Whatever level you play at, it's an odd feeling being told you ought to hang up your boots. I think it's the very notion of your retirement being decided by somebody else that, somehow, makes the situation feel unnatural. In a world where assertiveness is paramount, passive acceptance of unwanted news becomes extremely difficult, and often impossible.
Around 2005, I was told by a couple of extremely experienced doctors that I would never play again and that I ought to inform my insurance company. One such learned man went even further, telling me my heel bone was, in effect, turning to cheese and would soon disintegrate entirely, leaving me unable to walk, let alone charge into rucks with my friends. Strangely, my appointment with this man was around 10pm and a long way from home. Having crutched myself to the train station I took my seat and sat in silence the entire journey. This silence was not broken for 24 hours; I could not even call my parents to tell them. It wasn'tuntil a close friend, a physio, heard of this diagnosis two days later and sent me a text message, "Don't worry mate, he's wrong. And if he's not, well, everybody loves cheese", that I was able to snap back to reality.
Such news would scare any sportsman. What is interesting is that, despite us all being in the same job and, apparently, the same mould, it scares us all in different ways. My initial fear was financial. This may not be what the purist wants to hear but it's true. Stupidly, I wasn't insured. I felt invincible and, frankly, chose to spend what spare cash I had on cars and fun. I knew that if these experts were right I would probably have to move back in with my parents and sell my car. Quite a comedown from weeks spent with the England squad in five-star hotels.
A few months later, however, the fog started to clear and my injury appeared to be improving. It was at this stage that I realised what had really been keeping me from sleep for so long: rugby was genuinely the only thing I loved doing and the only thing I knew. With rugby gone, I had no idea who I would become.
So giving up wasn't an option and, through a stinging combination of love for the game and fear of life without it, I managed to prove some people wrong. The day I played my first game back in the first team was the day I realised how much I love playing. I was terrible – out of shape, limping and completely off the pace – but I was euphoric nonetheless.
Brian O'Driscoll is 32, has achieved masses, is regarded as one of the greatest of all time and is seriously injured. Inevitably, news of an operation that will leave him on the sidelines for six months has led to questions over his future. Clearly the two of us are barelycomparable in sporting terms, but one thing we share – because pretty much all rugby players do – is a chemical inability to accept defeat.
Without being too crass, I suspect his financial position is somewhat more comfortable than mine, so this makes life easier, without question. Mind you, the day he quits I expect a lot of extremely lucrative endorsement deals will also cease, so there are ramifications and, whether it's romantic or not, this is professionalism. But what we know about this man is that he cares. He really cares.
There have been few more driven men than O'Driscoll in world rugby, and watching him on the field for five minutes tells us all we need to know: he'll be back, and it will be like he was never gone.
They say that when it's time to go, you just know. The dream is to be able to decide this, run out with your brothers one last time and take a bow before the people who have cheered you on for so long. But first you have to get there. For some it's easy, but most will have to work like dogs to ensure their smashed old bodies are able to trot out for the big day.
On that day you forget sponsorship deals, you forget about the mortgage and about what the doctors told you that night because none of that reallymatters. It's the six inches in front of your nose that matter, they're all that ever mattered. You're here, so give it everything before you go.Reuse content