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'The one thing I would have loved was to get a few more pictures with my daughter on the pitch'

Five months on from his enforced retirement, Mike McCarthy reflects on a 17-year career with Connacht, Leinster and Ireland.

IT WAS, IN so many ways, a sickening image.

With an hour gone at the Stade de France, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland — battered and bruised — held a six-point advantage over France in the second game of the 2016 Six Nations campaign.

Dave Kearney and Sean O’Brien had already succumbed to a ferociously physical first half of rugby and Johnny Sexton had been targeted, illegally, on more than one occasion.

Then, in the blink of an eye, Mike McCarthy lay flattened, bloodied and dazed, on the turf. As the second row had gone to shut down Maxime Medard, he collided with team-mate Jack McGrath and came off second best.

Mike McCarthy down injured McCarthy lays stricken on the Stade de France pitch back in February 2016. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It would prove to be the beginning of the end for the 35-year-old.

Twelve months later he played the final game of a decorated career which spanned 17 years, but the thing was he didn’t know it would be his last. That decision had been taken from his hands.

“Ever since that France game when I got concussion there were a number of injuries after that and maybe the writing was on the wall for me,” he tells The42.

“I was fairly injury free in all my career, started week in, week out for Connacht, Newcastle and my first three years at Leinster but obviously the last straw was the elbow injury in training. It was hard to take at first having planned to go to France. It was a bit of a shock.”

Following a 21-minute cameo against Scarlets at the RDS in April, McCarthy had hoped to push on a finish with a flourish in a Leinster jersey having already revealed he was leaving to join French club Narbonne at the end of the season.

A few days later, it was announced the second row had played his final game for the province after back and elbow injuries meant an already injury-hit campaign would be curtailed further. And then came the final nail in the coffin.

An email circulated to media on 18 May 2017 confirmed McCarthy’s worst fears; the elbow injury he had sustained in training was worse than first feared and that was it.

“I won’t go too much into the injuries but I was planning on going to France and unfortunately I wasn’t able to go,” he continues.

“It was hard to take at the time considering I had handed in my lease, started my French lessons and paid a deposit on the house. Jamie Hagan was playing in Beziers and sorted a house for me and sent me Whatsapp videos of it. It was a bit of a struggle for a few weeks after that but it’s all good now.

“I never really had too many injuries and I was very lucky in that regard particularly when you consider it’s a pretty attritional position. It wasn’t something I had to cope with too much in my career but obviously after the France game I was out for six months with a few concussions. The IRFU and Leinster were great looking after me and making sure I had the time out, and I had no issues with that.

Mike McCarthy McCarthy played his final game for Leinster against Scarlets last April. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“As time goes on I look back on fond memories and I’m pretty lucky to have got to 35 as I’ve seen mates retire before 30. I certainly miss it but I realise it happens to everyone who plays.”

Having started his career with London Wasps, Newcastle-born McCarthy joined Connacht in 2003 and enjoyed two spells with the western province in-between a three-year stint with his native Falcons in the Aviva Premiership.

Ahead of the 2013/14 season, McCarthy moved to Leinster and would go onto play 75 times for the eastern province as well as winning 19 caps for Ireland following his debut against Scotland in 2011. A Premiership medal, one Challenge Cup title and a Pro12 triumph.

All in all, a fine career.

“Would have loved to achieve more in the game but I think that’s the same for every player,” McCarthy says. “It has been a great journey and I met some great people. When I list the names of the coaches I’ve played under and the players I’ve played with, it’s pretty amazing. Loads of great memories and look back very fondly on the past 15/17 years. It has just gone so quickly.”

Having had time to spend time with his young family and get his head around the nature of his enforced retirement, McCarthy doesn’t look back with any regrets or anger at the way his career abruptly ended. It was the hand he was dealt, and such is life.

“I don’t begrudge that at all,” he says when asked if he would have liked a send off. “I played my last game against Scarlets at home and when I think back, I don’t know if it would have been a good thing playing a game knowing it was your last game. It might have worked out better but I certainly wasn’t looking for a send off or anything.

Mike McCarthy McCarthy won 19 international caps. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“The only thing I would have liked, my daughter is still one so I would have loved to get a few more pictures with her on the pitch. Even to finish the season with a bit of silverware, I would have loved to have her on the pitch and get a few pictures.

“That’s the only thing I would have loved but I got one good picture with her after the Scarlets game. That’s just the way it goes, most players don’t realise it’s their last game when they’re injured.”

In the intervening months since his retirement, McCarthy has been forced to change his plans for the next couple of years having intended to bring his family to France for the final few seasons of his playing days.

Although he has taken up a role with AIL club Buccaneers, coaching isn’t something McCarthy wants to pursue long-term and will begin the next chapter of his life in October when he starts a new job in the business sector.

“I took a bit of time out, relaxed and got my head around having to retire. Spent a lot of time with my family and my daughter and now I’m looking forward to getting started a job in October. Getting back to that routine and schedule that you’re used to. When you’re playing rugby you’re told where you have to be and when to be there everyday. I’m looking forward to getting that structure back.

“Coaching and rugby isn’t something I want to get into going forward. Just the opportunity arose with Buccaneers after a couple of clubs had wanted me to get involved in a player-coach capacity. Obviously I couldn’t play but I think it has been good for me so far.

Mike McCarthy McCarthy is an ambassador for this weekend's Family SportFest. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I look after the forwards and go up to training on a Tuesday and Thursday. I think it’s good for me keeping some sort of association with the game to make the transition a bit easier. I’m not looking at it long-term but for now I’m really enjoying it. That buzz with the lads and dressing room environment.

“They’re all new opportunities and I am excited about. Has it come sooner than I would have liked? Of course it has but at 35 I’ve had a good run and have taken plenty from the game. Now it’s for the next stage in my and our lives and I’m excited by that.”

Mike McCarthy is an ambassador for the inaugural Family SportFest which takes place at the National Sports Campus this Sunday, 1 October. The event will give adults, children and families the chance to trial a whole range of sports and more info can be found here.

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