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Dublin: 19 °C Monday 22 July, 2019
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'Until your family is hit with adversity, we take everything for granted'

Ahead of Saturday’s Champions Cup final, Leinster’s James Tracy tells The42 about his sister’s illness and why working with MS Ireland is a cause close to his heart.

THE CHAMPIONS CUP final is looming large, so there is one item on the agenda when James Tracy answers the phone. It’s Thursday afternoon — nine days to go until Newcastle — and the Leinster squad have parted ways for a long weekend, before reconvening at their UCD base this morning for the serious business. 

With a two-week lead-in to their European showdown with Saracens, it has been an intensive four-day block for the players as they gear up towards the biggest game of their season, but preparations have, so far, gone well. 

“We’ve had a really good week and hopefully we can hit the ground running on Monday again,” Tracy says. “I think we’re in a good spot.”

James Tracy Leinster's James Tracy. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

We chat further about the mood in the camp, the possibility of starting in the final if Seán Cronin doesn’t recover in time, and Tracy’s own form in a year that has seen him feature in all eight of the province’s European games en route to St James’ Park, including a strong performance off the bench in the semi-final win over Toulouse.

All pertinent and interesting topics of conversation, in this week of all weeks. But a question about Tracy’s nomination for the Medal of Excellence award at the 2019 Zurich Players Awards brings us down a completely different path. No less relevant, far more significant than talk of form, fitness and training. 

“It’s an honour to be put forward for the award but it’s not really about awards,” Tracy begins. “Anyone would do it when you’re in this position and it’s so close to home. It’s just what you do.”

To gain a greater appreciation of the Leinster hooker’s charity work and the reasons behind his nomination for the award, we rewind to July 2015, a couple of months before Tracy enjoyed a breakthrough season at the province.

That summer, the Tracy family had their world turned upside down when James’ sister, Sara-Jane, a professional show jumper, received the shock and life-altering diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at just 28, a disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord that affects 9,000 people, and many more families, in Ireland. 

It was a deeply worrying and difficult time for Tracy, as his older sister underwent an intense bout of treatment, all the while the 28-year-old was enjoying his best run in a Leinster jersey, including a first start against Scarlets at the RDS in November 2015.

His focus and performances on the pitch were at odds with what his family were going through off it, an experience which opened Tracy’s eyes and put rugby, as clichéd as it sounds, in perspective. 

Seeing the effects the disease had on his sister and family, the Ireland international lent his support to MS Ireland — one of Leinster Rugby’s charity partners this season — and by becoming an ambassador for the charity, became a central figure in their #kissgoodbyetoMS campaign, raising vital funds and awareness of MS. 

“When it’s close to home, it makes you a lot more passionate about it,” Tracy tells The42. “It opened my eyes to it and I wanted to just get involved and give a bit of time to those who need it.

“Rugby players are privileged in a lot of ways and one of those privileges is that people are more likely to listen to you and you can have an effect on the world in small and big ways.

Screen Shot 2019-05-05 at 22.42.43 Tracy, his sister Sara-Jane and members of the Leinster squad promoting Organ Donor Week. Source: James Tracy/Instagram

“Even if you help one person and make their day and their life a little bit better, well, you know, that’s a little bit better than it was before and it really doesn’t take much for us to give.”

Unfortunately for the Tracy family, Sara-Jane was dealt another setback when, in April 2017 and shortly after James had made his Six Nations debut, her second bout of treatment led to kidney failure and another auto-immune disease in the form of Goodpasture syndrome.

It’s hard to imagine how difficult and scary that period was, as Tracy’s sister spent weeks in hospital, so critically ill that she was at serious risk of death, even at such a young age.

“It really does put rugby in perspective,” he continues. “Until your family is hit with adversity, we take everything for granted. Our eyes, our hands, our nose, everything. My sister ended up losing her kidneys through the disease she got from a drug that was meant to suppress her MS. That has actually been a bigger struggle for her then the MS itself. Batting that disease.

