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In a puff, my sporting career was stubbed out

Myself and the Arsenal captain, William Gallas, have something in common: we both like a fag. Regrettably, the similarities end there; he is an elite athlete and sportsman whose appearance in public last week holding an unlit cigarette caused a furore, while my sporting -- and smoking -- career peaked with my selection for Bective Rangers 3rd Bs rugby team.

Gallas's manager, the redo-ubtable Arsene Wenger, threw a strop when the photo of his captain appeared in the press. "He has a responsibility as captain of Arsenal and that cannot be accepted -- it is a public job with a public responsibility."

My manager, the equally redoubtable club alikadoo nicknamed Muscles, never minded a bit of cigarette smoke in the dressingroom. He used to inhale the heady scent of Marlboros and Wintergreen and ann-ounce: "Well boys, at least we smell fit."

I always treasured the first fag after training or after a match. It was as if the lungs had been given a good workout by all the running about, scrummaging and tackling and were more receptive than usual to that first cut of nicotine-laden smoke.

I never actually took to the rugby pitch while smoking, but I did walk to the wicket once while smoking a pipe during a cricket match against arch-rivals The Irish Times, scored a quick 20 runs and retired, still puffing on my Kapp & Peterson briar.

Of course, I have tried to quit many times. I was off the cigarettes for six years while I was still playing rugby. When I quit, I expected a complete transformation in my fitness. I pictured myself taking scoring passes and being first to every breakdown.

What actually happened was that I was just as unfit as ever, but I took less time to get my breath back as I stood, hands on knees at a lineout, wheezing for dear life.

As a "sportsman" who has battled the weed, tales of smoking and sport have always inspired me. I was a great admirer of the French full-back Serge Blanco, who smoked 40 a day while winning two Grand Slams.

Serge claimed the fags didn't affect his fitness, and kept his weight down.

In Trevor Brennan's autobiography Heart and Soul, he recalls being selected on the bench for a rugby match between Ireland and South Africa in Bloemfontein in 1998: "Claw, aka Peter Clohessy, and Hendo, aka Rob Henderson, were also on the replacements' bench and they duly lit up a couple of fags. I couldn't believe it. 'How could they be doing this. We're playing the Springboks today. Mad.'"

But really, there's nothing mad about it. If you're addicted to nicotine, you won't perform very well without it. Just ask Bobby Charlton, who smoked during half-time in the 1966 World Cup final, or Olympic athlete Hestrie Cloete, who switched from the 800m to the high jump to accommodate her 20-a-day habit.

"I jump with my legs, not my lungs," she said after winning the silver medal in 2004. She added that she would smoke between rounds if she could.

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England cricketer Mark Butcher would agree. He scored a match-winning 173 not out against the Australians at Headingley in 2001.

Asked how he kept his concentration going during the lunch interval, he said he sat in the toilets and smoked Benson & Hedges.

Cricket is a sport especially conducive to smoking. The breaks for lunch and tea are ideally spaced out, and if your team is batting and you are down the order, the lure of a walk around the boundary and a smoke is strong.

One of the bowlers on our little office team used to smoke while fielding, and once took a beauty of a catch with one hand while holding a Silk Cut Purple in the other. He deigned to put out his cigarette while bowling. In fact, he marked the end of his run-up with his stubbed-out fag end.

I do not mean to say that sportsmen should smoke. I'm sure those who do wish they didn't. But in the scheme of things, it's not the greatest evil in the world, and people, even sportsmen, have a right to live as they see fit, within the law, both of the land and of the sport.