The vast majority of Irish rugby fans would have settled in to watch the weekend’s excitement unaware of the tragedy that struck French rugby last Tuesday.
Jordan Michallet, the starting out-half for Rouen in France’s ProD2 league, had taken his own life at 29 years of age.
He recently signed a three year contract extension with the club. He married his wife last year, and together they were expecting their first child.
Jordan came through the academy at Grenoble, a few years before I arrived in the picturesque little city at the foot of the Alps. The formerly sizeable Irish contingent there – James Harte, Chris Farrell, Bernard Jackman, Mike Prendergast et al would have known and worked with him closely. I never met Jordan and honestly, had never heard of him before the terrible news broke. The closest we got was having mutual friends and wearing the same red and blue jersey, albeit in different eras.
Despite this, I was pretty shook when I learned what had happened. People talk about deaths ‘in a community’. To be honest, I’ve always thought it was a bit overblown that you could somehow feel a connection to another guy that played professional rugby just because you did the same thing for a living. Would an engineer in Ireland be saddened, beyond the natural human level, at the death of an engineer they didn’t know in France?
I definitely felt a sense of loss at the news of Jordan’s death, however. The mental health of elite athletes has been discussed more in recent years. The ‘Tackle Your Feelings’ campaign from Rugby Players Ireland has been a big success and is to be commended. Keith Earls has spoken openly about his experience dealing with bipolar disorder and the challenges that have come with it. And while every voice and every new initiative chips away at the façade of indestructibility that exists, I still think that at a general level, people are oblivious to how mentally rough professional sport can be.
As an ex-player, I know how difficult it is to go cold turkey when you retire and step away from something you worked tirelessly to pursue for many years. Lots of guys struggle with that adjustment and find themselves losing their sense of purpose in life. While playing, I and many others have experienced rough periods when your fortune changes and you see the hopes and dreams you had for yourself fizzling away in front of your eyes a little bit more each day. It’s tough to deal with, and it brings some dark moments.
But for guys like Jordan Michallet – who on paper, had it all – that’s something we rarely consider. He was the main man at his club and had just given himself the security of another long-term contract. He was about to start a family and was, in theory, living the life he always dreamed of having. His death is a stark reminder that none of us are immune to the mental torment that can set in and drive you to the point of no return. Even the people that seem to have it made often do not, and it would do no harm for us all to remember that sometimes.
The wheels of pro sport keep turning, even in the face of tragedy, and Jordan’s teammates had to line out against Carcassonne on Friday night. It was bad enough trying to prepare for the game against Glasgow after Axel passed away. I can’t imagine what it was like for his poor teammates to try to get themselves into a headspace to play three days after learning their friend had died by suicide. Rouen didn’t have the fairytale outcome that we did in Munster five years ago; they lost 24-3 at home and slipped into the relegation zone. In some ways, that’s the perfect illustration of how unforgiving sport can be.
As the ProD2 carried on, so did the Champions Cup. Munster were the most clinical we have seen them in a long time, putting Wasps to the sword in relentless fashion. The performance will give everyone at the club a boost heading into the Six Nations window, and the usual chopping and changing that comes with it. There is much debate about how you go about selecting an Irish back row at the moment. This is arguably the most stacked the Irish back row options have been in a long time.
After his performance on Sunday, it’s becoming impossible to overlook Gavin Coombes as a shoe-in for a spot in the 23 at least. Gavin has always had those raw, mutant genetics that every young rugby player dreams of having. That’s been clear since he came in to do his first preseason with the senior side as a teenager. He brought some bad habits from schools rugby that took a while for him to shake; trying to throw offloads over lads’ shoulders when there wasn’t a hope of them coming off, that kind of thing.
Those genetics have seen him develop into one of the best ball carriers in Europe, almost impossible to defend at times. Far from being an up the jumper merchant, his handling game adds another dimension to his and Munster’s attack that had been missing prior to his arrival on the scene. Comparisons will always be made with CJ, but he is actually a much more similar player to Jack Conan – as comfortable evading contact and moving the ball as he is breaking tackles and making hard yards. I genuinely believe that in a couple of years’ time, he could be one of the best number eights Ireland has ever seen.
Sunday belonged to Jack O’Donoghue though, who marked becoming the youngest player to make 150 appearances for Munster by giving a man-of-the-match performance at openside. I always loved playing with Jack, and love watching him play today. I feel he has been underrated at times in recent years but he brings an energy, aggression and footballing ability to everything he does that makes him an enormous asset. It looks like he’s starting to hit his peak now, so the best is yet to come.
Connacht had a case of déjà vu and, just as they had done the previous week against Leicester, managed to torpedo a commanding lead in the final stages against Stade Francais. I don’t know what the issue is, to be honest. Are they fit enough? Surely. Do they have the quality? They clearly do. But something is preventing them from sealing the deal. Perhaps it’s a subconscious lack of self-belief. Perhaps they need to adjust their approach more when they find themselves ahead. Whatever it is, they need to find a solution before we can expect them to kick on any further than they already have.
I’m delighted they are through to the last 16, and as I’ve said many times I enjoy watching Connacht more than any other Irish side at the moment. But it does reflect the bizarre nature of this year’s competition that a team can win one out of four games in the pool stages and still progress to the knockout stages.
Ulster had a close shave of their own, putting themselves in a hairy position with three minutes to go in Ravenhill. They will feel hard done by drawing Toulouse having taken 19 out of a possible 20 points out of their four matches, but it does give us two mouth watering fixtures to look forward to in April. That will be the real test of where Ulster are at in their quest to live with and beat the biggest names in Europe.
Leinster continued to appear to be operating on a different level to everyone else in the competition. It will be interesting to see how they adapt to being dragged into more challenging situations after the exhibitions of the last couple of weeks. If that day ever comes, of course.