When reality meets resilience: why Cian Bohane quit professional rugby at 25

“People talk about living the dream, but what dream are we talking about here?”

Cian Bohane Cian Bohane Source: James Crombie/INPHO

EVEN AFTER HE had informed them of his decision, some of Cian Bohane’s peers still weren’t convinced. His own mind was made up, but others still had their doubts.

Taken aback, Munster’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus advised the 25-year-old to give it more thought. Andrew Conway joked that it was nothing more than a negotiation tactic.

“You’re pulling the biggest stroke ever here,” said Conway, one of Bohane’s colleagues in the Munster backs division. “You’re not retiring. You’re just trying to get the numbers up on a new contract.”

Although he didn’t announce that his professional rugby career was over until last season concluded, Cian Bohane had been contemplating the decision since the 2016-17 campaign began.

A new season starts for Munster next Friday, which will also mark one year to the day since one of Bohane’s closest friends officially quit the game. Johnny Holland was also just 25, but their reasons for leaving rugby behind were vastly different.

Back in January, Holland told us about the difficulty of coming to terms with being forced to retire when he appeared to be on the verge of his big breakthrough with Munster. An injury took the decision out of his hands. Bohane has cut his career short of his own volition.

“What got the ball rolling was when Johnny retired. I’d be very close to Johnny, we came up together through the system. When he told me he was retiring, I know it sounds weird but I actually told him I was a bit jealous,” Bohane explains.

“He didn’t understand what I meant obviously, but I was jealous because I felt like he was getting his life back in a way. When you’re starting to think like that, you really just have to question why you’re doing it anymore and if you have the motivation to keep doing it. Professional rugby is a dog-eat-dog world and you’re not going to survive if you have those doubts.

Cian Bohane with fans Meeting Munster fans at Musgrave Park. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“Johnny felt differently about his rugby career but he understood where I was coming from, which was a testament to him. He was able to put his personal feelings to one side to understand my thinking on it. He agreed that I had to do what was right for me, which is the sign of a good friend. I felt for him massively, which is why it was hard to say it to him when I eventually made the decision.”

Bohane’s life was consumed by rugby for the best part of eight years. Even though he claimed in interviews that being a professional player had always been his dream — “you’d nearly feel obliged to lie about it” — that prospect didn’t become tangible until he joined Dolphin after finishing his education at PBC in Cork, with whom he reached the semi-finals of the Munster Schools Senior Cup in 2009.

“I wanted to be a doctor but I realised very quickly that I wasn’t smart enough,” he laughs. “The thought of going into a professional rugby set-up was alien to me. I just didn’t think it was a possibility until Ian Sherwin, the Munster academy manager at the time, sent me an e-mail. I actually rang him afterwards and asked him if he meant to send it to someone else. It was only then that professional rugby became an objective.”

At the age of 21, Bohane made his senior debut for Munster in a Pro12 fixture with Zebre in May 2013. His progress continued gradually until he sustained a serious knee injury in a pre-season game against London Irish in August 2014. The problem kept him sidelined for a year, but it was another six months before he was at full tilt again.

Last season brought a few milestones which looked likely to provide him with reasons for optimism for his future: a first senior start, scoring the decisive try in an away win against Newport Gwent Dragons, and a captain’s role in Munster’s British & Irish Cup triumph. But Bohane could see a bigger picture.

To say that he was on the verge of becoming a regular starter would be an exaggeration. Having never looked out of his depth whenever opportunities came his way, Bohane occupied the space just beneath the peak of Munster’s pecking order. Not a bad position to be in, but a place where patience eventually runs thin.

The Cork-born centre was the type of guy Munster fans wanted to see more of, but with players of the calibre of All Black Francis Saili often restricted to a substitute’s role, Bohane was relying on international breaks and injuries to team-mates in order to get his chance.

After pushing himself for long enough, he took a step back and analysed his situation with brutal honesty. He was no longer prepared to allow his resilience to obscure his reality.

Cian Bohane lifts the trophy Bohane lifting the British & Irish Cup back in May. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Instead of being in contention for Munster’s season opener against Benetton Treviso next Friday, Bohane is preparing to begin a course at University College Cork. With a degree in strength and conditioning from Setanta College already under his belt, UCC represents the next step on the road to becoming a PE teacher.

“It’s easier said than done, but you have to step outside the bubble and look at your situation objectively,” Bohane says. “I was 25 years old. Was I a starter? No. Was I going to become a starter? You need to have humility when responding to that — and the answer again was no.

“There were options abroad, but going to the second tier in England or France just wasn’t appealing. If I was a bit younger, maybe, but not now. My girlfriend has a good teaching position here in Cork so I think it would have been selfish in one way if I had done that. I knew I needed to do this course anyway. PE teaching is what I’ve wanted to do for a while now.

“There were a lot of other factors to weigh up too and this was the direction that made the most sense. I could have kept slogging it out for another three or four years, but for what?

“Financially it’s good while it lasts, but in the long run that financial gain doesn’t mean that much. Certainly it doesn’t for someone in my position anyway, or for 95% of professional rugby players who aren’t guaranteed starters at the highest level. It’s a unique decision but it’s one I’m certain is the best thing for myself.”

He adds: “I think I did get the opportunities. When you’re in the middle of it, you’ll be asking yourself why you’re not getting a chance. But I look back now much differently. I started against Edinburgh last season but did I really put my hand up and make myself a serious option for the coaches? No. I did grand, but I didn’t do enough.

“It was the same in all the appearances I made. You need to have an inspired game when you get a chance if you want to give yourself an extended run in the team and acclimatise to that level.

