Michael Lynagh talks health and living on the edge

Michael Lynagh in action against Ireland during the 1991 world cup quarter-final. Picture: Getty
Michael Lynagh in action against Ireland during the 1991 world cup quarter-final. Picture: Getty
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AS EVER during the opening days of a global sporting tournament, a number of stars have already emerged from this Rugby World Cup.

There is the entire Japanese team for starters, Namibia’s tough-tackling flanker Jacques Burger and even one of Scotland’s own, lively centre Mark Bennett. But someone else has been busy establishing his class – or perhaps that should be re-establishing his class.

Michael Lynagh has been one of ITV’s 
stand-out pundits so far; smartly turned-out, easy on the eye as well as to listen to. And also, of course, able to provide the kind of insight only a former World Cup winner can.

But it feels like a particular blessing to be able to welcome the affable Lynagh as a guest into our living rooms. Because, never mind conjure up the name of the Namibia inside centre, a little over three years ago Lynagh was struggling to recall not just the day’s date, but also his sister’s name, even his own name.

As is outlined in a superb book written in collaboration with Scottish writer Mark Eglinton and published earlier this month, Lynagh is qualified to supply some perspective when writing about sporting disappointment.

So a chapter titled The Lowest Ebb does not concern the 1995 World Cup last-eight defeat to France with which he finished his international career. Nor does it detail the last-minute penalty kick missed by the stand-off in a decisive clash against New Zealand, which would have won the Bledisloe Cup for Australia had it gone over.

Rather, it concerns the then 48-year-old’s struggle to prevent his already faint lifeline fading further while lying in a Brisbane hospital bed. At least this was one positive – the stroke had struck when he was back visiting his parents, in the city where he grew up. But no matter where it happened, survival still hinged on his swollen cerebellum not growing any larger and coming into contact with his brain stem, just fractions of a millimetre away.

Although his wife, Isabella, and three children were left racked by worry in London, Lynagh was grateful he had a family support system in place when his world turned upside down after choking as he laughed at a joke while taking a sip of XXXX beer on a night out.

He had been told there is likely no link with his long career playing rugby at the sharp end, for both club and country. But who knows?

“Like everyone else, I did wonder,” Lynagh says. “The doctor said we can’t say 100 per cent, but he did say if there had been any residual damage, there would probably have been symptoms way before.”

He was so zonked out on morphine that he remembers thinking the cacophony of bleeping heart monitors, sensors and other medical devices into which he was plugged were playing a Canned Heat song for him.

“It is not a rugby book,” Lynagh says over breakfast in London, with reference to the copy of Blindsided sitting on the table. “It is more about life. I mean, I haven’t played rugby for 20 years, or whatever. A lot has gone on.”

He can say that again.

There is already a book that deals predominantly with his rugby career, published in 1995 prior to his last adventures with the Wallabies at a World Cup, when he skippered them in South Africa, and just before the sport turned professional. Lynagh straddled both eras, signing for Saracens in 1996, meaning he is a fascinating case study in how the game changed.

Even without the added intrigue of a serious health scare, Lynagh’s story is compelling. But he was initially cautious when first approached by Eglinton, whose previous book belonged to an altogether different sphere – it was a biography of hard-living groove metal band Pantera. Why, Lynagh pondered, did the Scot now want to write about a boring old rugby player? In this answer can be detected traces of Lynagh’s self-confessed insecurity and confidence issues, despite the on-field glory. He once declined an opportunity to make an international debut against New Zealand because he didn’t feel ready.

“I ummed and ahhed,” Lynagh recalls, after being approached about a book by the Fife-based Eglinton. “Mark suggested I tell him the story of the night the stroke happened and he would write something about it. ‘See how you feel’, he said. I read it. I thought: ‘I know what happened, but even I want to read more’.”

Since he is already so prominent on our screens it is not a spoiler to say he makes the kind of recovery that had doctors raising their eyebrows. “I didn’t just want a recovery, I wanted an Olympic-standard recovery,” says Lynagh, a typically combative stance that brought its own problems, since it caused conflict with medics and even members of his own family.

One year later to the day of the stroke, he ran the London marathon, raising money for the Stoke Association. “Running is a loose term, I ran the first half and walked the second,” he says. “It was a mind battle as much as anything.”

As a goal-kicker, Lynagh presents his entire career as a psychological war with himself. Standing alone in the eerie silence of a packed rugby stadium, contemplating the narrow space between the posts, could at times feel like a life and death situation.

“If I didn’t have that responsibility, I could have played for a few more years, I’m sure of it,” he says (he retired at a still decent age of 35 in 1998, after a Tetley’s Bitter Cup final win for Saracens over London Wasps). “Having that responsibility since you were 12, it does take its toll.” His father Ian, a clinical psychologist, diagnosed his son as “too thoughty”.

