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'You have to treat it like a business. You're a commodity. There's no favours out there'

Former Ireland and Ulster lock Dan Tuohy has been forced to retire from rugby.

AFTER BEING HELPED off the pitch in Vannes in sheer agony, with the humerus bone in his left arm broken, Dan Tuohy promised his wife that this was it.

His professional rugby career was over.

Five months on, the 34-year-old former Ulster and Ireland international is beginning to get some function back into his left arm and hand. He’s now able to control his wrist but Tuohy still can’t raise his thumb or point his fingers.

irelands-dan-tuohy Dan Tuohy won 11 caps for Ireland.

Gripping and even typing are beyond him due to the radial nerve damage. The medical experts insist those things will come with time, but any kernel of an idea Tuohy had about one last hurrah on the pitch has been completely quashed. He’ll be sticking to the promise he made to his wife, Keely.

“I said to her, ‘We’re not doing this anymore, I promise this is my last game and you don’t have to see me like this again,’” explains Tuohy.

“To tell you the truth, it would be selfish. If I insisted on playing again, I could re-injure the nerve and I’d be paralysed, I would be handicapped for the rest of my life. She’s the one who would have to pick up the pieces.

“For a large period of time, I couldn’t change my daughter’s nappy because my hand was limp, I was getting shit all over my hand. My wife had to do everything. She had to cook, she had to clean, she had to change my daughter’s nappy, everything you take for granted, she had to do for me. It’s not fair for her. For what? An extra 10 or 20 games?

“I’m not earning hundreds of thousands a year. It was an easy decision really.”

Tuohy announced his retirement in an open, honest statement on Twitter last week, bringing down the curtain on a career that saw him play for Ireland 11 times, as well as spending seven years with Ulster and also playing for Gloucester, Exeter, Bristol, Leicester, Stade Français and – for his final two seasons – Vannes in the French Pro D2.

Tuohy has many brilliant memories in the game but he has a different perspective on what it really means to be a professional rugby player who isn’t a superstar. 

In his retirement statement, Tuohy shared his fear that rugby “is starting to look rotten from its core,” and he explains that much of that feeling stems from the recent financial cuts the RFU made to the second-tier English Championship.

“There are players getting £25,000 per game for playing Tests for England and half of them have played in the Championship,” says Tuohy. “That’s per player for each game, times five in the Six Nations, you’re holding that from other people.

dan-tuohy-dejected Tuohy played for Ulster 136 times. Source: Matt Mackey/Presseye.com

“It is heartbreaking for those guys in the Championship, I feel sorry for them. Some of them have kids and they’re going to go from getting paid £25,000 a season down to £15,000 or £10,000.

“If you’re in your mid-20s, being paid £15,000 with pretty much zero medical cover, you would be mad, mad, to play rugby. You should just go on the beers, play National Three, get a different job and enjoy yourself, get paid £500 a game.

“It’s not fair, it’s not fair. It’s not the England players’ fault they’re getting paid £25,000 a grand but it’s the prawn sandwich brigade. Who’s sticking up for the 100s of players in the Championship?”

A native of Bristol who grew up in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, Tuohy qualified for Ireland through his Tipperary-born grandfather, who moved to England in the 1950s to work in a nuclear power plant.

Tuohy wasn’t on England’s radar as a youngster and was instead identified by the IRFU’s Exiles programme, leading towards playing for the Ireland U21s in 2006.

“Look, I would consider myself foreign but not as foreign as a three-year residency player, if that makes sense,” says Tuohy. “I’m not going to lie to you – I’m a massive football fan and I supported England growing up.

“Ireland has always been important in our family but to say I grew up thinking of playing for Ireland, it’s not something I really thought of. But the Exiles showed that interest in me.”

Tuohy earned a rugby scholarship at Hartpury University and was brought onto the books at Premiership club Gloucester, but he was on Ulster’s radar from early on.

The Irish province’s first move for him, when Tuohy was still on a £15,000 contract in his second year with Gloucester, failed but after he spent a year with Exeter in the Championship, he moved to Ulster in 2009 and ended up Tuohy staying with Ulster until 2016, winning 136 caps and playing in their 2012 Heineken Cup final and 2013 Pro12 final defeats as they agonisingly never took the last step to earn silverware.

Tuohy loved playing with the likes of Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar, and John Afoa during what he feels were the peak years of his career, but also admits that he found the sackings of head coaches Brian McLaughlin and then Mark Anscombe hard to swallow.

irelandos-dan-tuohy Tuohy last played for Ireland in 2015.

“It was really disappointing for me to see Brian take the team to the Heineken Cup final and get sacked straight away after. Me and McLaughs weren’t super-similar people but he was a really good guy, looked after me, knew which buttons to push and had my back. That was really disappointing.

“Mark, again, was a great bloke, a really good fella, and for him to get the sack… I was driving in for the first day of pre-season and he was driving out. He’d just arrived back from New Zealand and he’d been sacked that morning, the first day of pre-season.

“That was when I started really learning that rugby is a business. A coach takes an Ulster side to the Heineken Cup final and then gets chopped, then the decision against Saracens at Ravenhill [when Jared Payne was sent off in the 2014 Heineken Cup quarter-finals] – who knows where we would have gone that year?

“Mark gets chopped as well and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Right, this is starting to resemble football a little bit.’ That was tough.”

