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‘My first contract was for £32,000 – I’d have made more in McDonald’s’

Becoming a professional rugby player was meant to be David Corkery’s dream job. Instead it left his body ‘a car crash’ at 27.

Image: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

THE BEST PLACE to start is the hotel story. David Corkery was in South Africa, playing in the 1995 World Cup, swallowing the hype about the Rainbow Nation and then staring in disbelief as racism spewed from the man standing next to him.

“Get out,” this Afrikaner screamed at a black chambermaid as she entered the lift that Corkery was standing in. The young woman retreated, Corkery stunned by what he’d witnessed.

“They say that tournament symbolised a new South Africa,” Corkery says now, a quarter of a century later. “But I’m not sure.” It was only when he got back home, after Ireland had kept up their tradition of losing in the quarter-finals that he began to understand something about this life, how there are certain things the world wants to see, and a reality it would rather remain ignorant of.

South Africa ’95 provided sketches of idyllic scenes, the hand of Nelson Mandela resting gently on Francois Pienaar’s shoulder. Corkery looked at that Hollywood image and then remembered the South Africa he’d experienced, the nights out when locals handed in knives and guns rather than their coats at the cloakroom.

But back in Ireland no one wanted the truth to blot the copy of a fairy-tale.

There’s the public face and the private reality; often they are conflicting things.”

He’d learn all about that the hard way.

**

Playing for Ireland was a dream, a dream and its sad reflection. The Press named Corkery Ireland’s player of the tournament in South Africa and given his youth and ability, glory beckoned.

david-corkery-ireland-rugby-18111995 David Corkery in action for Ireland in 1995. Source: © INPHO/Billy Stickland

This was 1995, remember. Rugby’s old ideals were crumbling. Kerry Packer, the Australian media tycoon, was putting out feelers about creating a world league; letting players from each country know he was prepared to do business. In the lobbies of team hotels, senior players met and younger ones like Corkery heard the whispers. The going rate, he was told for this new venture, was £150,000-a-man. “Believe it when I see it,” he said.

He was right to be cautious. On £40-a-day expenses, he got back from South Africa to resume work as an insurance clerk on £6,000-a-year. So that August, when the IRB voted to switch to professionalism, he was ready to make the leap.

My first pro contract was worth £32,000,” he says. “I’d have made more working in McDonald’s but I wasn’t going to turn down the chance of giving it a shot.”

In every way, it made sense – financially, emotionally. “I was enthralled with the sport; I’d have done anything to play it,” remembering the sacrifices he made to do so.

Once, coming back from a broken ankle, he grew impatient with the recovery programme handed to him by the specialists. So he hobbled down to his father’s workshop, stuck his injured leg up on the table and cut through the plaster with a hacksaw, ‘then hopped onto the bike and cycled down to Cork Con for training.’

It all fed into the image he wanted to create for himself – that he could withstand pain like no one else. Emotionally, though, well that was a different story.

I’ve always struggled a bit with depression,” he says now. Hard words, softly offered. “It’s an ongoing thing; I have my moments.”

Way back then, life appeared perfect even though it wasn’t. Bristol offered him a contract and he moved across. The black dog travelled with him but he quickly learned how to hide the symptoms.

**

His physical blessings were his compensation. As a child he was bigger and faster than everyone else – a star on the Gaelic football and hurling pitches; but most at home on a rugby one. He was in cub rugby at Cork’s Old Christians from the age of six, always the best player on the team. “Any day I didn’t score five or six tries, I’d be annoyed with myself.”

It seemed like destiny that he’d play for his country, and he did, first at school level, then as an Under 21, finally, from 5 June 1994, for the senior Irish team. Twenty-seven times he played for Ireland, a cap for every year until injury forced his premature retirement. He’s angry there weren’t more.

“One day, around 1997, we turned up for training and David Erskine, Dylan O’Grady and Dion O’Cuinneagain were there. We were like, who are these guys, where do they come from, what do they do? And you know, it cost me a few caps, and it cost Anthony Foley, Denis McBride and Eric Halvey too.

david-erskine-30111997 David Erskine profited from 'the granny rule' to win three caps for Ireland in 1997. Source: © INPHO/Billy Stickland

“Caps are precious things to have, you know, so when you see guys come in – unknowns, and that is what these guys were – it left a very sour taste in all our mouths. I see young players in the provincial teams now and their dream is to play for Ireland. So it has to hurt when they see project players picked instead.

“I’m not saying they are bad players. Actually they are all very good pros, and we can learn a lot from them, but if you are asking me if I would prefer that Ireland didn’t have them, then the answer would be yes.”

His annoyance is brushed with sadness; the what-ifs, the lack of joined up thinking that prevailed in Irish rugby back then. “In five years as an Ireland player, I had four different head coaches,” he says. “We kept flipping from one set of ideas to another; one extreme to the next.”

Gerry Murphy, the man who gave him his debut in ‘94, was the first head coach he worked under. “A nice man, calm,” Corkery says. “Willie Anderson was his assistant. Willie carried a big stick at training. When you rucked, if you were high, you got a belt off it.

“Willie was proper old school; he and Gerry worked well together. They were two gentlemen, great guys. You’d do anything for them.” By the end of Murphy’s three seasons, the IRFU had a notion that they needed an outsider.

Enter Murray Kidd. “Different to Gerry in every way,” says Corkery. “He was coming from the New Zealand mentality, where pain and suffering really didn’t mean anything. That was kind of the norm. I remember the time there was a strike at training over insurance. Murray was bemused by this, stunned that players were revolting, that they wouldn’t train because of an insurance issue. There was a split in the camp but eventually we put the boots back on and trained.”

