Thursday 29 September 2016

Ireland's Fittest Family's Alan Quinlan: 'I'm too busy with work and my son for romance'

He's gone from rugby international to respected pundit and now reality show coach, but Alan Quinlan says he has no interest in being a celebrity. Here, the straight-talking Tipperary man tells our reporter why his little boy is the real star in his life.

Chrissie Russell

Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30

Alan Quinlan and his son AJ (now seven).
Alan Quinlan and his son AJ (now seven).
Respected pundit: Alan Quinlan says he's too busy for romance. Photo: Mark Nixon
Star player: Alan Quinlan in action for Ireland in 1999.
Alan Quinlan with fellow coaches Anna Geary, Davy Fitzgerald and Jason Sherlock on Ireland's Fittest Family

Alan Quinlan is having a crisis of confidence. For nearly two decades the Irish Independent columnist has been a familiar face on our screens, playing for Munster and Ireland, spurring on contestants on Ireland's Fittest Family and delivering incisive commentary as a Sky Sports pundit.

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But it transpires that TV studios are one thing - staring down a camera lens in a photographic studio is quite another. "Could we not just take a few photos of me throwing a ball in a park or something?" he asks hopefully the week before we arrange our photoshoot. Gale force winds and torrential rain are forecast for the day in question so, reluctantly, I have to tell our interviewee it's a 'no' on the outdoors suggestion.

A few days later a slightly frantic call follows. "I've had an email asking me if I want 'styling'? (I can hear the inverted commas down the line) What does that mean?" "I think it means do you want your clothes picked and your hair done," I reply in what I hope is a soothing and reassuring tone. "Ah Jesus…right, umm, OK then."

In a world where so many preening sports stars are as at home on the red carpet as they are on the pitch and celebrity selfies abound, there's actually something very refreshing and quite endearing about his obvious aversion to the whole process of getting his picture taken.

Not that he'd ever identify himself as a celeb. "I wouldn't say 'celebrity', I'd never say that," he says, once we've left the photoshoot and got ensconced in a cosy café next door, where he looks considerably happier with a pot of tea in front of him and a large scone that he demolishes in seconds.

My use of the c-word has horrified him. "I'd never want to be described as a celebrity," he shudders. "I'm no different to anyone else. That's always the way I've viewed myself. I've always been pretty grounded. I come from a farm in Tipperary and I always had to work hard for what I got and have a good work ethic."

It's that strength of character that has seen him move from his family's farm to working as a mechanic for five years before jacking that in to train hard and score a coveted professional contract at Munster at the age of 22, a time when pro contracts were only coming into existence.

His drive and natural flair for the game then saw the flanker capped 27 times for Ireland - and, for a period of time in 2010-2011, become Munster's most capped player - before retiring after 15 years. Since hanging up his boots in 2011 his work ethic has only intensified as he's taken on new roles, writing a regular sports column for the Irish Independent and scoring coveted regular slots on RTÉ and Sky Sports as a rugby commentator. Not bad for someone who was a self-confessed 'messer' at school. "I wish I'd been this enthusiastic at school," he says when describing the work he puts in to his TV gig.

His pull-no-punches punditry recently hit the headlines when he delivered a crushing critique of Munster's lacklustre performance against Stade Francais, branding it "embarrassing, disgraceful and humiliating".

"I just said how I felt," he explains. "It probably didn't make me popular and I left Sky that evening thinking 'Jesus, what have I done here?' I played in the team when ex-teammates criticised us, and you don't like it as a player. But it wasn't meant to be a kick in the guts to anyone, I was just frustrated by performances and thinking they could be better."

Though it's since been proven untrue, when we met, Munster fans had further cause for concern - Keith Earls was rumoured to be quitting the side for Saracens. Alan doesn't necessarily blame players looking outside of Ireland for opportunities. "The IRFU does a lot, we play fewer games and the salaries are competitive but you can increase your salary in England and France and I think some guys' heads get turned when they're not automatic starters on their provincial or maybe the national team."

