Allan Massie: Retiring gracefully never an easy thing for sporting heroes

“DO not go gentle in to that good night,/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

“DO not go gentle in to that good night,/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

That moment, the subject of Dylan Thomas’s protest, comes to all of us, but it comes twice to sportsmen who are brought up sharp against “the dying of the light” on what is only the middle part of the long journey to the grave. This week two of Scotland’s most famous ones, Chris Paterson and Stephen Hendry, have called time on their career. Both have recognised that they can no longer do consistently what they once did so well.

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One may be sad to see them go, but also relieved. Dylan was wrong; it is better to go gently. There’s no pleasure to be had in watching great players in decline – and decline comes to all. There was a Scotland-Wales match at Murrayfield in the early Eighties for which the Welsh selectors had recalled the great J P R Williams after a couple of seasons out of the international game. It was wretched. He had lost pace and confidence and fumbled his way miserably through the afternoon.

Some admittedly are happy to go on playing at a lower level, even long after they recognise that they can’t do what they once did so well. Steve Davis, Hendry’s predecessor as the supreme champion of snooker, is still playing more than twenty years after Hendry displaced him. Some say this is because Davis loves snooker while Hendry loved winning. Perhaps there is something in that. Hendry is still capable of excellence, but no longer of sustained excellence. So he has chosen to go. One wonders if the day is far distant when Tiger Woods comes to the same conclusion.

In Paterson’s case it is the body that has given way and told him it is time to quit. This season, the man who was, for a time, the most consistently successful goal-kicker in world rugby hasn’t been able to take place-kicks, on account of a nagging injury. The edge of his pace has gone too, as is natural at the age of 34. The will to succeed may still be there, but the physical challenges of rugby make it an unforgiving game, and especially for one as lightly built as Paterson. There would be no fun to be had in watching him struggle. As it is, his last two Six Nations games, against England and Italy in March 2011 left us with the happy memory of two marvellous try-saving tackles, one on Ben Foden and the other on Luke McLean.

He has had a great career despite playing in what has been a dark decade for Scottish rugby; no Grand Slam, no championship indeed. Well, other great Scottish full-backs – Ken Scotland and Andy Irvine – didn’t enjoy such triumphs either. Unlike them, Chris Paterson was never a Lion, though he should have been chosen in 2003 and perhaps in 2007 too. He is one of the two best Scottish players of the last thirty or so years to have been snubbed by the Lions’ selectors, the other being David Leslie.

He has been, as is always said, a model professional; yet he has also been a player whose genius was stifled by the way in which professional rugby has developed, with its emphasis now on bulk and power, and the rugby league style defences which have made the midfield so congested. He was a natural fly-half, but a fly-half of a kind for whom there is less opportunity now than there used to be. How many times in recent seasons have you seen a fly-half make a clean break in an international? If Paterson had been born ten years earlier, in 1968 rather than 1978, I suspect he would have played his entire career at number 10. That would have given the selectors a nice dilemma: Chris Paterson or Craig Chalmers? There will, of course, be different opinions in Galashiels and Melrose. As it was he was capped more often at full-back or on the wing than at fly-half, and, though one often thought this mistaken, one may have been wrong. There are nowadays more opportunities in attack for a full-back than a fly-half.

Knowing when to go is difficult. The two greatest heavyweight champions, Joe Louis and Muhammed Ali, failed to hear the tolling of the bell, and fought a few fights too many. I recall, sadly, seeing a photograph of Joe slumped on the canvas because he had been matched with the up-and-coming Rocky Marciano, and watching Ali when he could no longer dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee. The time to depart is when you can no longer do what you once did supremely well, and the memories you leave will be happy ones. If the old line, “I coulda been a contender”, is a sad one, it’s equally sad to deceive yourself into thinking that you still belong at the top when it is clear that your powers are beginning to fail.

So I reckon Stephen Hendry and Chris Paterson are right in deciding it’s time to leave the stage they have graced, and to do so when some of their admirers may think it is too soon.