After a professional career spanning 13 years, Tom McCartney has called time on his playing career.
The New Zealander joined Connacht in 2014 and made over 100 appearances across his six-year stint at the club, which included a Guinness PRO12 winners' medal in 2016.
Unfortunately the postponement of the current season meant McCartney and the rest of the departing players were unable to get a proper Sportsground send-off from the Connacht faithful.
caught up with Tom from his New Zealand home about his career, a hectic final few months, and his plans for the future.
-- First off Tom, tell us what the last few months have been like for you?
It’s been a huge change, there was a lot of uncertainty. Initially when the COVID cases were starting to get bad all around Europe and then towards Ireland, the wife and the kids packed up and went back to New Zealand.
It was a little bit up in the air about how serious it could be and if the country got bad it could shut down for 6 months to a year, and the last thing I wanted was to be locked away from my family that long, especially when it looked like we wouldn’t get back playing for some time. Andy Friend was a really good help so I managed to get out on the last flight Emirates was flying before they grounded all their planes.
When I arrived back to New Zealand it was at the stage of a level 4 lockdown for the first month that I was here. I wasn’t allowed leave the house at all for 2 weeks because I had travelled from overseas. I had to stay at the property that I was residing at and other people had to do the food shopping for me. I was lucky to have come back to 2 weeks of fantastic weather, which made it more bearable
I was staying at my dad’s house where there is a lime tree orchard, there was plenty of work to be done which made the experience easier. Out in the sun in the lime tree orchard is my happy place away from rugby, which meant the time flew by. There must have been a lot of feelings going through your mind. Obviously you were relieved to get back to your family in New Zealand but that must have meant everything happening very fast for you.
It was a mad rush. We were selling our house and had just put it on the market which didn’t turn out to be the best timing! Once the wife and kids left, I was going to stay until the end of the contract until June. Once we got told that I was allowed to go home I had two days to pack up everything and do a couple of trips to the dump and gave away as much stuff as I could to a good home. I had to get the house emptied and ready for someone else to move into it. That took up all my time on the last two days, everyone was restricted and could not leave their house at that stage.
In terms of the goodbyes I only got to say goodbye to a couple of people briefly, that was the biggest shame, not being able to have a proper goodbye especially with your teammates of 6 years and then you are just gone without a proper goodbye. It was difficult and not how I imagined it, but I am pretty determined to come back to Galway in the next couple of years and catch up with as many people as I can to reminisce on the good times. How do you reflect on your 6 years in Connacht? You must look back on them with huge fond memories?
I wasn’t sure how it was going to go when I first came over, I was 29 going on 30 and initially signed for 3 years which would take me through to 32. At that stage I was going to weigh up whether it was a good time to retire or carry on.
After enjoying my first 3 years it was a no brainer to sign on for another 3 years and finish out my career there. It was an amazing time and it has changed a lot all the way through, but that’s how rugby works, one place is never the same, the team is never the same and the coaches change.
I would say one thing that stayed the same is that it has always been a humble group who work hard for each other. Because of that, no one is bigger than the team and it builds a strong team spirit. One of our mantras in defence is to never give up which is the attitude that everyone has, and it is one thing that I have enjoyed. Now chatting on memories over the past 6 years, everyone involved in 2016 will mention that win as being a highlight but are there any other games that stands out?
One of my fondest memories would be arriving in 2014 when we played at home against Munster. It was lashing rain and my first introduction to PRO12 rugby against a Munster team that was pretty stacked especially in the forwards with the likes of Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony both there.
It was a horrible night to be a hooker and throwing the ball into the lineout, but we did well especially against the likes of that competition. We gave 100 percent that night and ended up winning the game, we held them off on our goal line right on full time.
I think anyone who was at the game would remember it fondly, they got soaked and it was freezing, for me, being from New Zealand it was an eye opener and a real good introduction to European rugby. I certainly felt like I had made a good mark to start my Connacht journey on that night. We celebrated well after that win and there were a lot of happy fans that night. I can still remember the singing when I was coming off the field. Let’s talk about the 2016 final. Have you had a chance to watch it back in the last four years?
