Farewell to two class acts
I guess you could say there was more than a touch of irony at the proximity of the announcement by the two Alans that they would be retiring from rugby. Alan Lewis, the most meticulous of gamekeepers; and Alan Quinlan, the consummate poacher.
The game at the highest level is losing two of its real characters at a time when there are precious few of that ilk still around.
When I joined this newspaper back in 1997 my first 'away' mission was to head for Limerick and my alma matter, then Thomond College now UL, to see how provincial rugby was adapting and how Munster rugby was embracing the early days of professionalism and all it entailed.
It was an enlightening experience, albeit a long way removed from where the pro game is now at. But my single most abiding memory of that visit and that day wasn't so much the set-up or the evolving work schedule; instead it was the chat I had with a fresh-faced flanker playing then out of Shannon.
The former Abbey CBS and Clanwilliam youth exuded enthusiasm. From that day, I have followed, often up close and personal, his playing career with something more than a journalistic interest.
It has been fulfilling in so many ways, with 211 appearances for Munster and another 27 for Ireland. The Test count should have been so many more, yet I know he is happy with his lot.
What rankles, and will to his dying day, is the one that got away -- the Lions Tour to South Africa in 2009. To have become a Lion would have topped the lot.
Disappointing though it would have been to miss out on selection, to have made the cut and then to have it taken away through suspension made for the biggest single disappointment of an otherwise outstanding career.
What hurts even more is that the fault was his and his alone. Not Leo Cullen, not the ERC disciplinary committee, not the media. What he did was indefensible and cost him dear. The 'nice guy' defence didn't wash and nor should it ever.
But Quinny isn't the glass half-empty type. When the Munster back-rows are assembled and true greats assessed, the name Alan Quinlan will figure every time.
He was rightly renowned as a pain in the a*** for every opposition. He was mouthy, irritating, mean, niggardly. He coughed up penalties, kicked ball he was never designed to, lived on the wrong side of off, but what a player!
A natural footballer with innate ball-handling skills and intuitive running ability, he was always comfortable in possession.
Then there was the line-out, where he was a nightmare, as likely to appear at two or four on the opposition throw as he was at the tail. The script never varied -- an arm here, an elbow there, a leg anywhere. Whatever it took, he would ensure possession was turned over.
He will be remembered not just for the great competitor he was, but for the obvious way he enjoyed his game. Could there be a better way to live the dream?
'Lewey' was a different kettle of fish entirely. Like his sports-mad (and former cricket international) dad Ian, Alan was an immensely gifted sportsman, as a schoolboy scrum-half initially but more so as a cricketing all-rounder.
A haul of 121 caps for Ireland -- 35 as captain -- bears testimony to that ability but add to that a career at the top of Test rugby, embracing some 45 internationals, and we are talking about a unique talent.
I remember back in the mid to late 1980s going along to Merrion Road to watch the former Booterstown student take charge of one of his first senior matches -- a friendly between Wanderers and Garryowen.
Though a boy amongst men, he exuded confidence and control. And that has been the hallmark of a great refereeing career.
Lewey has never lacked self-assurance but has channelled that inner belief in the proper way as a top-class referee. His communication skills are second to none, his body language and mid-match verbal control exemplary.
I loved his no-nonsense instructions, particularly when putting some of the game's so-called superstars in their place, but never in a condescending away. The inter-action was always based on the principle of mutual respect.
And there is one thing for sure -- he could never be accused of was being a 'homer'. If anything he was an 'awayer'. He relished the hostile home crowd (particularly in France), the atmosphere and the pressure being directed at him -- so much so that, if anything, he veered the opposite way.
I know he is disappointed at being overlooked for what would have been his third World Cup. I haven't spoken to him since the announcement, but he wouldn't be human if that disappointment hadn't hastened this decision now.
For sure, Paddy O'Brien and the IRB have got this call wrong. Lewis is still at the very top of his game -- a fact acknowledged by players and officials everywhere -- New Zealand apart.
Owen Doyle continues to oversee a remarkably successful refereeing department at the IRFU, with three Irish officials -- George Clancy, Simon McDowell and Alain Rolland -- listed for duty at World Cup 2011.
But what Lewis brought to the table was limitless enthusiasm, a sense of humour and more than anything extraordinarily perceptive and well-pitched communication skills.
I sincerely hope that, on two levels, he will continue his involvement in the game.
He has so much to offer in the recruitment and training of young referees, while his availability to the schools would be a great boost to future generations.
The same applies to Quinlan. It would be a shame to see him drift out of a direct involvement in the game. I know he is keen to develop his media involvement but that can be done in tandem with coaching at whatever level he chooses.
How much better the game is for both of these class acts passing our way.