, you have to enjoy that, but there are ups and downs – injuries, worries about contracts, not getting picked, the nerves of a Monday morning meeting.

“With the way I’ve retired, I’m lucky – as weird as that sounds. I had a year of injury to get organised. Some people don’t get that.” 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

Read next:

COMMENTS (5)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel