By Damian Dolan
Josh McNally’s story gave a timely sense perspective to London Irish’s relegation battle, just when one was sorely needed.
With the Exiles ten points adrift of Worcester with just four matches to go, new rugby supremo Declan Kidney takes his London Irish side to Harlequins on Saturday knowing that defeat, coupled with a Warriors victory over Newcastle, would leave the club on the verge of an immediate return to the Championship.
That margin would have been seven points, of course, but for Irish self-destructing and throwing away a 17-0 lead against Gloucester last time out, and end up losing 33-29.
If that wasn’t cause enough for doom and gloom, there is talk of the Premiership being ring-fenced for five years, from as early as next season. Irish are in danger of being left without a seat in a very expensive game of musical chairs.
But amidst the darkness, there was a light and it was provided by second row Josh McNally – the scorer of Irish’s opening try against the Cherry and Whites – for whom it was ‘just good to be back’ after a minor stroke revealed a hole in the heart.
McNally, 27, felt unwell following Irish’s Premiership fixture against Saracens on October 28. He’d actually suffered a minor stroke. Extensive tests subsequently revealed a small hole in his heart – a condition known as Patent Foramen Ovale.
“Struggling to find the cause of the stroke was the biggest thing. If you can’t find the cause, you’re going to struggle to find anyone to say ‘you’re fit to play’ because it could happen again,” said McNally.
“Thankfully we had some of the best medical advice and found that I had a hole in the heart.
“My heart had expanded through all the stress of the game [against Saracens] and that’s when the clot managed to get through. I could have easily gone through my whole life with loads of near-misses and nothing ever happening.
“I was just unlucky for a clot to get through and cause a stroke. Even more lucky that the stroke was so minor – it could have been a lot worse. It was a bullet dodged.
“It’s been a long process, but it feels a bit like a distant memory now. It’s just good to be back on the pitch.”
Nearly a quarter of Britain’s population are born with the minor cardiac defect, which usually causes no symptoms but increases the risk of a stroke.
“For most people, when you’re born and take your first breath, it [the hole] shuts. But for some people it doesn’t. Not many people push themselves to elite athlete levels of max heart-rate, so not many find it,” he said.
For McNally, who joined Irish in January 2017 when London Welsh encountered financial difficulties, it’s given him a sense of perspective about the club’s position.
“I remember having talks with coaches and medical staff about retiring, so to be back out there and playing again is a breath of fresh air. I take every game like it’s my last,” he said.
“I could have easily retired, but thankfully I’m back out there and back playing for Irish.”
A corporal in the RAF, based at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, McNally was signed by Welsh having impressed for Henley Hawks in National League One.
Although part of Welsh’s ill-fated Premiership campaign in 2014/15 when the club failed to win a game, McNally did not look out of place on the Premiership stage.
He helped Welsh to British and Irish Cup success in 2015/16, but when Welsh went into financial meltdown at the tail end of 2016, Irish stepped in.
McNally had already come to the attention of the club’s former director of rugby Nick Kennedy, who had ‘monitored Josh’s development closely’ for several years.
“Nick was great for us and great for me personally. He was the reason I came to Irish. It was sad to see him go. I’ve spoken to Nick and wished him well and he did the same,” said McNally, reflecting on Kennedy’s decision to leave the club two weeks ago.
“[Now] we just have to get on with it. We’re professional rugby players…it’s the business. It happens. We’ve got to get on with our job.”
After a run out for the RAF against Richmond, it was the club’s new technical consultant Kidney and head coach Les Kiss who handed McNally his first start since Saracens.
“I trained as hard as I could and just put what I could out there, and they saw something which meant I could start. I was extremely thankful for that. I feel like I’ve hit the ground running and it’s a new start.”
Mixed emotions from yesterday. Over the moon to be back in the @LiRFC jersey, but gutted to lose in such a close game. Yet again #StPatricksParty didn’t disappoint with an unbelievable atmosphere. ☘☘☘
— Josh McNally (@JoshJMcNally) March 25, 2018
McNally added: “They [Kidney and Kiss] haven’t changed anything….added a few minor tweaks, a few of their own little things. They haven’t come in and tried to reinvent the wheel.
“They just put a massive emphasis on how big the [Gloucester] game was for the club…..and just try and do ourselves proud.”
The job, as McNally puts it, in the immediate turn sees Irish travel to old rivals Harlequins on Saturday knowing that if results don’t go their way, their fate will be all but sealed.
But if the worst does happen – and McNally has been through much worse over the past five months – he’s confident that the club will bounce back, just as it has before.
“We’re sticking together; not many people will be leaving. We’ve experience in the Championship….we’ll come straight back up,” he said.