‘It’s great staying involved in the game’ – Mike McCarthy on life after rugby
June 15, 2020 10:44 am Conor Sharkey
Mike McCarthy’s career spanned the better part of two decades and saw him play over 300 professional games.
In that time he represented Leinster Rugby, Connacht Rugby, Wasps, Newcastle Falcons, and made 19 appearances for Ireland.
That list of clubs was also due to include the French side RC Narbonne.
But Mike’s opportunity to play for a further two years in the south of France ended when an elbow injury forced him to retire from the game in May 2017.
Recently, we spoke with Mike to hear how he has adapted to life after rugby in the three years since.
Mike, first of all, how are you? How are you and the family getting on?
Yeah, it’s just… I imagine it’s exactly the same for the players but probably more so, it’s just that schedule and routine as a player that you’re so used to having. Being told where to be and when to be there, knowing what you need to do, it’s kind of hard sticking to a schedule and routine. That’s what the players need and I’m trying to stick to a schedule and a routine. But especially with two kids hanging off the coattails 24/7 it’s proven pretty difficult, mate!
I love going to the gym, that’s part of my routine in the mornings. I’m really missing that. I’m finding it hard to get up to do a garden circuit. It’s kind of funny, mate. But it’s obviously a very important time. It’s tough going but we haven’t got much to moan about. It could be a lot worse. But we’ve got the garden, we’ve got nice walks near us. So it’s all good. Looking forward to normality returning at some point though.
How are you occupying your time? You’ve been working with the RPA. How does that work look in the current circumstances?
It’s obviously gone all office-based. Normally I’d be doing two days in Sale Sharks in Manchester, two days in Newcastle Falcons and Friday’s normally an admin day at home. The first couple of weeks were very busy, checking in, phone conversations with every player, just supporting them going forward. We’re trying to put options out to the players every week in terms of personal development stuff, whether it’s webinars they can attend. I’ve been sending a lot of links through of a lot of the great stuff Stuart Lancaster’s been sharing and webinars he’s been doing on leadership and coaching. We’ve been sending those out to the guys interested in coaching. Working on stuff like that during the week, creating options and then just being there as a sounding board for players that have got any concerns. It’s diverse and keeping busy but it’s all over the phone. Zoom calls, a lot of Zoom calls!
It must be nice, after leaving the game, to still be connected to it? You’re going into clubs, seeing players and being in that environment a little bit.
It’s great being still involved in the game. When I was finishing up I thought I kind of wanted to be a defence coach. But I suppose I wanted to get my weekends back. With coaching, you’ve got to be prepared to move around. I just wanted to be settled somewhere for the long-term. I would like to get into a bit of coaching on the side somewhere further down the line. I’m not currently doing any.
It’s great staying involved in the game. I’m working with two great clubs I love going into. You know I played three years at Falcons, so it’s great going in there. It can be hard sometimes watching training. You just want to get stuck in and get involved. It’s great staying involved in the game. But the first year I found incredibly tough; really missed it. I went through different stages. There probably was a bit of anger and frustration the first year. I’m getting to that stage now nearly three years out where I’m in a good place. It’s the acceptance period. Accepting that I’m out. When I see all the stuff Dev Toner’s doing, I really miss him. He really is my special friend, as we all know. There’s lots to miss. The craic in the changing rooms with the lads. Missing it still.
I was going to ask about Dev later on but seeing as you mentioned him… Your love of Dev is well-known, but where does that come from and what has sustained that love over so many years?
He’s been my favourite player. When I was growing up, when I was eight years old, I remember having posters of Dev in my bedroom. He’s the undisputed lord of the lineout. He just completes me. He’s just a special guy. When we were together at Leinster, we had a very special bond. It’s sad that we’ve parted ways, but we still keep in contact. We still communicate via WhatsApp, telecommunications, Zoom calls. Actually, saying that, during this period he’s been pretty poor at keeping touch. I’m not really feeling the love from him lately. But I think we’re still friends. I like to think we’ll be companions forever. I do write the odd letter to him, send him a card. I don’t really get cards or letters back, but he does message me occasionally. You’ve seen me, I wear the Dev t-shirt. It’s like my pyjama top. He’s always close to my mind. I’m always keeping an eye on him. I love seeing the pictures of you lads training and videos. I’m keeping close tabs on him. We all know he really is a very special guy.
Around the time of your retirement, a lot of your teammates spoke about what a fierce opponent you were and what a fantastic person you were to have in an environment. There’s a quote from Rhys Ruddock about you where he says: ‘All of us had tremendous respect for Mike when he played for Connacht and we had some battles against him. He is a great lad and someone who has really added to the environment. From playing against him and recently playing with him and enjoying his company, I really have a lot of respect for him’. It must have been nice to hear things like that about you as a player and a person from your peers?
