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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 5 December, 2019
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'It was relentless pain, a continuous circle and I couldn't find a way out of it'

Munster wing Ronan O’Mahony was forced to retire from rugby after suffering severe injury.

SITTING ON A curb outside Treviso airport in April 2017, waiting for his team-mates to arrive for the flight back to Ireland, Ronan O’Mahony feared the worst.

Still wearing his full Munster match kit with a boot on his right foot, the Limerick man’s left leg was wrapped in a thick cast.

Only hours before, he had started on the left wing for Munster in the midst of the best season of his career, his 11 tries making him the province’s top scorer. His form had led to Ronan O’Gara tipping O’Mahony to play for Ireland.

“The season was going so well for me and it was a lovely day in Italy,” recalls O’Mahony. “I thought I could kick on again, run in a few more tries.”

Ronan O’Mahony scores a try O'Mahony scores against Leinster in the 2016/17 season. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

But in the 19th minute of the clash with Benetton, O’Mahony moved to cover a chip kick and had the deep misfortune of getting his left foot and ankle momentarily trapped underneath the chasing Italian player.

A fractured fibula, a dislocated ankle and major damage to his ankle joint – an injury that would end up finishing O’Mahony’s professional rugby career two years later.

“I couldn’t really feel much pain at the start,” recalls O’Mahony, who turned 30 this week.

“The lads were telling me to get up but I knew something was wrong. I looked down and my whole ankle was skewed off.”

He was stretchered off the pitch and accompanied by Munster masseur Dave Revins to the hospital. Cue a painful 30-minute wait until a nurse who spoke English was found. 

“They plastered me up, gave me a couple of injections so I could fly and then we headed to the airport.”

The rest of the Munster squad hadn’t arrived yet when O’Mahony – now on crutches – and Revins got there, so they sat outside and waited. He laughs now when he pictures the scene, but O’Mahony says it was a grim experience. 

“The lads arrived then and it’s hard to hide the emotion when your team-mates are consoling you. 

“I remember CJ Stander and Ian Keatley were basically trying to help me get changed, using baby wipes because I’d had no shower, trying to get me back into my normal kit.”

A miserable flight home followed and O’Mahony was soon in the Santry Sports Clinic for “a big repair job.”

He had metal plates and wires put in but the most concerning aspect was the damage to the weight-bearing cartilage in his ankle, something that would prove impossible to overcome in the end.

Cruelly, O’Mahony’s wound failed to heal from the initial surgery and it became clear that he had contracted an infection, meaning he was back in for a second operation, this one followed by three and a half weeks on an IV antibiotic.

“They put a PICC [peripherally inserted central catheter] line in through your arm and track a vein up into your heart,” explains O’Mahony. 

“I had nurses calling to my house, hanging the medicine up on my curtain rail and I’d be sitting there. They came in the morning and the evening, twice a day.

Ronan O’Mahony O'Mahony fought hard to get back from injury. Source: Kevin Barnes/INPHO

“I was laid up for those three weeks and got fairly sick off the medicine, it was strong stuff and my stomach was turning.”

Eventually, O’Mahony got back on his feet and looked down the road to recovery with determination, convincing himself that he could recover fully, even though he was often in agony.

“I was waking up every day and thinking, ‘I can’t believe I have to try and train or just move on it.’ It was relentless pain, a continuous circle and I couldn’t find a way out of it. 

“The littlest movement could set it off and I could be out of training for three or four days. I was going home every evening and sitting it into an ice bucket, going in every day for treatment from the Munster physios, who were excellent.

“I ended up watching a lot of motivational videos on YouTube, trying to keep myself sane, telling myself I could get back to where I was.”

O’Mahony stresses how grateful he is to his family, friends and girlfriend their patience throughout that period, for it was they who saw “the worst of it”.

Keen never to be a negative presence around Munster as he rehabbed his injury, O’Mahony masked his struggles from team-mates and coaches.

“I was hiding it from the coaches, 100%. I wanted to get selected. The physios knew within reason and I was getting some outside help from a couple of specialists to see if there were any interventions.

“You’re trying to put on a brave face in front of the lads. They’re all saying, ‘You’re flying it!’ and deep down I knew I wasn’t. You’d hide it from them because you don’t want any negativity around the squad.

“You see that they’re trying to get up for games and you’re screaming inside in another room because you can’t get your leg right and you’re in pain.

“Some days you are really down, and I was, so I’d distance myself a small bit from them. Other days I was feeling alright about it and I’d be around them a bit more.

“I just didn’t want to disrupt them because players can see it in you, they know when a fella is feeling down. I didn’t want that negativity to leak into the squad.”

Incredibly, despite the pain, O’Mahony did get back onto the pitch for Munster, playing against Cardiff Blues in February 2018 and starting three games in the season that just ended, his final appearance for the province coming against Scarlets in March.

