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'I went from playing golf with the local electrician to playing rugby with the best player in the world in 3 weeks'

Peter McCabe was considering applying for the guards or focusing on the family strawberry farm when a phonecall from Pat Lam breathed new life into his first-choice career.

Bristol Bears prop Peter McCabe.
Bristol Bears prop Peter McCabe.

IN MORE WAYS than one, Peter McCabe has landed on his feet in Bristol.

The resuscitation of the prop forward’s career during a year in which so many others weren’t so fortunate — not only on the rugby pitch, but in all fields sporting and otherwise — was the kind of bounce of a ball that he’d been waiting for restlessly, working towards tirelessly, and worrying would never arrive.

One day, he was checking to see if the gardaí were recruiting. The next, he was being personally head-hunted by one of the best rugby coaches in the world; he was hauled off his family’s strawberry farm in Kanturk, north Co. Cork and brought to a city in southwest England to once more practice his dream job in a world-leading environment, and among a handful of familiar faces.

And he gets to do it all with one of his closest friends, who already had the place half-sussed when McCabe received the call to become a Bristol Bear.

“It’s unbelievable,” McCabe says. “It’s different moving away. Like, I’ve never lived away from home, ever. But I’m living with Niyi [Adeolokun] too.

I’d say I’ve lived with Niyi for…feckin’ hell, three and a half, four years in total, I think? But it was strange how it worked out because he actually came over to Bristol before me — and I had no idea I’d wind up in Bristol when he got the move originally. I was like, ‘Well done, Niyi, unreal. Delighted for ya. You deserve this.’ And he did deserve it, like. And then a month later, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, Niyi, actually, eh, can you look for a two-bedroom apartment?’

“It’s the job. The last 18 months have been ridiculous, though. Honestly crazy, like.”

Screenshot (15) McCabe in action for Bristol against Wasps. Source: Bristol Bears

McCabe, a Munster academy product who has spent most of his senior playing career at Connacht, was let go by his “adopted province” for the first time at the end of the 2018/19 season in which he made 22 appearances across both the Pro14 and European Challenge Cup.

Disappointed but undeterred, he left Galway for home in Cork to weigh up his options for ’19/20. As it transpired, though, there were virtually none beyond a couple of nibbles in France which didn’t quite take.

For the first time, he found himself in rugby purgatory. After a long summer spent training on his own, he decided to flip the script and try to make something happen from his end of the phone.

“I basically decided to get onto Munster myself, onto Johann van Graan, just to see was there any chance to even train,” McCabe says. “It was me who asked them, and not the other way around.

“Van Graan told me come in on a trial. I was kind of trialled as a tighthead, actually, weirdly enough, even though I’d never played there before, but it went quite well. I played in a pre-season game against London Irish and got a two-month contract on the back of that.

“I played a second game and then there was an injury to Paddy McAllister up in Connacht, and they got onto me to see if I’d rejoin them on a four-month deal.

“I felt like things were going reasonably well at Munster but I wasn’t really playing at the time; I was behind [James] Cronin, Killer (Dave Kilcoyne), and Jeremy Loughman who was kind of breaking through at the time.

“I remember going into Johann van Graan’s office and just being like, ‘Look, there’s a chance for me to go up the road, get a bit of game time, they’re playing in the Champions Cup…’ And to be honest, a big factor for me was that I had a girlfriend at that time who was living in Galway. I obviously wanted to be nearer to her whereas, in Cork, I was staying with my mum.

Van Graan didn’t want me to go, basically, because obviously, the bigger the squad, the better as far as he’s concerned. He said, ‘Come back to me in two hours.’ He just wanted to think about it and weigh up his options which was totally understandable; I still had a month left on my Munster contract so he would have been within his rights to say ‘no’ and lock me down, you know? But to be fair to him, when I went back in… What a man. He was so sound about it. He understood fully and let me go. He was bang-on and I can’t thank him enough, because about two weeks later I was starting against Toulouse in the Champions Cup.

peter-mccabe-and-kevin-obyrne McCabe with Kevin O'Byrne during the former's second stint at Munster. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

McCabe reckons the start of his second stint out west saw him produce the best rugby of his career. He developed a newfound confidence born of first-team opportunities, the type that’s difficult to generate when perennially propping up the depth chart beneath blue-chip prospects and, as was especially the case at Munster, international-calibre positional competition.

He was a player transformed — physically as well as mentally — but his potentially transformative upsurge in form was to be short-lived. It all came crashing down during another Champions Cup start, this time against Gloucester at the Sportsground a year ago.

“It was coming up to half-time,” he recalls.

I was carrying a ball and I got chopped down low. Blew my ankle out. And I remember just thinking on the pitch, ‘Well, that’s me done’ — just because of the contract situation.

“It was an eight-week injury. I didn’t go down the operation route initially — I went through rehab. It didn’t work, so I had to get the operation, then, anyway. That added on an extra six weeks’ recovery time. It was an absolute disaster.