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Kidd was followed by Brian Ashton, who pledged to revolutionise the way Ireland played. Instead, a bad team became worse. “I didn’t like him,” says Corkery. “He didn’t have the type of personality the team needed then. His relationship with Pa Whelan (the team manager) was legendary. He would sit on one side of the bus, Pa on the other and they’d barely talk. That was very obvious to the players.

brian-ashton-ireland-rugby-training-1311997 Source: © Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“In fairness to Ashton, he had a good rugby brain but the mistake he made was that he tried to change Irish rugby overnight. He just couldn’t understand why forwards weren’t able to pass the ball and why backs were not able to hit rucks.

“We had a few guys who were very skilful but most of us were mullockers who did not understand the word continuity. Our skill level was not great. Today’s generation of Ireland players are on a different world.”

Like Kidd, Warren Gatland came from the other side of the world; he became Ireland coach in 1998. “He was a revolutionary but he could not understand why we were not bigger, stronger, why we were not spending more time in the gym. The truth is we were still amateurish. We were all on different programmes and diets.

“Anyway, I didn’t have a great personal relationship with Warren; I found him a small bit cliquey, he had his favourites, he’d enjoy his few pints and game of cards with the favourites. I didn’t drink – I still don’t. I’m not a very talkative person, either – but to give Warren credit, I enjoyed his coaching methods. His subsequent success has been hugely impressive. Ireland, back then, weren’t that professional.”

That’s saying something.

Back in 1994, at Brisbane’s Ballymore Stadium, a 20-year-old Corkery remembers walking past the Australian dressing room after the warm-up, spotting 15 oxygen bottles hanging from the wall “and all the Australian players underneath them with the oxygen mask on, obviously to increase their blood cells, so they wouldn’t get tired as quick.” Further down the corridor was the Irish dressing room. “We had a bowl of jelly beans on the floor.”

At least the sweets had turned up. In South Africa a year later, no one had bothered to pack the Vaseline for a scrum session. Nick Popplewell, Terry Kingston and Keith Wood looked at one another; then cast their eyes at a truck by the side of the training field. “That’ll do,” Popplewell said, before he got down on his knees and got a handful of grease from the axle of the truck’s wheel. “They were as black as coal miners by the end of that session.”

If only the farce started and ended with a bag of sweets and tub of Vaseline. The much bigger issue was the toll the game took on the players’ bodies. Every now and then, Corkery would line out for Bristol in the English Premiership and then undergo a training session with Ireland the following day. “We were flogged,” says Corkery.

david-corkery-of-bristol-is-tackled Corkery sometimes had to train the day after a game with Bristol. Source: Getty/INPHO

And he paid the price.

“By the time I retired, my body was a car crash. I didn’t hold back. I played with broken fingers, trained with broken ribs. I took injections when my shoulders were killing me. You’d have understood all that if it was for a Five Nations game but I’d do it just to go training. By the end of my career, I was in bits.”

From a distance, it seems illogical, silly even. Yet we don’t know how it felt to enjoy and endure those spikes of adrenaline, what it meant to pull on that green shirt and represent your country. Sport is so trivial and yet it can mean so much.

“I look back and know that certain players had more skill in their baby toe than I had but they did not put in the same effort. I loved the game that much. The game left me battered. I ruptured both Achilles, had five operations on my left knee, broke most of my fingers, broke my forearm, had shoulders dislocated, suffered multiple concussions with no lay-off time.”

When eventually he couldn’t go on, the sense of numbness was devastating. The circumstances were cruel but no one seemed to care. “The phone stopped ringing,” he says, as the slide began.

“When you leave the family of rugby, you don’t know whether to go left or go right. I missed the laughs, the craic; the camaraderie. Win or lose, the atmosphere in the dressing room afterwards is so, so special. But when the lights went out on my career, everything changed. You are left swinging on your own. I sank a bit. I didn’t know what to do.”

Depression hit. It required the advice of a friend and the love and patience of his wife to aid his recovery.

I don’t have an issue in saying I still take medication. Depression is not something you take an antibiotic for and, with that, it is gone. It is a black dog, always there in the corner; it can appear every now and then. I cope because I keep myself very busy.”

Work has been kind to him, so too rugby. He coaches Sunday’s Well and writes a thoughtful and strong column for Cork’s Evening Echo. Not a fan of Joe Schmidt, he has been fair to Andy Farrell.

“It is far too early to judge him. Yes, they lost to England last weekend but I like the changes in Ireland’s play,” Corkery says. “We are braver, a work in progress. I am glad we are changing because it was so regimental under Joe, so predictable how they were going to play. I put €50 on Japan to beat Ireland in 2016, three years out from the World Cup. I knew they’d do it.” For his hunch, he became €2,000 richer.

He hasn’t seen the odds for today’s game against Georgia because, if he’s being brutally honest, he knows it is not that interesting a fixture. Other things such as the anthems –‘don’t get me started on Ireland’s Call’ – provoke a more passionate opinion. Project players, game-plans, coaching quirks, he has something to say on all these topics. He knows they’re important but only to a degree.

“Health matters most,” he says. “Even when I was playing, the constant worry about what if you get injured, what if you lose your contract, what if you lose form, that was always there. You were one injury away from nothing. I didn’t have the education to fall back on. You go from hero to zero in the flick of a switch, or as I would describe in a slip of a foot.”

He fought his way back, though. Work, family, his children, rugby, have been constants.

This story of peaks and troughs has had a happy ending.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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