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'I was struggling to walk, hoping the pain would go away - it didn't'

Brian Scott faced a choice of risking his health or following his dream. Amazingly, the Munster man walked through the pain barrier for months before injury brought an end to the 27-year-old’s career.

Brian Scott celebrates with Ian Keatley.
Brian Scott celebrates with Ian Keatley.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

AS FAREWELLS GO, the moment could hardly have been stranger. Rugby players aren’t meant to leave this way, alone in their sitting room, staring into a labtop at familiar faces cocooning in their own private spaces. What’s even more unusual is how accustomed we have become to this new normal, chatting through Zoom, expressing emotion to friends without the reassurance that comes from being with them in the same room.

In Hollywood, you get a different ending. There, you see team mates form a guard of honour and hear the crowd sing your name as tearful relatives emerge from the shadows to offer a kindly hug. But in this new, uncertain era, there isn’t a perfect goodbye. All Brian Scott could do was speak into a computer and tell those listening what it meant to be their team mate.

You get a sense of that pride from the lead photo in this article. In a single frame, Scott’s face conveys joy, pain, determination and selflessness. He’s hugging Ian Keatley so tight that the out-half – a 14 stone, six footer – is temporarily lifted off the ground.

Now look at Scott’s back. The jersey he is wearing is numbered 18, a replacement’s number. This is November 2016, the international window when the A-Listers migrate to Carton House and the Brian Scotts get their moment in the sun. Except the sun doesn’t shine on a Friday night in an Irish winter. “Thomond Park was wet and it was mucky,” Scott says now. “And it was magical.”

Munster were just after beating the Maori All Blacks. Scott’s family were in the stands; the grandfather and parents who brought him to Bordeaux for Munster’s Heineken Cup semi-final win over Toulouse in 2000, then to the final at Twickenham three weeks later, to the John O’Neill game against Stade Francais in 2001 ‘and to so many other matches that I wouldn’t know where to start’.

Those memories came flooding back as did another more painful one. This time he was told he had the talent but not the fitness to make it into the Munster sub-academy; a sobering rejection that could have sent a teenager into a period of self-loathing but instead persuaded that 18-year-old to find a different way back. “I probably learned more about myself then than I did at any stage in my life,” Scott says. “I genuinely never gave up, always believing I could make it, that an opportunity would come again.”

It did. Anthony Foley was the one who gave him that, the same Anthony Foley who the Maoris had honoured before this game in 2016. Like so many others in that Munster dressing room, Scott was devastated by Foley’s death but when he looked around and saw the man’s family cry harder tears, he quietly stepped back into the shadows out of respect for what they were going through.

The emotion never left him, though. A voice in his head constantly told him Foley’s investment had to be repaid. Back in our imaginary Hollywood setting, payback is delivered in front of a raucous crowd in the final minute of a cup final. 

That day never came. Even so, there’s a quiet pride in what he did deliver, the ego-free mornings when the wind scattered a soft rain across the UL training field and the Brian Scotts in the Munster squad did their bit for the cause.

“Is there a way of describing what it is like to be a Munster player?” Scott asks. “I don’t think I can because it’s a feeling, it’s something inside, not something you can easily put words to. It’s about identity, about working hard, standing up for things, having a bit of courage.

I was a third choice player a lot of times. I know that. But I also know I was a team player and a lot of guys like me are like that. These are the guys who give everything all the time and it is right they are acknowledged because they’ll never leave you short.  

brian-scott-peter-mccabe-and-kevin-obyrne Brian Scott at Munster training with Peter McCabe and Kevin O'Byrne. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“These (players) do the same work that the ones who wear the jersey on a Friday night do. A lot of them have been in the (Munster) set-up for years – since they were 16 or 17 when they first played underage. It means so much to them even if they only get five or six games a season. If they got up to 13 or 14 games a year, well that would be considered a success.