“I remember as I was coming back, I had about three weeks left on my four-month contract. But Connacht were like… Well, look, based on the feedback I was getting from them, anyway, it seemed like I might be kept on. And I even thought, personally, that I had been playing really well before the injury.

Then, I remember I was driving to training, and I heard about the coronavirus. I remember chatting to my girlfriend at the time in the car and being like, ‘What is this? Ah, it’s probably nothing; it’ll probably come and go.’ Then it started sounding worse and worse as the days went on, and there was talk of sport potentially having to be cancelled if it continued, and I was thinking… ‘Shit. I have two weeks left on my contract. Why would they sign me if the season is gone? Ah, bollocks!’

connachts-peter-mccabe-injured-612018 McCabe being treated for injury (file pic). Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

As McCabe suspected, the contract that was purportedly being readied for the table never made it beyond the threshold. “It’s business,” he says with a shrug. “I can fully understand it from Connacht’s perspective. No issues.

“But for me, it was back to the drawing board. Deja vu.”

No club. No offers. This time, not even a couple of hints from France, whose clubs were attempting not to recruit but to instead mitigate against potential financial ruin.

McCabe became one of a few hundred thousand people locked down in Ireland without a job, and without any significant prospect of landing one while his industry was plunged into economical and logistical chaos by the virus.

“I was still up in Galway — I was living with Kieran Marmion,” he says. “And to be fair to ‘Marms’… Here, what a man, like, seriously. I reckon we trained harder during that lockdown than I’ve ever trained in my life. I’d say the both of us could have competed in a Mr Arms. Like, he was in outrageous nick.

“We were watt-biking, running, gymming every day.

And this is the honest-to-God truth: Marmion couldn’t go to bed unless we did a hundred passes — off his right and off his left — every day. Just outside his house, every day through lockdown, both hands. And the thing was, I was just helping him — obviously, he needed a moving target. But it genuinely actually made me better as well.

peter-mccabe-kieran-marmion-and-jack-carty-after-the-game McCabe, Marmion and Jack Carty. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Still, with no source nor sign of income, McCabe felt he had no alternative but to make the same decision as that made by so many fortunate-enough Irish millennials during the pandemic: “call it quits” and move back into his family home.

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“It was getting crazy. I didn’t have any club, didn’t have any offers. Obviously, no club was signing players because of the situation globally. So, I started working with my dad on the strawberry farm.

“We got weights from Kanturk Rugby Club and my brother, Luke, became like my ‘Marmion’ for being locked down at home, d’you know?

“So, I’d train away, stay fit in case a call came. But I was also flat-out playing golf. I got a handicap and started playing in competitions. I’d be losing KGs — I lost a ridiculous amount of weight, rugby-wise. Like, there were times where I was thinking, ‘Jesus, I might be enjoying this too much,’ — because I’d actually forget about rugby.

“And then, there were a few times where it’d be pissing rain outside and I’d ask myself, ‘Do I still want to play rugby?’ And I knew the answer was that I obviously did, but it was getting bad because there was just nothing out there and I was still training by myself.

“In fairness to my mum, what a saint. She’d always remind me why I was doing it. ‘Get out [and train]. Even if you don’t want to do it, just do it — you’ll feel better afterwards.’ She was like my personal chef as well. Unbelievable. Four or five meals a day, on the plate. I can’t say enough about her.”

peter-mccabe McCabe has trained alone over the last two summers while searching for a club. Source: Giuseppe Fama/INPHO

At 28, though, McCabe was growing increasingly aware that if an offer wasn’t soon tabled, he would likely have to call time on his first-choice career: the longer you’re out, the less likely you are to be brought in from the cold.

“Any time I’d ever mention plans after rugby, my mum would get angry with me. She’d be like, ‘Shut up — there’s still plenty of years left in rugby.’ But there wasn’t, like. At that moment in time, there were zero clubs. That’s zero years.

“So, I obviously needed to start looking beyond rugby. I looked into joining the guards but ultimately, I think the plan would always be to take over my dad’s farm at home.

“But I remember talking to him as well and I was like, ‘If nothing comes up, I’ll start doing the farm with you,’ and he was like, ‘Believe me: if there’s a chance to play rugby at all, then play rugby, because this is tough work!’ He told me to enjoy myself for as long as I can before I even start thinking of the farm.

But when you’re out of contract or you’re only getting short-term deals, and you literally don’t know if you’re going to have a job in two months or six months, the stress of it is actually horrific. How could you enjoy that? Not knowing if you’re going to have a paycheck coming in in two months? It’s a constant struggle. And even going back to my previous relationship, a lot of the issues that my ex-girlfriend and I had came down to contracts. I didn’t know if I was going to be even living in the same county as her in two months’ time, or in six months’ time, you know? All of these things play on your mind. And those are the parts of the job that would make you wonder if you even enjoy rugby.

