Tuesday 17 September 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'There was all sorts going on - haymakers being thrown everywhere, gouging, stamping, you name it'

The Ireland squad receive instructions from strength and conditioning coach Jason Cowman during the Ireland Rugby captain's run at Twickenham Stadium in London, England. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
The Ireland squad receive instructions from strength and conditioning coach Jason Cowman during the Ireland Rugby captain's run at Twickenham Stadium in London, England. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

Geordan Murphy’s horror leg break against Scotland in 2003; Shane Horgan’s innocuous knee injury in Murrayfield four years later; tossing and turning the night before the 2007 squad selection, utterly convinced that a scrum-cap error would cost me a spot on the plane; the brutal Battle of Bayonne which left Brian O’Driscoll with a fractured sinus.

I could go on, these are just a few of the incidents that blotted the warm-up games during my playing days.

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David Wallace (2011) and Tommy O'Donnell (2015) have more recently been felled by misfortune at this peculiar time of the World Cup cycle.

The grand stage may be set but a treacherous obstacle course must first be navigated before global ambitions can be realised.

Warm-up games and bad-news stories go hand-in-hand. Players and supporters are on tenterhooks; players hoping to make the final cut, fans desperate to see Ireland’s best squad available for the biggest rugby tournament there is.

I was on the fringes in 2007, probably 50-50 to make the 30-man squad, as it was then. I was no higher than the fifth- or sixth-ranked back-rower at a time when Eddie O’Sullivan could call on the likes of ‘Wally’, Denis Leamy, Simon Easterby, Stephen Ferris and Neil Best, with Keith Gleeson and Jamie Heaslip also in the mix.

Shane Horgan lies on the ground after injuring himself in the Rugby World Cup warm-up game against Scotland at Murrayfield back in August 2007. Photo: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE
Shane Horgan lies on the ground after injuring himself in the Rugby World Cup warm-up game against Scotland at Murrayfield back in August 2007. Photo: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

Somewhat prematurely, in hindsight, the squad was being announced on August 12, the day after our first warm-up game – a 31-21 defeat to Scotland – and almost a full month before our tournament opener against Namibia.

We returned from Edinburgh on the night of August 11 and got settled into the Killiney Castle Hotel ahead of the next day’s potentially career-defining announcement. I was rattled.

I had done reasonably well off the bench in Scotland, introduced in the second-row, but I couldn’t call it – was I in or out?

Then, out of the blue, I was summoned by Eddie. I may have been rattled, but soon I was shook.

I walked straight into some serious hairdryer treatment; I had forgotten to cover up the branding on my scrum cap against Scotland – an obligatory use of tape at the time because it wasn’t made by Canterbury, our kit manufacturers.

Eddie blasted me out of it for my carelessness. I hardly slept a wink, furious with myself that an error so small could cost me so dearly. Somehow, my name was still called out the next morning.

We were soon all whisked off to the south of France for a five-day, warm-weather training camp in the scenic coastal town of Capbreton, 40km north of Biarritz.

Unfortunately, a naively-arranged 'friendly' on a Thursday night against Bayonne, at their sold-out, 15,000-capacity Stade Jean Dauger, would end that trip on a vicious, sour note.

Brian O'Driscoll is attended to by medical staff after an off the ball incident against Bayonne in a Rugby World Cup warm-up game against Bayonne at the Stade Jean Dauger, Bayonne, France back in August 2007. Photo: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
Brian O'Driscoll is attended to by medical staff after an off the ball incident against Bayonne in a Rugby World Cup warm-up game against Bayonne at the Stade Jean Dauger, Bayonne, France back in August 2007. Photo: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE

We walked straight into an old-school ambush. It was essentially a World Cup final for the hosts, and after a couple of early tries from Paul O'Connell and Denis Hickie extinguished any faint hopes they had of causing an upset, they set about making their mark on us, literally, in any way they could.

The cowardly, blindside punch on 'Drico' got the most attention in the aftermath for obvious reasons, the facial fracture raising serious fitness fears around our captain just three weeks out from the World Cup.

But there was all sorts going on – haymakers being thrown everywhere, gouging, stamping, you name it – as a 28-year-old Wayne Barnes struggled to put out the fires.

It turned into close-combat warfare, perhaps appropriately enough for the town that gave its name to the bayonet. Not so appropriate for a group of players preparing for one of the biggest challenges of their sporting lives.

I didn’t see a minute of Rugby World Cup action after all that drama, although considering how things panned out in 2007, being a member of the Bordeaux Four – Ferris, Brian Carney and Bryan Young didn’t play at all either – at least kept us out of the firing line when the disastrous performances were dissected.

Thankfully, lessons have been learned since those callow days of international rugby – the thought of Ireland playing a begrudging Munster outfit in a 1999 warm-up seems neolithic now – but the risks of injury, as Joey Carbery’s misfortune taught us two weeks ago, still lurk all around.

As a player, in a game as physical as this, you know that your next injury setback could be just around the corner, but during the heat of a hectic season you don’t get a chance to really consider it.

When an occasion as grand as the Rugby World Cup is within your grasp, it adds a different mental dimension. And that is irrespective of whether you are fighting for your spot on the plane or confident your place is secure as long as you stay fit and well.

These games are essentially a necessary evil.

You need to develop match sharpness – despite the obvious risks – particularly when you don’t have the luxury of easing your way into the World Cup campaign against the pool minnows.

Taking on our two Six Nations conquerors – including the No 1 side in the world twice – presents the perfect opportunity for Joe Schmidt's side to panel-beat their confidence back to its pre-spring state.

Add in the caveat that Ireland would top the world rankings for the first time with a win against England today and there should be no shortage of motivation to deliver a big performance in south-west London.

The side’s more established figures may want to just get through these games injury-free and with added sharpness, but for the likes of Ross Byrne, Jack Carty, Tadhg Beirne, Jean Kleyn, Seán Cronin, Jack McGrath, Luke McGrath and Andrew Conway, today’s outing means a whole lot more.

Schmidt won’t solely make his final cull on the basis of these next three games – the recent release of John Cooney, Finlay Bealham and Mike Haley taught us that – but if you can perform against a near full-strength England side at Twickenham, it will make it a lot more difficult to leave you out.

I suspect if Johnny Sexton had enjoyed an uninterrupted build-up to this series of games he would be desperate to feature prominently over the coming weeks, even though many supporters would prefer to see him wrapped up in cotton wool until September 22 in Yokohama.

Getting – and staying – sharp, is crucial at this stage of a World Cup cycle. Look at this year’s hurling championship, for an example, closer to home. Limerick were looming as likely back-to-back champions but went four weeks without a game and were caught a little cold in the semi-final against Kilkenny.

You need regular matches to be operating at your peak and thankfully, from my perspective, Tipperary seemed to benefit from their busier schedule.

The next couple of weeks are all about tuning up and trimming down. Let’s just hope, assuming Carbery's recovery goes to plan, there are no more hard-luck stories this time around.

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