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Ulster haunted by reality of sad endings


Simon Best (left) watches Banbridge from the sidelines, and in his playing hey-day

Simon Best (left) watches Banbridge from the sidelines, and in his playing hey-day

Simon Best (left) watches Banbridge from the sidelines, and in his playing hey-day

The announcement that former Bolton Wanderers’ player Fabrice Muamba’s career as a professional footballer is over at the age of 24 has served as a reminder of just how uncertain a sportsman’s career can be.

Rather than injury Muamba’s career has been ended by a heart problem. The outcome is the same, however — the end of the daily regime of training, dressing room banter, pre-match anticipation and, ultimately, the buzz of participation on the big stage watched by appreciative spectators and supporters.

The removal of such habits, the loss of all of those pleasures and the forced acceptance of a new, unwanted and unforeseen order is a professional sportsman’s worst nightmare.

It is a huge blow and those whose cruel fate it is undoubtedly require help and support in coming to terms with what has happened to them.

Ulster Rugby has had its share of those whose careers have been cut short. At the end of last season a back injury forced their Scottish international wing, Simon Danielli, to call it quits.

And in November 2010, outstanding back row prospect, David Pollock, was left with no option but to concede that his playing days were over. He was just 23 when forced to accept defeat by a hip injury.

Speaking at the time, Pollock said: “It is with great sadness that I announce my early retirement from rugby. Whilst it was always my intention to resume my studies (in medicine) at Queen's, I never intended it to be quite so soon.

“My hip injury, however, has not resolved and I have been advised I am no longer able to achieve the level of fitness required to play professional rugby.”

Pollock achieved much in his unfortunately short-lived career as a professional rugby player — five caps for Ireland A plus 45 Ulster appearances, to say nothing of having captained the province and Ireland at under 19, 20 and 21-level.

His exit came just weeks after Bryn Cunningham’s reluctant acceptance of the fact that his stay at the top was over, too, after losing a 15-month battle against a persistent series of injuries.

Cunningham, now 34, was a lot luckier than young Pollock, of course, for he played more than 150 times for Ulster before doctorts confirmed what his body had been warning him for more than a year, namely that his time was up.

Even so, his words in October 2010 were particularly poignant.

Cunningham revealed: “Over the past 15 months I have worked incredibly hard — and through considerable pain — in order to regain full fitness but unfortunately it wasn't to be.

“Having to finally make the decision to call it quits and end my rugby career is the hardest thing I've ever had to do.”

But the most high-profile of Ulster’s professional players whose careers have been cut short is former captain, Simon Best who, like Muamba, was in his physical prime when a previously undetected condition spelt the end for him.

Like Muamba, he had a heart problem, an irregular beat in the case of the man who led Ulster to the Magners League in 2006 and captained Ireland on their Argentina tour in the summer of 2007.

Best was in France with Ireland for the 2007 World Cup when he was struck down totally out of the blue.

Confirming the inevitable in the aftermath of what was a massive fright, Best said: “It is with great sadness that I am forced to retire from the game at this stage in my career. However, I have no regrets and feel immensely proud and privileged to have represented both Ulster and Ireland for the past nine years.”

Yesterday, four and a half years on from his own brush with death,

Best expressed his sympathy for former England Under 21 Muamba — who technically died for 78 minutes after collapsing on the pitch against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in March — and then spelt out what it means to have one’s career cut short.

“It was poignant hearing the news about him since, like me, the decision came six months after the incident,” Best said.

“That period — I suppose you could call it a cooling-off period during which all the options are looked at — gives you time to come to terms with what has happened and is happening. So, too, does the fact that, ultimately, it’s the doctors who decide so it’s taken out of your hands.

“In rugby — and in football, too, I’m sure — there is a support network. Your team-mates and the management rally round. You aren’t just left alone to get on with it.

“There is a structure and I know in my case that the IRFU and Ulster provided great back-up for me.

“I’m sure there will be something in place to help this lad, to.”

Belfast Telegraph