Those who leave, he reckons, are gambling with their international place, something he would never have done. "I'd never risk not playing for my country," he says empathically. "But some guys are different. Money talks. It's a professional game at the end of the day and I would never knock a guy for taking an opportunity to make money, we've all got to provide and think of the future. They know the consequences themselves."

It's a no nonsense reply that calls to mind a recently retired, loveably cantankerous RTÉ pundit. "George likes to have a pop and give out a bit, and there's a role and a place for George," he laughs. "I'm just trying to be honest. I'm not turning into a grumpy old so and so who's criticising everyone. I just want to do a good job and make sure anything I do say is backed up by the facts."

It's worth pointing out that, after being given a roasting by Quinny on telly, Munster went out and smashed their next game. "Nothing to do with me!" he insists. But perhaps he's just being modest. The latest instalment of RTÉ's hit reality show Ireland's Fittest Family has seen him take on a coach's mantle and there's no denying it - he's a natural motivator.

Alan had been a long-time fan of the show and its health and wellbeing message, so he jumped at the chance when he was approached by the programme makers to join the team. "I loved it. It was brilliant and the events were really, really tough - going through bogs and freezing cold rivers - the challenges were real, and that appealed to me."

It also offered an opportunity to try his hand at leadership, "inspiring people, giving them a good message and figuring out strategies." There is, he confesses, still a hankering in him to take his coaching skills back to rugby. "I'd love to have some involvement with a team again some day, maybe as a manager or coach or something like that," he admits. "There's still part of me that would love to be involved with a group of forwards doing their scrums and lineouts. I'd have to upskill myself but maybe a club or something?" The national squad perhaps? "Ah, I don't know."

One person who always tuned in to see him in coach mode on Fittest Family is his son AJ. Now seven-years-old, AJ was one-and-a-half when Alan separated from his wife and AJ's mum, model Ruth Griffin, after two years of marriage.

"My little fella loved the show," beams Alan. "He couldn't wait for it every Sunday." Since he often travels to matches for work it's also handy being able to turn on the telly to explain when daddy's away. "He sees me a lot but his mum will put the TV on if I'm away. I think it's reassuring to him, he knows where I am."

Co-parenting when you're no longer in a couple can of course bring its challenges. "It's different," he agrees, "but if I was to give any advice to anyone in the same situation it would just be that you have to make sure the child is the most important thing. Ruth is a great mum and I'd like to think I'm a good dad and we do the best we can for our child."

His erratic work schedule also means he gets to see more of AJ than a lot of working dads and their kids, spending full days with him and doing school runs, rather than having to rush home from an office just in time to tuck him in to bed. Of course sometimes freelancing and fatherhood collide, as happened last year when Sky asked him to do a last-minute Skype call, only for AJ to wander into shot and wipe the contents of his nose on his dad's top. The episode saw social media collapse in fits of laughter and left the dad-of-one mortified and amused in equal measure.

Alan's passionate when he talks about rugby but it's nothing compared to how he lights up when he talks about his son. "I'm addicted to my son really, he's the light of mine, and Ruth's, lives," he says candidly. "He's just a lovely little character. He can be a rascal as well and he can test me and he never stops! But he's very kind, he has a really good heart and that makes me really happy."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, AJ is big into his sports, playing football and hurling at school and rugby at the weekends. "He loves being active, whether it's at the park, climbing a tree, kicking a ball, hitting a ball or running about," says Alan. But he's determined not to be one of those dads who gets glassy eyed over the notion that junior might one day play for his country.

"I don't want him feeling forced into rugby," he explains. "All I want for him is to be happy and healthy and be the best he can be. He already makes me proud every day. He doesn't have to be a rugby player, he can be whatever he wants to be."

The game has changed now he reckons and there's more pressure now on young guys coming in to play professionally. But he knows a bit himself about the strain of having to perform. His determination to succeed in his dream career went hand in hand with bouts of deep-rooted anxiety. It's a subject he's been vocal about - his battle with depression in the past, and the degree to which his self-flagellation worsened when he was dealt a 12-week suspension in 2009 that saw him miss out on a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent Ireland in the Lions tour. If he was considered critical of Munster's recent performance, then that was nothing compared to how hard he's capable of coming down on himself.