I watched it when I came back to New Zealand that year after we had won it, but I have not watched it since. I have seen a few highlights here and there; Matt Healy’s try tends to pop up quite a lot when AJ MacGinty put the grubbar through for him which sealed it for us. The game becomes a bit of a blur when you look back on it, the things you do remember are things like the airport afterwards with all the Connacht fans travelling back, getting back to Knock airport and it being jammed.
We had to delay the bus for a while because they had a stage set up, the parade through Galway city and back at The Sportsground. Considering the population of the province it was huge to witness that amount of people coming out to celebrate with us, it was special. I won things with different teams with much bigger populations but never seen that level of celebration from a region. It shows how much everyone got behind us and how much it meant to everyone around the province. Looking towards the future of Tom McCartney, what plans do you have and what will you be getting up to?
The plan was always to get back to New Zealand. We had 6 great years in Galway, my wife and I arrived newly married and we went back with a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old. Life has changed since we were last in New Zealand, both kids were born in the Galway University hospital, we will always have great memories of that. In a way, it is good time to be transitioning for the kids because my son has just started primary school last week. He is going to the same primary school that I attended when I was a young fellow.
For myself, I am getting into a career in real estate, so the last 6 weeks has allowed me to get a start on that. I am working a lot from home, but I am also allowed to go into the office for a bit and try and learn the trade. The funny thing about it is you play rugby for 15 years and work your way up to different levels of it and by the end of it your pretty experienced. When you start a new job, you are straight down the bottom and you must earn your stripes again.
One of the exciting things is there is a huge amount to learn which is a good challenge and in a way, it is like when you are starting in rugby, it boils down to how much effort you put in. I have always been self-driven which is a good trait to have, how much effort you put in directly correlates to how fast you learn and how well you end up doing. Was preparing for post-rugby life something you were very conscious of, especially in the last few years?
It was always on the back of my mind, my focus when I was playing rugby was to play rugby as well as I could. From a financial standpoint I always had it in my head that when you start you are a young guy and compared to your friends who aren’t playing rugby you are earning good money. If you are lucky you end playing for 10 years and you are on decent money compared to your mates.
You have got make sure you are as far ahead as possible by the end of that 10 years because your friends will have been in a working environment for the past 10 years working their way up to a good level and you are starting again from the bottom. If you don’t take advantage of earning good money at a young age, being smart with it by saving and investing your money in different things you are going to come out at the end of it look back and see it as a wasted opportunity.
I was adamant when it came to budgeting, looking at different things I could do investment wise to try set myself up as well as I possibly could. When rugby inevitably does come to an end, I made sure I wasn’t going to be in a position where I had to run out and find a job in case I was going to starve. That gives you the freedom to take time to choose something you are passionate about and want to do rather than having to slave away at something you don’t enjoy.
I have been lucky to find a job quickly and find a job in area that I am interested in. Property has always been my second love as a rugby player and is something that I always turned to when trying to invest in things and leverage my earnings as a young player on good money. Would you like to be coaching in the future or get involved with your local club or are you happy to move on?
In the future I would like to do something. It’s tricky at the moment while I am starting a new career, as I said before what you put into it directly correlates to what you get out of it especially when you are starting out and you are trying to build your reputation and learn as much as you can. Between that and working in some capacity almost 7 days a week along with a young family, if I was off down the local rugby club in my spare time, I am not sure how family life would handle that.
For the next year or so I will be getting myself up to speed with the career and after that I may have a more time and be able to manage it better. I am extremely grateful for all the coaches I have learned off down through the years and for the volunteers that weren’t doing it at a professional level. I feel obliged to pass the torch on to try and help the young guys who have got the passion and drive to excel in the sport and get to the next level. Last question for you, it is disappointing that our fans couldn’t give you a proper send off, so is there anything you would like to say to the Connacht fans?
I would like to say thanks to the fans for welcoming my wife and I into the province and to Galway. It’s a special place, our kids were born there. There’s nothing better than walking along the prom after a good win with a coffee and you end up stopping and chatting with lots people you may or may not know, that’s the way the place is. Everyone is welcoming and friendly, it is a second home for us. One thing that will ring out in my mind for the rest of my life is listening to The Fields of Athenry when you walk off that field after a good win. You cannot beat that, it was awesome.