“We take our kidneys for granted, we take everything for granted and it really opened my eyes as to how lucky we are just to be healthy, never mind getting to play a sport that you love and that I get up every day and be happy about going to work.”

Through the support of his Leinster team-mates, Tracy has led the campaign for Organ Donor Awareness Week in recent years, urging people to carry an organ donor card as his sister, having shown remarkable and admirable strength to battle the disease and come out the other side, awaits a kidney transplant.

As the saying goes ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’, it’s true, but we are all guilty of taking life’s gifts for granted. Being a donor is such an important thing. You can’t bring your organs with you when you’re gone but it can give someone else a second chance in life.

“The difference it can make to a family and the butterfly effect it has just for carrying a card. It’s such a simple thing to do and I’m grateful a few of the lads got involved to help spread that message.”

It’s great to hear Sara-Jane has made positive progress since leaving hospital, and the hope is that her health will have improved sufficiently before the end of 2019 for her to be in a position to get a transplant. 

“She’s doing really well,” Tracy enthuses. “She’s actually cured the disease. She went through months and months of chemo and different strategies and treatments to try and get rid of it. She’s finally on the other side now and another six months of being healthy and she goes on the donor list. She’s doing really well, thank God.”

While MS Ireland has become a cause very close to Tracy’s heart, the former Newbridge College man has always been aware of the responsibilities that come with being in his privileged position as a professional rugby player. 

Leinster's James Tracy Tracy in action against Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Using their strong social media following and status as role models, members of the Leinster squad have recently been volunteering with the Feed Our Homeless organisation in Dublin city centre, as the deepening of the homeless crisis continues to accelerate.  

Players including Josh van der Flier, Garry Ringrose, Dan Leavy, Joe Tomane and Tracy have joined the army of volunteers on their nightly expedition around the capital’s streets, lending a hand in any way they can. To distribute hot food, to have a chat or to simply brighten up someone else’s day. 

“It again opened my eyes to some of the work that goes on,” Tracy explains. “The first night we went down, it was lashing rain and absolutely freezing, and we were going around with the sandwiches and tea.

“As miserable as you are in the cold and rain, you realise you get to go home, have a shower and sleep in your warm bed, but they’re stuck out there on the street.

“It’s important to get involved and the next time we went out, my girlfriend who works in Primark was able to get a load of samples from the buying department to give out. She came along with me and even just seeing the difference of having a clean pair of socks and underwear can make. They’re things we take for granted, but the difference that makes to someone else.

It’s something I’d definitely encourage, any charities out there who need a hand with anything. There are loads of lads [rugby players] available and they’re more than happy to get involved and help out in any sort of charity thing like that. Just reach out because we’re happy to be involved.

It’s hard, after all that, to ask about Saracens this Saturday. Even as the biggest game of the season, as Leinster bid to win a record and historic fifth European crown, it all — the process, the performance, the result — suddenly seems quite trivial in comparison. 

But with the Tracy clan travelling over to Newcastle for what they, and all of Leinster,  hope will be another memorable occasion to add to last year’s indelible double celebrations, sport can so often provide a release and outlet from life’s harsh realities. 

A cursory scan of Tracy’s Instagram shows his sister, Sara-Jane, at the heart of those celebrations, and no doubt if Leo Cullen’s side can scale rarefied heights at St James’ Park this weekend, it will be another special day for the players, their families and supporters. 

“To be involved in last year’s win was unbelievable and something I’ll cherish forever and hopefully, I can make a few more memories before I’m finished,” Tracy adds. 

“Getting to play in these big games is why all of us play rugby and if I’m starting so be it, but if not and my role is to come off the bench, I’ll do that to the best of my ability for the team. 

“The star on the jersey is something tangible and can be never taken away from you. To be part of the fourth star is something I’ll be proud of forever and to have the opportunity to add another one will be unbelievable.”

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Ryan Bailey

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