Ronan O'Mahony with Nic Cudd O'Mahony playing for Munster earlier this year. Source: Alex Davidson/INPHO

“I don’t know how I got through it,” says O’Mahony of getting back onto the pitch for his province. “I was in pain, significant pain.

“I was trying to get through it, telling myself it would come right. I had come so far that I wanted to keep going but after those games I was laid up for four or five days, waking up in the morning and I feeling like a pirate walking to the bathroom with a massive limp.”

The writing had been on the wall and O’Mahony, having visited a specialist in London, finally accepted that this was a battle he wasn’t going to win. 

O’Mahony’s retirement was publicly confirmed on 10 April but the first person he told about his decision was Felix Jones, still Munster’s backline/attack coach at the time.

“Felix would have been a great mentor for me growing up and I felt I wanted to let him know. I had a good chat with him, he had retired because of injury as well, and he completely understood.”

O’Mahony sat down with Johann van Graan and the other Munster coaches individually, the weight lifting from his shoulders more each time he shared his news.

But then came the hardest thing of all – telling his team-mates he was retiring.

The emotions were high as O’Mahony stood up in the meeting room and shared what it had meant to him to play for Munster.

“I told the lads a little story about when I was at the Munster game in Thomond Park when they played the All Blacks in 2008.

“I was in the crowd with my friends and I remember when the lads came out and did the haka, the noise, it literally put trembles through me as a supporter. I was thinking, ‘If I’m experiencing this in the crowd, imagine what the lads are experiencing on the pitch.’

“That was a turning point for me. I said that no matter what happened in life, I had to play for Munster.”

And that’s why O’Mahony reflects on his career now with a feeling of gratitude. He got to live his dream.

He first played rugby with Garryowen, his club throughout his career, and shone with Castletroy College, even though some people suggested that he should move to a ‘bigger’ school in order to give himself a better chance of making it.

David Quinlan and Mike Essex with Ronan O'Mahony O'Mahony in Garryowen colours in 2013. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

O’Mahony’s older brother, Barry, was in Crescent Comp – Castletroy hadn’t been opened when he was going into secondary school – and blazed a path through underage Ireland teams and on into Munster, joining the academy while he was still in sixth year.

“Everything he did, I wanted to do,” says Ronan.

Ronan became the first Castletroy player to get an Ireland Schools cap and went on to start for the Ireland U20s in 2009. Despite his eye-catching talent, he had to bide his time for his shot with Munster and was “late coming into the system”.

His patience and good form for Munster A paid off eventually when Rob Penney handed O’Mahony his senior Munster debut at the age of 23 in April 2013 against the Dragons.

“I was rooming with Danny Barnes and I remember saying the night before the game that I didn’t want to go to sleep because I’d have to wake up and it would be morning and I’d be shitting it!” recalls O’Mahony with a smile.

But O’Mahony did debuts well – scoring a hat-trick in his first senior game for Garryowen – and bagged a try for Munster against Dragons.

From there, he earned a development contract for the 2013/14 season and went on to rack up 70 appearances and 21 tries in total for his native province.

The 2016/17 season in which he suffered his injury was the best of the lot as O’Mahony got a run of games under Rassie Erasmus.

The loss of Foley was deeply painful, of course, and O’Mahony underlines that he and many homegrown Munster players have ‘Axel’ to thank for their pathways to senior level, his faith in them never wavering.

There was also the “the most special game” of O’Mahony’s time with Munster that season, as the Māori All Blacks visited Thomond Park in November 2016, presenting a jersey with Axel’s name on it before being beaten 27-14 – O’Mahony among the try-scorers for Munster.

With his former coach in mind, O’Mahony also reflected on how far he had come.

“It went through my head the whole way to the ground, remembering being in the crowd eight years previous and thinking that playing for Munster was all I want to do.

“Next thing I’m lining out against the haka, wearing my Castletroy College socks – we all wore our club and school socks – and it was a really special day and occasion for me.”

Ronan O’Mahony after he scored his side's fourth try Munster celebrates O'Mahony's try against the Maori All Blacks. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Unfortunately, injury has denied O’Mahony to the opportunity to make more memories like that one.

There may be another operation ahead but he’s hopeful he won’t have lasting day-to-day issues with his leg and will get back to a good level of activity. 

O’Mahony isn’t rushing into the next stage of his life, keen to let “the whole retirement sink in” as he enjoys the summer. He has a Business degree and has done his Qualified Financial Adviser exams while trying to rehab his injury, but says he is definitely keen to stay involved in rugby. 

With his playing career now over, O’Mahony is able to reflect with no regrets.

“There were times I was wondering if it was ever going to happen for me because I was late coming into the system.

“A lot of people at that age might have gone somewhere else or packed it in.

“I just wanted to play for Munster and that was it. No matter what it took. If I had to wait until I was 30, I probably would have waited.

“Thankfully I got my opportunity and managed to get in. It’s not easy to play for Munster, I know how much you have to do to get into the system. I’m part of the 1% that managed to get in and I gave it a good rattle while I was there.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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