Unbeknown to almost everyone else, Lynagh struggled with the enormity of what was at stake, particularly when the game turned professional, which meant he had the additional worry of his team-mates’ win bonuses being reliant on his accuracy. But even before this new era, everything, he felt, was riding on him, no more so than at Twickenham 24 years ago, when England met Australia in the World Cup final.

The sides meet again at the same venue on Saturday. They have the perhaps more suffocating pressure of knowing they need a win simply to improve their chances of emerging from a particularly competitive group, which also includes Wales and Fiji. But it was a tense enough occasion on the afternoon of 2 November, 1991. Lynagh only watched a replay of the game for the first time earlier this year, with his sons Louis, Thomas and Nicolo.

“I had no real recollections,” he says. “My boys were watching with me. I had the first kick, and they asked: ‘Do you get this dad?’ ‘I dunno…’

“And I missed it! My eldest was like: ‘That is a bit embarrassing, dad.’ And the commentator is going: ‘Oh, it looks like even Lynagh is feeling the pressure...’ I probably was!”

But he steadied himself to kick a conversion and two penalties in Australia’s 12-6 victory over Will Carling’s men, who had narrowly beaten Scotland in the semi-final.

“People ask me what are you thinking when you are kicking at Twickenham in a World Cup final, and the best answer you can give if you are a sportsman is nothing. Nothing. Empty your mind. That’s the perfect way to perform.

“Otherwise you start thinking: ‘Everyone is watching, I have to get this right, the wind is coming from that or this way.’ I developed a coping mechanism which helped get me through it.”

A breakthrough arrived at Murrayfield, which felt significant considering Lynagh has family ties to Scotland. Bob Johnstone, his maternal grandfather, hailed from Kilbirnie in Ayrshire before moving to Australia to begin a new life, settling in Queensland.

Given today’s elastic eligibility rules, Lynagh could have played for Scotland. But in 1984, on the last game of the Wallabies’ famous grand slam-winning tour, he was cast as the hammer of the Scots, kicking a then Australia record points haul of 21, to seal a triumphant tour.

He had already played at the ground on a schoolboys’ tour three years earlier, where they were also unbeaten. It was memorable for another reason. “I met Andy Irvine, who was a bit of a hero of mine,” says Lynagh, who had admired the Scottish full-back’s goal-kicking ability from afar back home in Australia. “Someone at the reception after the game said you must come and meet Andy Irvine, so I went and had breakfast with him the next day.”

Irvine had retired from the international scene by the time Lynagh returned to Edinburgh three years later, to deliver a master-class in goal kicking, having been taken off kicking duties for the previous match against Wales after performing poorly against England and Ireland. One of those watching from the schoolboy enclosure that day was Eglinton, his spirits quickly drooping as Scotland were beaten 37-12.

“As if tries being run in from every conceivable position by the likes of [Mark] Ella and [David] Campese wasn’t misery enough, it was perhaps more frustrating to know that Lynagh, when presented with a kick from anywhere on the pitch, was almost certain to convert it,” writes Eglinton in a co-author’s note at the beginning of Blindsided. The Edinburgh schoolboy could never have thought he’d later have the chance to quiz Lynagh on exactly how he did it.

“If you watch the video now, you can see me slowing down a little bit as I take each kick,” Lynagh explains. “It is subtle.” Lynagh’s father had noticed how he was rushing in previous matches and advised his son to press, subconsciously, a slow-motion button.

“It was, up to that point, the biggest game Australian rugby ever had,” recalls Lynagh. “It was to win the grand slam. It was a big thing. People forget that now with World Cups and the like. But up until that point, it was the biggest game Australian rugby had known. We had never got close to a grand slam. That 1984 tour really turned the dial for Australian rugby. Then 1991 took it up another level.”

We are speaking before last weekend’s stunning victory for Japan over South Africa, but Lynagh undoubtedly appreciated the derring-do exhibited by the underdogs at the end. He, too, might have done the same. Indeed, he did do the same when Australia memorably managed to overturn Ireland’s three-point lead in the final minutes of a World Cup quarter-final in Dublin, en route to becoming champions.

Opting to run the ball rather than attempt a drop-goal that would level the scores and force extra time is a decision which reaped enormous reward. Lynagh’s pride does not stem from being the one who touched down in the corner.

Instead, left in charge after skipper Nick Farr-Jones’ injury, he derives satisfaction from being the player who, after Gordon Hamilton’s late try seemingly put the hosts in command, said: ‘We’re going for this.’ Given what we now know, it was an act of bravery that has become a mark of the man.

“Before we kicked off again I gathered the team together amid the mayhem – people were on the pitch, it was all going berserk – to come up with a plan, ‘this is what we are going to do’,” he says. “The team went: ‘OK’, and went off and did it. It was the pinnacle passage of play in my entire career. That was where we won the World Cup.”

And better still, with Scottish referee Jim Fleming already preparing to blow for full-time, it didn’t even matter whether Lynagh scored with the subsequent conversion. (He didn’t.)

n Blindsided by Michael Lynagh with Mark Eglinton [HarperSport, £20)