Rugby Union

Phillip Hughes' death brings back haunting memories for ACT Brumbies of Shawn Mackay

It was only this year that former ACT Brumbies captain Stephen Hoiles finally visited the South African site where his teammate, and great mate, Shawn Mackay was hit by a car in 2009 and killed at the age of 26.

Five days after Mackay's death on that 2009 South African rugby tour, the Brumbies chose to band together and play on in Canberra. They won.

The following weekend, two days after being a pallbearer at Mackay's funeral, Hoiles returned from injury to captain the Brumbies. They won again.

"There was no pressure on the players to play, the club gave us the opportunity not to play," Hoiles recalled.

"But Shawn and I went to school together from the age of 10. I'm sure he would have wanted the team to play, so we did. It had a positive effect on us.

"The results weren't really important at that time – the priority was more to spend time together, to help each other out and to get on with footy. The byproduct was we won a couple of games in a row.

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"The best thing wasn't necessarily playing, it was preparing for footy and living life as normal as could be ... it was a distraction from what was an awful moment in everyone's lives.

"I don't think it's something the guys ever get over, they just get through."

Last week's death of cricketer Phillip Hughes has brought back haunting memories for the Brumbies of 2009. Mackay was killed crossing a street to the team bus after a night out with players in Durban.

The Hughes incident occurred on the sporting field in view of his teammates and, likewise, many of Mackay's Brumbies teammates were present to witness his accident.

Cricket Australia has announced the first Test against India, which was to have started in Brisbane on Thursday, has been postponed. Hughes' funeral will be at his home town Macksville on the NSW north coast on Wednesday.

"Every case is different," Hoiles said.

"For rugby, it's 80 minutes. You kick off, it's non-stop, there's adrenalin pumping, so you don't have too much time to think about it. Whereas in cricket there's a lot of down time. I'd imagine it might be tougher for the cricketers to try and get through five days of Test cricket where it takes enormous concentration. I think they're in a much harder position than what we were.

"I'd be lying if I said [Shawn's death] hadn't crossed my mind this week; it has made me think about him more. It was overwhelming to see the amount of support Shawn's family got through the rugby community and then you look at cricket. It's our national game, the support has been incredible – there's people from all parts of the world paying tribute to him.

"I never knew Phil Hughes, but you read his story and think, 'wow, he's only 25' ... you can see why the cricketers have been hit so hard."

Present Brumbies captain Stephen Moore admitted he too had thought of Mackay this week.

"It's all the same emotions coming back that our players felt when you lose someone close to you, a teammate in a team sport," Moore said.

"You spend so much time together, you go through so much, highs and lows. When you lose someone from that group it's a real shock. It definitely brought back memories of that time.

"But you get a lot of strength from your teammates in those situations. You might be feeling pretty down, but to be around the boys and do something together can be really powerful."

Former Brumbies and Wallabies captain Stirling Mortlock was with Mackay on the night of the accident in 2009.

"You can never prepare anyone for that situation," Mortlock said.

"Seeing [the Hughes death] did take the memory back to 2009 when we went through that tragedy. You'd never wish it upon any team or any person.

"But that's where the fantastic attributes of sport shine through. It's certainly been the case, being a bystander and watching the cricketers. You really see the support, the brotherhood and family. They're all helping each other get through this horrific circumstance."

The first Brumbies game after Mackay's death was against the Stormers from South Africa, at Canberra Stadium on April 11, 2009. It was in heavy rain.

With Mackay's name embroidered into their jerseys, on top of every player's heart, it was one of his schoolmates and best friends, half Patrick Phibbs, who fittingly scored the match-defining try for a 17-10 Brumbies win.

"Phibbsy looked up to the heavens and it was pretty emotional for everyone," said Hoiles, who missed the game through injury. "We had Shawn's funeral the following week, then we had to play the Saturday after that too. That was hard again.

"We don't forget Shawn's birthday or the anniversary of his death. There's probably half a dozen of us from the same school [Sydney's Waverley College] who try to catch up every year."

Hoiles counts himself "fortunate" he was injured and was not in South Africa at the time of Mackay's accident. He had always tried to envisage where and how it had happened, so visited the spot while on tour with the NSW Waratahs this year.

"I wasn't scarred by the incident the guys saw; apparently it was a tough scene to deal with," Hoiles said. "It was only this year on a [NSW] Waratahs tour that a security guard took me to the spot and walked me through it.

"I don't know if it makes it easier or harder ... I don't know if it was closure, but for so many years you try to imagine this scene."

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