On the news of death of a friend of old.
June 17 at 6:41pm · San Francisco, CA · First published on Facebook.
On the news of death of a friend of old.
Saturday 6 April 2002 was my last full game of rugby, and proved to be the start of two days riddled with bitter-sweet snapshot memories.
It was a stunning day, as we arrived into the Sunbury parking lot, London Irish’s historic home ground, for a league final fixture and promotion decider. It was such a privilege to play at that ground, every time. Many of my rugby heroes had played on it over the years, and the London Irish pros would train there during the week so you felt you were rubbing shoulders with them…in some loose way.
Inside, an instinct had been building that it was to be my last game of rugby. It was an instinct at that stage, rather than a decision, I tend to work that way. But it was an instinct that was very nearly a decision.
My sister Keara was turning 18 the next day and I was emigrating to Australia for a Masters and living on the beach to surf the day after. The Queen Mother had died that week and England was in mourning.
But it was a beautiful spring day and the playing pitch was set for a magical game of rugby. I remember our coach, Martin Collins talking about how much he’d pay to be in our shoes, to have the chance to play again and feel the nerves of match day on a big occasion.
Four or five friends came down to watch too. I had a leaving party that night and it made sense for them to start the drinking early.
The game kicked off and we quickly notched up a score or two and sensed that the game was ours — the opposite team weren’t we what feared. And we were in fantastic form and shape, celebrating the end of a season. I remember taking a high bounce that was contested between two of us, snatching the ball above the defender, spiraling and running in for the try in the first half. I scored two more in the second.
But at some stage too in the second half a scrum went down, the two front rows crumbling into each others’ shoulders. That would happen from time to time in rugby, and with an unbalanced strength of scrum in that game, it happened a few times that day. I remember.
It’s always an unideal turn for a scrum as the laws of physics prevail when two packs of eight tightly-bound men clash, but without sufficient match in the force or angle of contact.
The referee always immediately blows and players gently unbind and unpeel from what is then a somewhat organized — well, moreso than it seems — pile of bodies.
They unbound and unpeeled. But Vinny lay flat, I think face down (a faded detail in an otherwise snapshot memory). He lay there for a bit, with a group around him. I was a full back and so some distance away and remember seeing his arm move and breathe a sigh of relief. You always did that, in rugby, when a man lay flat. You had to watch until you saw something move then you’d turn around and walk away and start getting ready for the re-start and next play.
The stretcher came out though, which became more concerning again. The huddle relaxed but I could see he was partly moving himself — being shifted onto the stretcher and in a neck brace.
The game re-started and time and adrenaline shifted back into game-time gear.
I snared one more try, we won the game and secured promotion, and I still remember leaving the pitch with a very special, very happy feeling. I knew for sure then that it was my last game of rugby. A sport I had been lukewarm in the first 8 years and loved in the second 8 years of playing.
Our coach Martin Collins presented me with my shirt in his close of season speech in the bar afterwards — that still sits under my bed, cherished, when others have been thrown out.
We heard that Vinny — who had a bit of a back issue going into the game — had been taken to hospital for a precaution, but that it was nothing serious.
And we went out and partied. Hard. In fact I ended up sleeping on the floor of my London apartment, then empty for renting out, with a school ex-girlfriend that I had started kissing at the end of the evening that night.
It was one of the great days of my life.
But when I unpeeled myself from the floor the next morning there were texts that Vinny had taken a serious turn in the hospital that night, and that in fact it was a spinal injury.
With stinking hangover, I spent an hour on the train getting home to Mum and Dad’s in Surrey to join Keara’s birthday party. And afterwards learnt more. [Details may incorrect:] Vin had suffered some kind of serious compression of the spinal cord which meant he had gradually lost more and more feeling through the Saturday night until they intervened surgically early to relieve the pressure. He woke up unable to move much (all?) of his lower body.
With the grim confusion of hangover, I spent the evening and most of the night finishing boxing and packing ahead of my flight to Bangkok 48 hours later. You know how it is in the last hours before a final move, the stress of endless decisions as to in / out and everything taking longer than you think.
But I was determined to have it all done to join the team again going up to see Vin in hospital that Monday.
The Monday morning was a blur of packing activity — taking breaks to have a quick glance now and then at the Queen Mum’s funeral, with Dad too there — and I headed up to London to see Vin and the guys.
I can still picture him in his bed, shifting, smiling, welling with tears occasionally as we all made light humour and enjoyed being together again. But we are all shocked and felt sick too, with fear and seeing a team mate so seriously injured.
Rugby is a funny game like that. You always live close to the fact that it happens. And many play without ever seeing it happen or knowing a victim, but many don’t too.
I can still picture him in his bed, and the smile on his face.
I remember landing in Bangkok about 36 hours later, staying alone in a weird hotel and waking up in the middle of the night just staring at the wall in confusion with what had gone on during the previous 72 hours.
Bitter-sweet. One of the great days of my life to one of the most confusing in the space of 48 hours.
I never saw Vinny Culhane again — we got on really well as players but weren’t closer buddies or a regular part of each others’ lives beyond training and rugby matches (and the bar after). But his spirit in the face of the accident, and from the bed that day, made an impact I haven’t forgotten.
We wrote to each other from time to time, both postcards and emails, over the next 18 months when I was in Australia, and spoke by skype once.
I learnt — from observation — how a big character lives his life.
You take your lot and keep going. Not a hint of complaint, of “woe is me”, of sadness or blame, or self-pity that I ever sensed.
He shared with me — and posted and emailed — about his exploits to regain movement in his legs and get on with life normally, working on that within weeks of being near-paralyzed. I remember the picture of him in scuba gear, in a wheelchair, on the bottom of a swimming pool (he loved diving) a few months after the accident. And another of him in a kayak.
That was a great era — that team* — a great day and outsized in the middle of both memories was Vinny Culhane. And what I learnt about character from him.
Thanks for the inspiration Vinny Culhane, the lessons in character that I’ll never forget.
Rest in peace, Cohibo, Munster shirt and all.
The thread of details and emotions from that 72 hours is so clear 14 years on…
I just had to jot it down and hit share.