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Matt Williams on Irish rugby: The ultimate heartbreak rests in understanding the truth. You failed

The outcome was emotional devastation for the brilliant men in green but, sadly, even time does not heal all wounds

The dilemma of how we heal from emotional trauma is as old as our species and as complex as the myriad of individuals involved. A broken heart is nothing new, but the pain is real.

In my experience, the first act towards healing should be to cut yourself off from the source of the pain, and seclude to a safe place, to lick your wounds like the animals we are, so the healing can begin.

At various times across my life, rugby was my safe place. When life came crashing down about my ears, the game allowed me to throw my energy and enthusiasm into playing and training while forgetting reality.

Like the tide, come hell or high water, at 6.30pm every Tuesday and Thursday evenings training would start. If you could get through the day then the evening would bring respite.


On reflection of 40 years, the reason I retreated into the game is not that I remain bitter or anything ... it’s just that, at the time, when the girl you thought shared in your dream of driving around Australia in a beat-up old camper van – to go surfing at all the legendary breaks, while spending each night sleeping in the sand dunes, gazing at the unlimited majesty of the stars in the Milky Way, while reading the poems of Kahlil Gibran – dumps you for some pimply-faced, pencil-necked, nerdy son of a wealthy business man.

All because he drove a Jaguar and I was still getting about in my 1964 General Motors Holden Estate – which I might add is now regarded as a classic. No, I am not bitter at all.

But at that time I may have been ... just a little bit.

In that pain, I retreated into my rugby cave to find healing.

That cave was filled with the eye-watering smell of liniment and the clinking of metal studs rasping on the cold concrete floor.

Our rugby club’s changing room was filled with the ridiculously politically incorrect humour of my team-mates, who knew of my situation and would walk past me while making a deep purring sound, imitating a Jaguar V8 engine. And then burst out laughing.

When our coach tossed us a piece of stitched together leather, then our like-minded bunch would throw that ancient ball about as we ran into each other for an hour and a half. As if by magic, God was back in heaven and all was right with the world.

That was until on the way home a Jaguar would flash past my 1964 classic, and then all the injustices of our capitalist society returned crashing home. Where do I sign up for the revolution?

It was a Neanderthal version of Deepak Chopra’s Quantum Healing, but that environment was a tonic that distracted my mind from my young bleeding heart. I am not sure that today’s grief counsellors would recommend those techniques. There certainly were no therapy Labradoodles about.

But what happens when the place of healing becomes the root of the heartbreak?

What happens when you find yourself in a deep relationship with the game of rugby, so deep that you sacrifice a substantial part of your day at its altar? Giving the game such priority in your life that it borders on an obsession that is close to unhealthy.

With a zealot’s passion, you obsess over winning trophies.

Then, in all its vagaries and mysteries, without reason, the game decides it is no longer in love with you. In the heartbreak of a dream-ending defeat, the focus of your love dumps you like a sack of potatoes.

Last Saturday night as Irish tears flowed, the Stade de France was transformed into a wake as Ireland’s rugby dream died. The hopes and dreams fostered by the players since childhood and reinforced by years of athletic dedication were atomised by the shrill blast of the referee’s full-time whistle.

What could have been, what should have been and what came to pass were set in different worlds. The outcome was emotional devastation for the men in green.

In the bitterness of defeat, inside the deepest darkest recesses of your heart you wish that your failure was a dirty lie. Yet, the ultimate heartbreak rests in understanding the truth. You failed. That is where the real pain dwells.

There is no retreating to the game’s safe place because the game itself is the source of the heartbreak.

After losing so many Heineken Cup Finals and successive failed World Cup campaigns, the majority of this excellent Irish team have accumulated a significant amount of mental and emotional scars.

Scars are good because that means healing has taken place. It is the gaping emotional wounds that refuse to scab over and heal, the ones that keep weeping and oozing, that are the problem.

There is a line from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, that is often quoted to give hope to the broken-hearted. “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

What is often omitted are the next lines written by Papa Hemingway, because like much of his observations on the human condition, they cut far too close to our bones.

“But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

Time does not heal all wounds. Some never fully heal. You just have to learn how to live with the pain and get on with life.

Trust me I know. I still don’t like Jaguars.