“Yet they are there week after week, doing their bit. Say we were due to play Leinster at the weekend. Well, you need some guys to replicate the Leinster line out, to put a serious shift in at training and make sure the team is prepared properly. That’s what being a team player is about.”

Long, long ago, in a different sport and a different century, Eamon Dunphy wrote about players like that, dedicating his seminal autobiography, Only a Game, to ‘the good pro’.

Well, that’s Brian Scott.

Or rather that was Brian Scott.

After a decade-plus in the Munster system, capped first at under 16 level, through to a senior career where he played for the province 26 times, including that unforgettable win over Glasgow in the 2016 Champions Cup, Scott was forced to walk away from professional rugby last month.

He did so in a way that felt consistent with his personal values and understated manner, the deliverance of a statement being both unpretentious yet powerful, his passion screaming out of the lines on that page.

Within minutes his phone was buzzing. Some called, others texted, team-mates showing a compassionate side. At his lowest point, when he knew the battle to recover from the foot ligament injury was lost, he remembers getting out of the dressing room as soon as he possibly could. “For months, I was in pain,” he says. “But I kept the head down, didn’t say anything.

You don’t like showing you are weak or vulnerable in a dressing room full of lads.

“The consultant (who had operated on his foot) had said I would feel an element of pain. But what I was feeling was worse than just an element. There was a game there last November, I was playing for (Cork) Con, and I couldn’t finish it.

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“Coming off the pitch, I was struggling to walk. It took me a week to recover. I was hoping the pain would go away. But it just wouldn’t.”

Yet he never gave up. A December trip to see his consultant in London brought bad news. His foot wasn’t healing. Worse again, he heard something scary, that his foot was ‘unstable’.

Suddenly he was faced with a dilemma. His heart was saying play on and follow the dream, one forged on the Musgrave Park and Thomond Park terraces, later transferred from terrace to pitch.

Now he was on this dream-like path, how could he step away from it? Again he thought of Foley, of the Glasgow game on the day after his coach’s funeral, the noise from the stands that day and then the silence when the team circled together at the end to sing Stand Up and Fight with Axel’s two sons.

tony-and-dan-foley-sons-of-the-late-anthony-foley-sing-with-the-munster-players-after-the-game Munster players join Anthony Foley's sons, Tony and Dan, after the Glasgow game in 2016. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There was the memory of how they stuck together throughout that crisis, reaching a Pro12 final and Champions Cup semi. And then there was his identification as a Munster man.

So the feeling in his heart proved more powerful than the pain in his foot, even though he’d started to walk with a slight limp after training and matches. The surgeons were advising him to think about his long-term future. And he did. “Of course, I had to respect their advice and respect the fact that I could have a serious problem for the rest of my life. I’m not reckless.” 

But he is a competitor. So he didn’t stop, deciding over Christmas to give it one more shot, to go back for further rehab, almost a year to the day since the injury became part of his life.

Six weeks later, he was back in London, sitting again in the consultant’s chair. This time the advice was unambiguous. “Brian, I think you should retire.”

He travelled home alone that day but it was only that evening when the enormity of those words hit home.

“You don’t think this will happen to you at 27. I always felt I’d get back and even then, after hearing the consultant’s words, I was thinking, ‘do I call it now? Or do I try again’?”

He tried again. Six further weeks of rehab were endured ‘just to make sure I’d looked at every possible way back’.

“The irony was that physically I probably looked in better condition than ever but in reality my foot was unable to withstand the pressure I was putting it through; I couldn’t get through a game or a training session without suffering.”

Eventually he made the call. 

“It’s just hard to say those words: I am retiring. You don’t want to do it. But in the end, when I made my decision, I actually felt a lot better.”

Word travels fast in rugby. His phone started ringing. “People were quick to say, ‘don’t forget you did stuff, that you have a lot to be proud of’.  And I am. And one of the things that means most to me is that it has been a one club thing for me. I wondered at times if I could have gone elsewhere and played more often but I’m happy to say that Munster was my club.”

His one and only.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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