Munster's ultimate warrior
Quinlan - one of the last true characters of Irish rugby
Published 13/04/2011 | 05:00
"To be a warrior is not a simple matter of wishing to be one, it is rather an endless struggle that will go on to the very last moment." - Carlos Castaneda
One by one, they are dropping off. The last links to the All-Ireland League-driven amateur era which forged the success Irish rugby has experienced, and continues to experience, since 2000.
Munster's Keith Wood, Peter Clohessy and Mick Galwey successfully bridged the amateur and professional days, as did Ulster's Paddy Johns and David Humphreys and Eric Elwood with Connacht -- all long since retired.
In more recent times, Denis Hickie, Malcolm O'Kelly and Girvan Dempsey have moved on, and John Hayes and Ronan O'Gara are on the last laps of glittering careers dating back to Saturday afternoons in the 1990s when thronged clubhouses around the country stood glued to AIL teletext results, pints temporarily forgotten.
It is not that the professional era does not produce memorable individuals, but the cloistered, tracksuit-clad environment of the modern pro game creates a homogenous effect far removed from the differing backgrounds and occupations of the amateur days.
Alan Quinlan is still going strong at 36 and is good enough to play on for a while yet. The word 'character' is over-used (and frequently misused) in sport, but if Quinlan calls time on his playing days at the end of this season, Irish rugby will lose one of the true characters of the game.
Either way, now is a good time to look back on a memorable career.
Quinlan is old school and in some respects a pioneer for rugby in this country. It is not that Co Tipperary did not produce quality rugby players before Quinlan, but they were thin on the ground.
Rory Moroney hailed from Clonmel and was an accomplished centre for Lansdowne in the 1980s, picking up a Triple Crown in 1985, but it was not until Quinlan established himself as a major rugby figure that the county began to produce a regular stream of top-line players.
In the last 10 years, Tipperary natives Denis Leamy, Trevor Hogan, Donnacha Ryan and John Fogarty have all come through to be capped by Ireland -- not bad going for a county defined by its All-Ireland hurling titles -- and Quinlan was the forerunner.
From Tipperary Town, his performances with Clanwilliam and the Irish Youths saw him move to the 1990s club phenomenon that was Shannon RFC. This served as the perfect launch-pad for his rugby ambitions, with Quinlan forming an omnipotent back-row alongside Anthony Foley and Eddie Halvey.
Although not the most physically imposing forward at the time, even before the advent of full-time training, it is easy to recall the young Quinlan's performances for his club and Munster underage and development sides ear-marking him as a player destined for higher honours. The move to the province's senior set-up in 1996 was inevitable.
The breakthrough performance for Munster came the following year in European Cup defeat to Cardiff at Musgrave Park (the province's only home reverse in the competition until Leicester conquered Thomond 10 years later). A series of barnstorming surges in that encounter saw the hype increase exponentially.
While modesty has always defined his off-pitch utterances, Quinlan's game is characterised by his assurance on it. That had less to do with the ill-advised dalliance with peroxide blond hair in the late 1990s than the constant seeking of a central role in the knowledge that he could make a difference to the result.
Less visual was the verbal self-belief he used to raise his own levels and chip away at his opponent's. This could be as simple as telling his opposite number he was about to miss a line-out throw or highlighting mistakes when they did occur. These doubt-instilling tactics have always been part of rugby and there has been none better than Quinlan to prey on psychological insecurities in the heat of battle.
Swiftly establishing himself in the Munster set-up, Quinlan went on to make more than 200 appearances for the province, picking up two Heineken Cup medals along the way and maintaining the highest training and playing standards well into his 30s (he turns 37 in July).
With Ireland, 11 starts in 27 appearances do not do justice to the ability he brought to the table. Simon Easterby's sustained presence on the blind-side flank for much of the 2000s was a major factor, as was a reputation for ill-discipline, copper-fastened by his Nicholas Cage (Gone In 60 Seconds) yellow card turn off the bench against the All Blacks in 2002.
That was a dark experience, as was the suspension that cost him a career-crowning Lions tour in 2009, and Quinlan spoke candidly about his battles with depression in his autobiography 'Red Blooded' last year.
Quinlan's mother Mary is one of the most popular members of a Munster clan who regard her son as a cult figure and, whenever he decides to call time, you would expect the former motor mechanic to remain involved in the game. He has been touted for a potential off-field role in bringing through the next generation of Munster talent, and given Quinlan's on-field influence on youngsters taking up the oval ball, this would seem to be a natural progression.
However, no matter how talented the next crop, it will be difficult to unearth someone with Quinlan's one-of-a-kind presence.
So how do we define character?
"Character is the quality of being individual, displaying strength and originality in a person's nature, typically in an interesting or unusual way."
That will do.