Saturday 25 March 2017

Alan Quinlan: 'The guy who sends an elbow at your head can still be a friend'

Irish international warfare is perfectly acceptable when Leinster and Munster do battle because losing is unbearable

Alan Quinlan, Munster, is restrained by Shane Horgan, Leinster, who in turn is restrained by Paul O'Connell and Jerry Flannery, 2, as Quinlan confronts Leo Cullen
Alan Quinlan, Munster, is restrained by Shane Horgan, Leinster, who in turn is restrained by Paul O'Connell and Jerry Flannery, 2, as Quinlan confronts Leo Cullen

Alan Quinlan

I see the boot coming. But there is nothing I can do to stop it landing on my ribs. And it stings. First, there's pain. And then there's anger and in your mind, all you are thinking is that you can't wait to let him know that your fists and boots can cause hurt too.

But the chance doesn't come. Worse again, there's another moment, about five minutes later, when he's standing just a foot or two away and you reckon you can get him back.

Instead, he lands his blow first. Smack. His elbow connects with the side of my head and even though there isn't much physical pain, my pride takes a bruising.

That's twice now. Twice that the same bloke has got me and twice I've not been able to let him see, or let him feel, what an angry Alan Quinlan is capable of.

Pissed off, I lick my wounds and accept it.

Accept it until I see him an hour-and-a-half later in the corner of a bar. He catches my eye too, gets up from his seat, goes to the counter and orders a drink.

Next thing, he's coming towards me.

You think, is this the moment when you get revenge? The time you hit him back and let him know you won't be walked over by anyone?

Munster's Alan Quinlan and Leinster's Gordon D'Arcy after a Munster v Leinster match
Munster's Alan Quinlan and Leinster's Gordon D'Arcy after a Munster v Leinster match

No.

This is the time you start laughing at the f**ker who walked over you at the bottom of a ruck and who later swung an elbow at you. This is when you invite him into your company and say, 'Trevor Brennan, you're one mad bastard' and you hear him say, 'maybe so, but I'm not half as mad as you'. And then he hands you a pint and you drink and you talk and you laugh until the small hours of the morning have arrived and it's time to go home.

In 1998, we're young men, rivals for the same position on the Ireland team and players on rival sides - Munster and Leinster.

On the pitch, we try and take each other's heads off, we stamp over one another, if we're stupid - or unlucky - enough, to be lying on the wrong side of a ruck.

We annoy the hell out of one another but there's one thing that we - and none of us - ever do. We don't sledge. We don't make it personal. Because we know what's coming next, a period when we'll go from being provincial rivals to international team-mates.

And in the case of Trevor and I, we won't just be team-mates, we'll be room-mates - where, for weeks at a time, we'll lie in beds three feet apart and talk like brothers.

He'll be welcoming and warm, open and honest. He'll think nothing of going to the jacks if he's in the middle of a story and leaving the door open so that you can hear the remainder of his tale - and I'll scream with laughter at the punchline and the madness of the scene. I won't walk on egg-shells around him. I'll even open up about personal stuff. I'll look out for him if he's sleeping it out and could potentially be late for a team meeting.

And he'll do the same for me. Strange as this may sound, the guy who sends an elbow in the direction of my head - and one whose head gets a whack off my elbow - is someone I still regard as a friend. A proper bloke. A mad bastard.

He isn't the only one. At different stages, I was competing with Eric Miller, Shane Jennings and Victor Costello for a place on the Ireland side yet even though they were rivals, they were also room-mates.

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How do you explain that? How do you make sense of the idea that you could one day be watching a guy's back - and the next day be trying to thump into him on a pitch, which is what CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, will be at today.

And the answer is, I don't know.

It is just something we grew up with. The structure has always been there. First, you play for your province and then, if you are lucky, for your country. And it is bizarre that on days like today you will give everything to beat the man who, a few weeks previously, you were scrapping alongside to get a victory.

One evening you can be hitting a man with an elbow in the head and then later, at three in the morning, the pair of you can be walking down Baggot Street finishing off a fish supper and the chorus of Dirty Old Town.

That's rugby. That's Munster and Leinster.

And I love the rivalry.

Days like this were what we lived for as players. We'd wake up on the Monday of game-week and be buzzing for the training, never mind the match. We'd sense the magnitude of the game all around us, on the street, in the supermarket, at the post office.

Strangers came up to you. "Will you do it?" they used to ask. Then, as the rivalry grew, the narrative would change. "You better do it," they'd say.

That was around 2006. Things had changed by then. Neither of us had yet won a Heineken Cup, even though we'd both been knocking on the door for a good while.

We were paired in the semis and so much was made of the fact that there was a cultural difference between the provinces, the old urban-and-rural thing. But the truth was different.

The rivalry was real but it wasn't rooted in our social backgrounds. It was much, much simpler than that. As players, all we wanted was to win. We didn't regard Leinster's players as snobs, guys born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Nor did they see us as country buffoons. And if people wanted to paint us in that light, then they were wrong and wide of the mark.

A respect was there. They were friends.

But whenever we played them, we had to win and had to because rugby is a ruthless game. Defeats hurt. The silence of a dressing room after a defeat in a Leinster-Munster game is one of the most horrible experiences any of us have ever lived through.

The worst time? That was 2009. Croke Park. Heineken Cup semi-final. Everything went wrong that day. They were good. We weren't. They deserved their win. We deserved to sit in silence afterwards.

That season we had comfortably beaten them twice and were confident we could do so again. But this is a derby where logic rarely applies, which is why I'd call you a fool if you wrote Munster off this evening. Yes, as you have seen elsewhere on these pages, I think Leinster have got the better individual players.

But that doesn't mean they'll win because Leinster-Munster is a complex thing. Players don't hate one another. Just losing.

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