“If I could add up the number of running sessions I’ve done in the pouring rain, and the number of gym sessions I’ve done in the near darkness while I didn’t have a club… And people don’t even see that — that’s the thing.

Nobody sees what you’re putting in behind the scenes, and what you’re putting in when you’re not getting paid, you’re out of contract, and you’re doing it on your own on the off chance that the phone is going to ring. The uncertainty makes it so much harder. But there’s always that feeling that if you work your ass off, something will happen for you. And, once you’re there playing… Aw, everything feels worthwhile. Just class.

peter-mccabe McCabe on the charge in 2018. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

For the sake of his sanity, he continued to play golf when he wasn’t training or strawberry farming.

McCabe represented his local club, Kanturk G.C, in the Pierce Purcell Shield, a storied tournament aimed at players with handicaps of between 11 and 15 which has provincial and All-Ireland stages. Kanturk won their first-round outing in Munster. It was during the next stage when McCabe finally received the rub of the green.

“We were out again the following Saturday, I think it was,” he says.

I teed off on the sixth hole. Perfect drive, straight down the middle of the fairway. My ball was so perfectly placed — it was just a guaranteed birdie. A tiny little chip and a putt. It was a certainty. And then my phone started ringing. I saw Pat Lam’s name come up on the screen so I’m like, ‘Jesus!’ and I answered it straight away. But I also had to tell your man I was playing with in the competition to just go ahead without me for a while. ‘It’s an important call!’

“Pat just asked me how I was getting on, was I fit, would I be interested in coming over for a two-month contract, basically. And when Pat Lam rings you, like, you’re never going to say ‘no’ anyway because he’s just…top of the tree. Unbelievable coach. He asked me what kind of shape I was in — and I was very fit but I was obviously golfing so much, and it had been so long since I’d actually played rugby, I wasn’t sure would I still be able to do it! But I obviously told him, ‘Absolutely’ and figured I’d be able to get back into the swing of things.”

As for that guaranteed up-and-down birdie on the sixth, McCabe comes clean:

I was so excited and nervous when I put the phone down after talking with Pat, I shanked my little lay-up chip straight into the ditch. I turned to the fella I was playing with and I said to him, ‘Yeah, I’m gone, lad.’

“I still laugh about it with my brothers at home,” he adds.

I went from playing a golf competition with the local electrician from Kanturk to playing rugby with probably the best player in the world, Semi Radradra, in the space of about three weeks. It was just some contrast between me and the local electrician — Christie Kelleher is his name — battling it out on the golf course and trying to beat Killarney, to playing in Ashton Gate against Northampton with probably the best rugby player on the planet on the same team as me. It was kind of surreal; how quickly it happened and just the situation I’d come from.

It gets better, too: McCabe’s initial two-month deal with Lam’s Bears, as well as his flatmate’s, was recently extended to a full year.

…And breathe.

“You can never be confident that you’re going to get extended,” McCabe says, having learned the hard way. “Niyi and I would be classed as foreign players, as well, in that we don’t fit the EQP (English-qualified players) thing. I think I was there a week and I was thrown onto the bench; started playing a few matches and thought it was going well.

“But you can just never be sure: do the club have funds? Do they need this player, that player, and will that prevent them from extending me? But thankfully, Pat called me into his office, told me he was happy with me, and that there was a chance to stay on for the year if I wanted.

“Obviously, I snatched it up straight away. In the current climate, you wouldn’t turn down anything, but this is Bristol. They’re going places, I think,” McCabe adds with a chuckle that suggests he knows he’s just made one of the understatements of the year.

niyi-adeolokun-and-peter-mccabe Niyi Adeolokun and McCabe. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The build-up to Sunday’s reunion with Connacht in Galway from which the visitors emerged victorious was equally understated; not much winding up on WhatsApp, but a few unrelated chats with Marmion, with whom McCabe remains especially close.

He didn’t feature at the Sportsground but back in Bristol, the loosehead has been reunited with a number of its former protagonists. Training under forwards coach John Muldoon, he says, is largely the same as playing with his former captain: “When he talks, you listen.”

Former Connacht back row Jake Heenan is on Bristol’s books too, as is former Leinster hooker Bryan Byrne.

“And to be fair to Brian, Jake, and Jake’s wife Adele, they have us over every Sunday and we have roast dinner with them,” McCabe says. “It’s usually either Adele, Jake, or Brian who cooks but when Brian cooks, it’s horrific. Make sure you put that in.

“Niyi and I probably haven’t gotten a full feel for Bristol yet because we’re in our bubbles. And it’s a pity, now, that we won’t be able to get home this year for Christmas. I actually don’t think we’ll be home until July, like — the end of the season. But to be honest, it nearly feels like we’re home in a way because it’s this group of five of us who hang around together, and we mostly know each other from Ireland.

“So, d’you know what, it’ll actually be grand,” McCabe says. And he has waited a while to be able to say exactly that.

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