It got me pretty emotional reading it to be honest. I think Jamie (Heaslip) put a really nice message in. I remember reading it in a match programme. It certainly made me a bit emotional. Maybe I didn’t realise what guys think. It was very special. As I said before, I just really miss it. I miss the competition. You can’t replicate that when you go into the real world, really. In a funny way, it’s kind of hard to explain but you miss the physicality, you miss the contact. How do you replicate that after you’ve finished? I played for 17 years. You’ve just got to try and find things that you get a bit of an adrenaline buzz from. Training’s a very important one, staying on top of that is what I try and do. It’s going to happen to everyone so you’ve just got to accept it. I look back on my career with such fond memories. I made some incredibly special friends that will be friends for life.
When you mention special memories, there were some great days with Ireland, but from a Leinster perspective, in your first season, you win a PRO12 title at the RDS. What are your memories of that day?
In my career in general, I look back and think about how lucky I was to play for 17 years. Every player that comes out of the game thinking they could have achieved more. For me, I didn’t get my first international cap until I was 29, which is pretty late. I would love to have got more caps. I believe I was good enough to get more caps, but it is what it is. There’s plenty of great memories. As you know I nearly joined Leinster before, didn’t get there, stayed with Connacht and I enjoyed my time there greatly as well.
It was great winning the league in my first season. A sunny day against Glasgow. It was pretty special for me because I played all season then picked up a calf injury then was out for four to six weeks. The medical team of Dan Tobin, Smithy (Stephen Smith) and Tom Turner got me back way ahead of schedule because I thought I’d miss the final. I was devastated. I played every game of the season and it was typical that I wasn’t going to get to play in the final. I definitely didn’t think I was going to get back. I think I only ran one week before the final. It just meant so much to me to play in that final thinking I wasn’t going to make it back. It was a great win, great weather.
But, unfortunately, on a sad note, I re-did my calf in the 60th minute, late on. I actually had to go off and get a scan at Santry straight after the game. I was able to limp around with an ice pack on it and get involved in some of the celebrations, stroll around the pitch and all that kind of stuff. But I missed a bit of the craic in the changing rooms because I was off at Santry getting a scan. I think that made it extra special that I managed to make it back for that final. That was a great day for me.
There are some great photos of you after that game with Dev and Jimmy Gopperth celebrating on the pitch. But I didn’t realise that you had to head off to Santry then soon after!
If you look at the photos I have an ice pack around my calf. The reason was… if it was a final you wouldn’t be playing for 12 weeks or whatever, but because I was going to captain the Emerging Ireland team, I had to look after it so that’s why I had the ice pack on. We managed to get a few laps then I had to go straight off to Santry. It cut the celebration short a bit. But it lives long in the memory that one. It was a great day.
They reckon you remember the losses more than the wins. A couple that really stick out were the one against the All Blacks in 2013 in the Aviva. Complete control. The All Blacks kept the ball for four-and-a-half minutes at the end and scored in the corner. There’s not many games I’ve cried after but that was one of them. The other one was the loss to Toulon in a semi-final where it went to extra-time and (Bryan) Habana intercepted a pass to score. For me, they’re two that really got away. As I said, I haven’t cried after many games but those two certainly got the tears flowing.
Reading a piece you wrote a couple of years ago, you referenced the All Blacks game and losing right at the end and contrasted it with Ireland’s win over France in the Six Nations in 2018. Taking lessons from those bad moments can lead to better days.
You learn more from a loss than you do from a win. You saw that in that game against France where Johnny kicked the drop goal. I was at the game. It was absolutely tipping down with rain. But everyone just did their job and did their role. I’ve never been blowing so much as that four-and-a-half-minute period against New Zealand where they were so clinical and played at such a pace. A relentless pace to how they played. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t involved in the game when they went and beat them, that amazing win in 2016 in Chicago. But they obviously took the learnings and implemented what they needed to do to win. There was a drill that a lot of the lads would have referred to before, keeping the ball for four-and-a-half minutes. You had to get your detail, get your job exactly right, and pretty much get that block absolutely perfect.
You mentioned missing the physical challenge of playing but I take it climbing Kilimanjaro was something you really enjoyed?
I enjoyed it so much. It was run by a company called Earth’s Edge. They got me involved. Kilimanjaro is strange, man. I didn’t do any training whatsoever. I thought I was going walking up a hill. I didn’t give it any thought. I didn’t do any walking training. For a bigger guy carrying a lot of weight, I found it very tough. I’m looking to do another challenge because when I came back from there I was buzzing. I really enjoyed it. I look at some of the stuff Damian Browne’s doing and it’s absolutely incredible. I don’t think I’ll be rowing the Atlantic any time soon, but little challenges like Kilimanjaro. We had a great group of people.