“The best players will play out of their skin when they get the chance. They’ll have that inspired performance, they’ll get to that required level and that’s why they stay in the team and go on to have good careers.

Cian Bohane and Simon Zebo On the training ground at the University of Limerick with Simon Zebo. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Is there a bit of good fortune involved too? Massively so. For example, if Dougie Howlett hadn’t blown his achilles out, Zeebs [Simon Zebo] wouldn’t have gotten his chance. That’s obviously not to say that Zeebs wouldn’t have gone on to do what he has done, but that’s the window of opportunity you need.

“Rory [Scannell] got his opportunity when James Downey left. I got injured in that pre-season and Denis Hurley was suffering with an injury too. Rory was brought in and he performed. You do need that good fortune, but the better players will take those opportunities and adjust quicker. That’s why they’re the better players.

“People might say it’s a defeatist attitude but I just wasn’t one of those players. You have to be realistic about it. I was always confident of doing a job, but I don’t think I was ever going to light it up as a starter at provincial level.

“The talk was starting about JJ [Hanrahan] coming back and Chris Farrell coming in as well. Then you also have younger guys like Dan Goggin and Sammy Arnold. People can say that I’m not backing myself, but believe me, I backed myself for long enough. I really, really did. Taking it all into account, I just felt the writing was on the wall in terms of my prospects of going to that next level.”

Initially at least, Bohane’s decision didn’t meet with widespread approval and understanding. Going against the grain by walking away from professional rugby at a relatively young age was a courageous and mature call which he made for the benefit of his long-term career prospects. Tom Gleeson, another ex-Munster centre, provided a measure of inspiration five years earlier.

“Tom called it a day off his own back at a similar age to me,” Bohane says. “He was fully fit and healthy but he just wanted to go off and study medicine. When I saw Tom doing that it nearly opened my eyes.

“I don’t know if it’s the same with other clubs or provinces, but with Munster there’s a real mindset that Munster is absolutely everything; that nothing else matters except for Munster and you have to be completely loyal to the province and the team. But if the province isn’t doing right by you, why should you have to suffer because of that mindset?

“When Tom left I think I was in the sub-academy at the time. I actually told myself that if I get to that age and I’m not in the position I want to be, I’d like to think I’d make that call too. I never liked the thought of slogging away into my 30s and then asking myself what I have left to show for it.

Cian Bohane Bohane on the charge against Edinburgh in his first start for Munster. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Making a great career out of the game, it just doesn’t happen for a lot of people. I think the bravest thing anyone can do is accept that it’s not the be-all and end-all. When you’re in there with Munster, from the youngest player to the oldest, being a professional rugby player is absolutely everything. And I understand that because I was once in that mindset too.

“The younger players, like the lads in the sub-academy and the academy, they understand more why I’ve done it than the lads on the higher pay-scale. Like Earlsy [Keith Earls], he came up to me a few weeks after I told Rassie. He was like: ‘What the hell are you doing? What’s the reason behind it?’

“I’m fully aware that the lifestyle can be incredible when you’re basically doing your hobby as a job, but at the end of the day you’re slogging it out to get into a team and you’re mentally torturing yourself when you try to work out why you haven’t managed it.

“I actually spoke to students at Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa last year about the lifestyle, and the perception versus reality. Pictures on Instagram might make it look like it’s amazing, but you don’t see that dark side to it where the chance you crave never seems like it’s going to come. You get a small taste of it but then it’s taken away again. It’s like teasing a dog with a bone.

“That’s why I think the younger lads understand my decision more, because they’re doing the same slog for pittance. It’s the older, more established lads who are setting themselves up for life and playing every week, they’re the kind of lads who don’t understand why anyone would want to give it up.”

Bohane adds: “When you’re in that Munster environment, Munster is the only thing you’re ever allowed to think of. If you do decide to move to a different club, you’re nearly shunned by the senior players.

“It’s only when you get older you realise that while the senior players talk about doing it for the love of the club, they’re also the ones going off and getting contract offers from other clubs to bump up their own price when they’re negotiating a new contract with Munster. That’s fine too because they’re looking after themselves at the end of the day.

“But based on my experiences, that’s the main piece of advice I’d give to other players. Don’t fall into the trap that Munster is the be-all and end-all. Don’t be afraid to leave. Don’t be afraid to go to a different club. If there’s a better offer from somewhere else, don’t take the lowball offer just because it’s your home team. Do what’s best for your career.”

His days are done with Munster, but Bohane isn’t going entirely cold turkey with the game. In addition to assisting Kinsale head coach Wayne Falvey, he’ll be back playing amateur rugby for UCC in Division 1B of the Ulster Bank League. For now at least, cutting himself loose from the professional environment hasn’t caused any withdrawal symptoms.

“I had a coffee with [Munster and Ireland prop] James Cronin a few weeks ago and he asked me if I was missing it. Hand on heart, I haven’t regretted the decision for a single second since I made it,” Bohane says.

“I actually thought there would be a fear factor that would cause some doubts, but there genuinely hasn’t been. I have no yearning for it at all. The training with UCC is giving me enough of a fix anyway because I still love playing the game.

“People always say you have to be selfish in rugby — which is quite ironic in a team game — but I took that advice in the end. I gave enough of my life to rugby and I made enough sacrifices for it. You come to a stage where you have to look after your future in a manner that works for you, not anyone else.

“There are countless examples of people who have been in my position but kept going, whether it was through a fear of losing friends, not being part of the lifestyle or the thought of giving up that professional rugby player status. That would be an immature approach, in my eyes.

“I have complete peace of mind and I’m certain that won’t change. I’m 100% confident that the decision I made is the right one for me.”

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