The 2016 6 Nations campaign was the beginning of the end for Mike McCarthy. It’s just that he didn’t know it. And that’s what makes it hard to accept.
One of Joe Schmidt’s starting locks in the opening fixtures against Wales and against France, he wasn’t to know then what he knows now; that it would be his international swansong.
It was the 13th February 2016 in the Stade de France in a game that Ireland would lose by a single point. McCarthy lined up in the number four jersey, Devin Toner wore number five.
A concussion suffered in the 57th minute put paid to his game and he would play no further part.
Flash forward 13 months to the RDS and a Guinness PRO12 game against Friday’s opponents the Scarlets and he’s introduced for Hayden Triggs in the 59th minute.
He played out the remaining 21 minutes with a typically physical display as Leinster put the Scarlets to the sword.
Walking off the field he was happy with his contribution and was already looking forward to the game against Cardiff in the RDS a few weeks later.
But there it ends.
He has played over 300 professional games in a career that started 17 seasons ago off the bench against Sale Sharks. Closer to home it’s been 19 caps in the green of Ireland and 75 in the blue of Leinster. But Mike McCarthy will play no more.
“It’s just sad because I’ve played my last game without really knowing it, without really being able to savour it or take it in. To enjoy it more. That decision has been taken away from me and it’s difficult because even random things like I’m a dad and you do think of moments like bringing your daughter onto the pitch for a lap, maybe even with a trophy, and that’s no longer an option so like I said it’s just difficult right now to get my head around.
“For 17 years I’ve been playing the game I love, running around tearing into people and having people tear into you. How do you replace that? You probably can’t but it’s trying to get my head around it all.”
McCarthy had already been ruled out for the season through injury but one injury has turned out worse than first realised.
“Unfortunately I had been ruled out for the season anyway with a back and an elbow issue and to be honest the back injury has been dealt with but there was also an elbow injury in training and that injury has left the elbow in a pretty bad way. So it’s come to this. You have to listen to the medics, you have to back their advice.”
He makes light of the issue but it’s clear that he isn’t able to straighten his right arm and it may need surgery.
But that’s a problem for another day.
Only a few months ago he had of course announced a move during the summer ahead for him, wife Jess and daughter Lola to Narbonne. The opportunity to play for a further two seasons excited him and the thoughts of a few years in the French sunshine appealed to all.
Needless to say those plans have been scrapped.
“I was massively excited to go there. It’s a beautiful part of France to live, down by the south coast and we were all looking forward to it and I was looking forward to contributing on the field over the next two seasons. They’ve had a lot of success in the past so I was looking forward to going there and doing my bit.”
While the on-field ambition is still there burning bright, it’s the chance to experience something new as a family that has also taken a hit.
“Jess had bought into it which is important because it has to work for us both. So we’d been taking French lessons for the last six weeks, we had paid a deposit for the furniture removals, had paid a deposit on a house, we had handed in our lease here in Dublin. Everything was set.
“Jamie Hagan had helped us massively and had scoped out a few properties so the house that we had chosen he had sent us some videos and you can’t but think of how your life will play out. Playing with Lola in the back garden or in the pool, the beach only down the road. It would have been perfect.”
While the finality of the decision has caught him off guard he is able to look back fondly on a rugby life well lived.
“I look back on it and my first cap in Murrayfield with Ireland stands out but it wasn’t so much the cap it was more about having my wife and my mum there. Two people that have supported me so much so it felt like I was running out for them and representing all that we had come through. A great day.
“I suppose another that stands out is winning the PRO12 in the RDS with Leinster in my first season. You couldn’t have asked for a better day for rugby, blue skies, a full RDS and we put on a complete performance against a really good Glasgow team.
“Before that I was lucky enough to win a Premiership medal and a Challenge Cup medal as well with Wasps. So look I am 35 and able to look back on a career that I am hugely proud of and I have achieved things. So I am fortunate in that regard.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t a few regrets and no surprise which one tops the list.
“That loss to the All Blacks in the Aviva. We had them on the ropes for so long and it was agonising to lose in the end and in the manner that we did from a position of such control.
“Then I suppose I just wish that maybe I could have come to Leinster sooner because I look back and I definitely think there was a Champions Cup in us during my time here.