Tuohy’s Ireland debut came in 2010 against New Zealand, where he also started all three Tests on the 2012 tour, when Declan Kidney’s side could and possibly would have won the second game if there hadn’t been a harsh late penalty call against them from Nigel Owens.

“If my uncle didn’t have balls, he’d be my aunty. It’s one of those things,” says Tuohy before recalling the 60-0 defeat in the final Test.

“The scoreline was going up quicker than the clock at one stage and I’m thinking, ‘Fuck me, they’re playing a different game here.’ It was like U15s against men. We’d played a long season, we were fucked, and we had no chance that day.”

In and out of the squad, it wasn’t until 2014 under Joe Schmidt that Tuohy played for Ireland in the Six Nations and actually on Irish soil. His Test career concluded with his 11th cap in 2015, when he missed out on World Cup selection, and he admits to regrets.

“I’ve had loads of messages from people saying I should be proud of my career. I got 11 caps and a few other non-capped games but, truly, I should have pushed on for 25 or 20 caps, hand on heart.

“If I’m being honest, my attitude towards Ireland camp could have been better. Sometimes I would be in good form with Ulster and I thought to myself, ‘I should be playing for Ireland.’ When I wasn’t selected, I don’t think I reacted how I really should have done. I should have knuckled down, continued that form and forced my way in.

dan-tuohy-replaces-paul-oconnell Tuohy replaces Paul O'Connell for Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“You’ve got no God-given right to play for Ireland. When you get that taste of it, you want it so badly and I wasn’t consistent enough.”

Tuohy says the way his Ireland career ended stung. He admits to having come into the pre-World Cup camp in 2015 a few kilos overweight and struggling with an Achilles tendon injury, so had no major gripe with not making the World Cup after a “terrible” performance in the warm-up game against Scotland, but felt let down when he thought he was the injury cover in the second row.

“I wished Joe all the best when he phoned me and told him I’d stay fit so that I’d be ready to go. When Paulie [O'Connell] got injured against France, I was expecting a phone call but one of the boys who was in camp in Cardiff texted me to say Mike McCarthy [who was already in Wales for a Leinster game] had just come in.

“I never got a phone call from anyone at the IRFU and it was like a dagger to the heart. I would have appreciated it. It was tough to take and it was embarrassing because I thought I’d been on standby.”

Having finished with Ulster in 2016, Tuohy had spells with Bristol and Leicester before moving to France to join Stade Français as a medical joker.

It was Top 14 rugby but Tuohy was stunned by some of his team-mates’ approach to training.

“I remember players ducking in and out of the gym and I would be thinking, ‘Where the fuck are they going?’ They’d come back in stinking of cigarettes and I was like, ‘Surely not?’

“Boys would be having fags during gym sessions. Heinke van der Merwe, who was at Leinster before, just told me, ‘It’s part of what they do.’ It was incredible, so I learned to take care of myself in Stade.”

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He moved on to Vannes – a town in Brittany in northwestern France – in 2018 and had a superb first season with the developing club, playing 26 times and being made captain last summer.

Tuohy had a feeling this campaign would be his final one but that horrific humerus injury denied him the goodbye he had imagined and hoped for.

dan-tuohy-dejected-after-the-game Tuohy in Leicester colours in 2017. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

As he mentioned in his statement last week, the injury also left him in the memorable situation of being given ketamine as a painkiller at the hospital in France.

“It absolutely blew my head off,” recalls Tuohy.

“There was morphine at the stadium but then at the hospital, they needed to do an x-ray. My tricep muscle was up near the top of my shoulder, it was all mangled. The bone wasn’t coming through the skin but you could see it and it wasn’t pretty.

“I was refusing to move it, it was too much pain. The morphine wasn’t doing enough. I told them they would have to put me out to move the bone. It was Friday night and I had to get through until Monday to have the surgery.

“I didn’t even know but they put the ketamine in me. I came to on the bed, my arm was back in, they were wheeling me through the hallway.

“I was looking up at the ceiling and all the tiles were moving and I was like, ‘Fucking hell! I felt in a great place.’ I thought I knew all the secrets of the world and I was giggling to myself that I couldn’t tell everyone these secrets. When I was finally able to speak, they told me they had given me ketamine and I just thought ‘Fuck me!’”

With his left arm slowly but surely recovering, Tuohy is starting to come to terms with no longer being a rugby player.

He has done some coaching courses and Vannes are keen to keep him on board, while Tuohy and his wife are also weighing up possible moves back to Ireland or over to the US, where Major League Rugby is quietly growing.

The immediate priority is being with his two kids and enjoying this summer in Brittany. 

Looking back on his journey from being “a skinny 19-year-old from Weston-super-Mare” to playing against the All Blacks, Tuohy is keen to stress that he enjoyed so much of his career.

dan-tuohy-tackles-sam-whitelock Tuohy grapples with the All Blacks' Sam Whitelock. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

But he has a realistic view of what being a professional rugby players means too, returning to what it is that makes him feel like the game has changed for the worse.

“I’m finished now, I’m 35 in June and I’ve done it.

“It’s a tough job, you sacrifice a lot and have to be very selfish, but I can’t just sit here and bag rugby the whole way through. It is a really good job when it’s good.

“It’s taught me lessons that will help me be a better person, how to be a team-mate and how to be a man. For a large, large proportion of it, I’ve loved it.

“But you have to treat it like a business.

“You’re a commodity and you have to get past thinking anyone will do favours for you. There’s no favours out there.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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