Counselling followed and a brief spell on medication but, with the support of family and friends, he made it out the other side. Not that mental health is a done and dusted issue. He's aware now, he says, of things that will trigger his anxiety and stress and he's better able to address those moments with solutions, whether that's talking to someone, going to the gym or simply taking time out.

He hopes that the stigma attached to mental health in Ireland has diminished since he first spoke out about his own problems. "I think people are becoming more accepting and have more confidence when dealing with the issue. Because, it's something a lot of people have experience of. It's something I've talked to a lot of people about over the years and I think the most important thing is to be proactive and share how you're feeling, talk to someone. I think a lot of people are afraid, or overwhelmed by looking inside themselves. But if there are areas of stress in your life, and you don't address them, then they're things that will crop up again and again. The positive message is that you can make changes and find solutions."

When it comes to his own wellbeing he doesn't hold on to all his problems now the way he once would. He's kinder to himself, focuses on what makes him happy, what he has to be thankful for and recognises that life comes with its ups and downs. "Sometimes things seem a lot worse than they actually are," he says philosophically.

He didn't feel any sense of passing a milestone when he turned 40 last year (bar a slight dread that his cousin might throw him a surprise party - which he did) but sometimes, when he's kicking a ball with AJ he's conscious that he's "not young any more". So much attention is put on women and the so called 'fertility cliff' but the recent news that Gary Lineker reportedly felt too old at 55 to become a dad again, shows that age plays on men's minds too when it comes to procreation.

"I don't know," answers Alan when I ask if he reckons he'll have more kids one day. "I love being a dad, and I love all my nephews as well and going to play dates and watching them makes me feel young. But yeah, I guess you have to be conscious that the clock is ticking…" He laughs. "I definitely have days when I think 'how long will I keep training?"

There's a perception that 'retirement' for professional sportsmen is a green light to hit the sofa, stick on Netflix and break open the Doritos, but the reality, at least for Alan, is very different. In the years after leaving Munster he still went back to the club for training. Today, his fitness regime remains intensive, hitting the gym a few times a week, running, cycling, swimming and weight training. He eats well too (bar the occasional 'treat'), nor is he a big one for hitting nightclubs. "I'd rather be with my little fella than out," he admits. "But I know you've got to have a balance, I don't want to be a hermit either."

He also finds that exercise is an important source of 'me time' and a means to work out any pent up frustrations. "People say I don't have to do it [train] anymore but I find it's good for the head as well," he explains. "I get a bit grumpy if I don't get to the gym. I'm an anxious person and exercise is a big part of how I manage stress and emotions."

He looks well for it too, although I have to break it to him that he's not a fixture on the 'sexiest rugby player' lists anymore. As opposed to Paul O'Connell, who topped a league table of lust on an extra marital affairs website poll not long ago. "All the best to Paul on that," he chuckles. "I can't say it's changed my life one way or another whether I'm on those lists or not," he pauses. "I do remember us having a great time slagging Jerry Flannery though when a load of us were on a Limerick sexiest player list and he didn't make the top 50. I think he felt more upset about not being there than we felt good about being on it!"

He reckons he's "too busy with work and my son" to be in the dating game at the moment, and with the Six Nations in full swing, life looks set to get even more hectic. With an opening game draw under their belt, how does he think Ireland will fare in the campaign under the new leadership of Rory Best?

"Coming after Paul and Drico, he's got big boots to live up to, there's no doubt about it," he says. "But Rory's a real leader. The perception would be that he's quiet but he's a very good speaker in the dressing room and he plays at a high level with a lot of passion, energy, commitment and that inspires people around him."

He believes Ireland could do with shaking up their style of play, something that needs to come from the coaches, not Best. "I'd like to think we'll be a bit more expansive this year," he says.

But he's not keen to start prepping fresh blood at the upcoming tournament in preparation for the 2019 World Cup - and especially not against France this afternoon.

"The next Six Nations might be the opportunity for that but not now. We need to get some positivity back and start winning matches again and compete. Now I want to see wins."

With rallying talk like that we might see him in a national coach's position yet - just don't ask him to do any photocalls if he lands the job.

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