“We’ve had the near misses like against Toulon a few seasons back when Habana made that intercept and obviously this season against Clermont where I feel we played some of our best rugby for 60 minutes but just couldn’t quite get there. So I really feel that maybe a European title has slipped me by.
“But look I’ve enjoyed massively my four years here and as I said at the Awards Ball I wish I was staying longer because I think we can win trophies and I look at the talent coming through and you just want to be part of that. I can see them going on, I really can, I think it’s going to be a golden era for Leinster.”
He is also able to look back on a rugby life well supported by wife Jess and a constant in that support is his mother Anna, his guest at the recent Leinster Rugby Awards Ball.
“Absolutely. I couldn’t have done it without my wife Jess and my mum.
“It’s been me and my mum our whole lives and she has certainly been more than a mum to me, she’s been a role model to me growing up. I’d like to thank her and Jess hugely and little Lola just completes that little family that we have.
“So yeah it was nice at the Awards Ball to bring my mum and thank her publicly for all that she has done for me.”
The future for McCarthy – who turns 36 in November – is unclear. Wife Jess has a successful made to measure suit and shirt business but McCarthy has no plans to join forces just yet.
He has enjoyed his forays into the media world with SKY Sports and with Sports Joe and is open to do more but he is also acutely aware of the need to look for something full time.
“It’s been great and I enjoy looking at a game from the outside but I also know that I can’t rely on those gigs alone to support me and my family going forward.
“But yeah any bits that I’ve done while out injured have been good. I started doing it last season with SKY and I was more nervous doing my first gig than I’d be for a game but it’s good fun and was a really nice way of staying involved in the game when I was out.
“This season again I have done a few pieces and even that podcast with Johnny O’Connor and Donncha O’Callaghan recently, yes we were talking about the rugby issues of the day but it was a good laugh too.”
A future podcast for the three?
“Why not! Give the fans what they want! Jim Hamilton and Brendan Macken are doing one at the moment too so if they can get away with it…!”
He mentioned earlier the young talent coming through at Leinster and it’s a theme that pops up again as he looks ahead to the game on Friday and indeed the end of season Ireland tour that sees 13 Leinster Academy graduates on the plane.
From his time with Wasps, with Newcastle, with Connacht, with Leinster and with Ireland he has seen enough to know a good player when he sees one. But he sees more than one.
“I just think it’s amazing the job that the domestic rugby team are doing at grass roots level. Whether that is clubs or schools, whatever. They really are identifying good kids and bringing them through and turning them into brilliant pros.
“If it was one or two then you can put it down to a fluke or a special year or intake but this is season on season of top quality young lads coming through in good physical shape and able to play.
“If I was to name one player look at Ross Molony who got great exposure last season – sometimes in challenging circumstances – but he like the others has grown massively from that and has hit the ground running this season.
“Ross has put on some additional weight and bulk and look at him now at only 23 captaining Leinster in the RDS against the Glasgow Warriors and leading the team to victory. That’s huge responsibility for him when Dev has been away to have 22 other guys looking up to him for leadership and guidance.
“What that means then is that the competition is fierce and you don’t even need to play badly to miss out anymore on selection. You can play well and just miss out because these young guys just seem to have the ‘X-Factor’ regardless of what position they are in.”
So how will the next few weeks pan out for him?
“From a Leinster point of view it’s the business end of the season and it’s great as a club to be still involved so I’ll help out as best I can behind the scenes and doing what I can to help the lads this week towards Scarlets and then hopefully the week after.
“Triggsy spoke about it in media this week really well. It’s not about wanting to win, it’s needing to win and that’s not being disrespectful to Scarlets. We know how tough a job we have on Friday but as a club we feel that it’s been too long now without silverware and it’s what we are all focused on now and hopefully we will deliver a performance at the RDS that will give us that shot.”
And off the field?
“Off the field the plan is to stay in Dublin and thankfully our landlord has been great and we’ve been able to keep hold of our lease so the immediate future is to stay here and look for work.
“I’ve had a few chats with people over the last week or so but I’ll be looking for a suit and briefcase. So once I get the few loose ends tied up – because all my efforts have been on that lately – I’ll focus on that next step and look to have a few coffees.
“But look it’s an opportunity and it’s one that I am also 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.”
From all in Leinster Rugby, best of luck Mike and thanks for all your efforts in blue.