Former Ireland and Munster flyhalf Ronan O’Gara has opened up about the mental challenges faced when retiring from the game.
Writing for the Irish Examiner, O’Gara admits it is not an exaggeration to suggest that retirement can actually feel like a ‘death in the family’.
‘Don’t be one bit surprised when you read about a number of elite sportspeople who struggle with their mental health. It is horrendous. A good friend of mine was chatting to me about the loss, the grieving, he feels every day knowing a special loved one is never coming back.
‘I was too embarrassed to compare the end of my playing days to his grief, but I could totally empathise at the same time.
‘That’s how brutal this addiction can be, that’s the finality of it. You’ve had it for so long, your second family, the most intense moments of fulfilment and crushing disappointment.
‘[There is] difficulty finding a natural equilibrium after those soaring highs and plunging lows. I had plenty of both. You do something for a decade and a half, then it’s gone. It is the ultimate kick in the bollo*ks.
‘I can provide date and time when it hit me like a truck. November 24, 2013. Ireland versus the All Blacks. I’ve an RTÉ microphone in my hand at pitch level, but I might as well be 100 miles away. Ireland are 22-17 in front, history is in their sights but I am utterly conflicted. Many of these were my brothers, my team-mates.
‘But now my career is done, littered with several failed efforts to beat New Zealand for the first time. Do I really want this to happen now, just a few months after I’ve retired?
‘That first season outside the bubble, are you really giving it the ‘c’mon Ireland, let’s do this’? It’s a horrible feeling, really. I’m neither proud or ashamed to say I didn’t want Ireland to win that afternoon. You felt you had given your lot, only to be deprived on every occasion.
‘There were some lads who were there with you, about to get over the line and you’re thrilled for them. Others, though, you’re resentful, almost bitter; they’d done very little in the green jersey and they’re going to achieve this milestone without even suffering?
‘That burning, destructive competitor in you is saying this isn’t fair on me, when any normal person would be wagging a finger and saying “No Rog, you are wrong”. But if you are not feeling that sense of being torn in some way, then you are not a competitor, not in the real sense.
‘Ryan Crotty goes over in the corner. 22-22. It’s all ok now. Ireland won’t beat the All Blacks this day. But now I don’t want them to lose! So, I’m hoping Aaron Cruden’s conversion is unsuccessful. Worse to come. He misses the first time, but Nigel Owens gives him a second chance.
‘I’ve flip-flopped back to Ireland. He converts. The full-time whistle. A shameful sense of Phew — for the fact Ireland didn’t win!
‘That’s what happens in the brutal, early stages of retirement when you struggle to accept the circus has moved on quickly. Eventually, you learn to accept transition.’