I was sharing a tent with Stephen Ferris, which was hilarious. We were like sardines in a can. Soaking wet the whole time. It was a bit weird. I was a bit scarred when I came down from the mountain. It was a bit weird, a bit surreal. I still have sleepless nights over it.
I went up Mount Toubkal as well. That was unbelievable fun. That was with Chris Henry and Tommy Bowe. We had some craic. I’m looking to do another thing like that. They were for great causes first and foremost, and great fun. I look back with great memories.
Doing things like that must help with getting used to retirement. Obviously, if you were still playing you wouldn’t have been able to do any of that and now you’ve found something new that you get a buzz from.
Yeah, and it’s important when you do finish up that you have these things as well. You’ve got to keep training. I was doing it for 17 years. When you train those endorphins are released that make you feel good. To go from doing that week in, week out to suddenly stopping and not doing it at all or not very much, can be tough on the mind. It’s important you keep training, keep working hard. I try and get to that dark place when I go to the gym using the assault bike. But at the end of the day, I’m not a professional athlete anymore. It’s hard to get that last few percent, that dark place that you’re happy to go to when you’re a player. But throwing in little challenges where you can create awareness and raise money for a great cause. Kilimanjaro was for the IRFU Charitable Trust. It’s important. It makes you feel valued that you’re creating awareness for the charity, you’re raising money for the charity but also you’re helping yourself out as well by keeping the mind healthy.
You’ve done some commentary as well. How have you found that?
I’ve really enjoyed it. The first few times I did it, I got more nervous than I did before I played a match. But it’s quite good because it’s similar to when you play in terms of your preparation. When you play you’ve got to be nailed-on with your game plan, know what you’re doing, you might be covering a few positions, you’ve got to know the game plan inside out. It’s the same when you’re commentating. I haven’t done as much of that but being a guest is really good fun. You’re just giving a preview, an insight into the game, talking about players you know, talking highly of them. I really enjoy that. Co-commentary is a bit harder. You’ve got to be so reactive to what you’re seeing. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. It’s great to get the opportunity to travel to great places, great stadiums, cities, and even catch up with a few of the lads as well.
I remember Leo (Cullen) asking me – I was doing commentary at one of the Leinster v Connacht games at the RDS – and he asked me if I wanted to come into the changing room, which I thought was a really nice touch. I didn’t go in because sometimes when you’ve been out of the game, it’s kind of weird. You’re not part of it. You want to keep your distance. But I thought it was a really nice touch by Leo to ask me to go in and see the lads. I suppose a testament to the club and the environment.
From watching games and commentating is there anything in the game that stands out to you now, or players that catch the eye?
I just look at the players coming through at Leinster, the likes of James Ryan. I had to retire, but I wouldn’t have been playing much with the likes of him coming through and Ross Molony. It’s been great to see how well James Ryan’s gone, Andrew Porter. The list goes on. I could name loads of them. I don’t think Rossy (Mike Ross) will mind me saying this but for the likes of me and Rossy, we knew what our strengths were: set-piece, my defence. A work-on for me was always my handling. You look at the front five now at Leinster, Ireland, and most teams now, they’ve all got to be really dynamic, they’ve all got to be able to handle the ball. You just look at Leinster’s front five through the whole team. They’re all powerful, they’re all strong, they can all handle the ball really well and move it to space. That’s a big thing I’m noticing how even in two or three years is how much the game’s moved on.
Are you used to retirement? Do you ever get used to it?
I don’t think you get used to it but surely you must do after a certain period of time. It certainly gets easier. I don’t know if you’re ever completely over it. As time goes on, for me…so I played at Wasps. There’s no one playing a Wasps that was there when I was there. Newcastle there’s no one really playing there now from when I was there. Not many guys at Connacht playing. But at Leinster there’s a lot of players playing that I played with and I know well. So I find it kind of tough in that sense. I know these guys well. I can picture what they’re doing day in, day out in terms of training, their meetings, where they’re going for coffees. But I think the longer you’re out of the game, and once guys I’ve played with have all retired, it’ll be a lot easier.
I was lucky enough to get to 35 but if I look at someone like Lukey Fitz who was 28 when he retired. He probably had another five or six great years. I’ve got to say I was lucky. Lukey’s a really positive guy and what he achieved in the game for Ireland playing with the Lions is incredible. He probably had a lot more to achieve. It must be tough on guys like that. I don’t think anyone finds it easy at all.
My first year I did find it incredibly tough, really missed it. Was trying to find my way. There was probably a bit of anger, a bit of frustration, and a bit of resentment even towards the game. As time’s gone on, I’ve got to a better place, I’ve found my way. I’m in a job, I’m in a role, I feel I’m adding value. It’s great to give back to the game. I’m involved in the game still. As time goes on I’m just accepting that I’m not a rugby player anymore. Still miss it, but it’s getting easier.