David Breen: 'I've yet to really hit my potential'
Limerick's Breen eager to return from injury and make up for lost time, writes Jackie Cahill
DAVID Breen cuts an imposing figure as he walks into the lobby of Limerick's Clarion Hotel on the Dock Road. After exchanging initial pleasantries, he surveys the breakfast area and heads for the 'athlete' section.
Breen stocks up on fruit, brown bread, scrambled eggs and coffee before the interview begins.
It's the morning of the Allianz Hurling League semi-finals and while Limerick have no direct involvement, it will turn out to be another seismic day in the county's colourful hurling history. Breen was not to know it at the time, but later that evening, Donal O'Grady stepped down as the team's joint-manager.
It is clear during the course of our conversation that Breen held O'Grady in high regard.
Breen underwent surgery shortly after Na Piarsaigh's All-Ireland club hurling semi-final defeat to Portumna in February and while the player was out of sight, he was certainly not out of mind.
"Donal has rung me every week," Breen confirmed. "To see what the update is and things like that. He's very up front and straight with me and I'm going to try and give the same back."
Breen is facing a battle to be fit for Limerick's Munster SHC semi-final against Tipperary at Semple Stadium on June 1.
"I'm not ruling anything in or out," he says. "It might be a thing where I come back and they have their team fixed in their head and that will be fair enough. I'll see how club goes over the next two or three weeks and take it from there."
For now, Breen is busy ticking the boxes as he continues his rehabilitation but if there is one man you can count on to do it right, it's the former team captain.
He's a physiotherapist based at the Santry Sports Clinic in Dublin, a centre renowned for excellence. In his line of work, Breen has treated a number of GAA players and international class athletes, including a soccer player who recently travelled over from America.
Breen reveals: "You'd get a lot of IRFU players from different provinces, a lot of jockeys and inter-county GAA players, in and out.
"We'd have a certain amount of international players that come over as well, particularly for groin problems – soccer, rugby league and rugby union.
"We had a guy over from the MLS, he spent two weeks working under one particular physio, every day, might do three sessions a day. It's great in that you're working with guys who are top of their fields. "They've failed in their treatments with their own teams and their own medical staff and the international ones can afford to come over and spend a week or two.
"It's good, but you can't be asking, 'any chance of a picture?' You have to be as professional as you can be."
Breen's own fitness is being monitored by Dr Eanna Falvey, medic with the Irish rugby team, and Ray Moran conducted the initial surgery on his knee. In medical terms, the root of Breen's problem was a biomechanical overload of the patellofemoral knee joint.
The issue dated back to repeated knee dislocations as a teenager and while he underwent a lateral release procedure, osteoarthritis and patellar tracking disorder are potential complications down the line.
"A lot of it is coming from hip control," Breen explains.
"If you have good control around the hip and pelvis, the knee responds better. For a long time, I was focusing on just the knee when it was further up the knee that needed to be addressed.
"It was chronically swollen, every time I played. It wasn't causing me too much pain because I was going through it for so long. But with the amount of swelling in the knee, the quads were wasting as a result.
"When you go over a certain amount of fluid in the knee, the quads shut off and they don't fire up as much as they should.
"Your quads are shock absorbers for your knee. A real Catch 22 situation, trying to build strength in the gym but that was causing the knee to swell up and the quads to shut down again."
That cycle repeated itself and Breen decided when Na Piarsaigh's club campaign came to an end, he would go under the knife. His awareness of his own body and injury is not surprising, given his profession.
It's over two years since Breen joined the Santry Sports Clinic, having worked there on a voluntary basis initially. His perseverance paid off and he is thoroughly enjoying life in Dublin.
"They got to know me, I got to know them," he recalls. "I started off volunteering on Mondays and tried to tie in my own job in Limerick, working longer hours Tuesday to Friday to free up the Monday.
"It was an area I wanted to get involved in and I was willing to do anything I could to get involved. It would be nice if there was a similar set-up in Limerick. You have the Galway clinic, the Whitfield clinic in Waterford catering for the Waterford-Kilkenny area and then you have sports surgery clinic in Santry.
The SSC is a passion for Breen, who previously worked for a private company covering the north Munster area, specialising in home health care.
"A completely different spectrum of the population, but important, nonetheless, because when you get to that stage of your life, you've got so many things going on, be it the different systems, be it in the groin, orthopedic or anything like that," he says.
"You can walk into a room in a nursing home and have a look at their chart and see a history of all sorts of different things going on.
"It's up to you to force yourself to understand it. It was a learning curve but it's the potential of what you can do in half an hour's work with someone at that age. Quality of life is your main goal and that's all they want as well.
"But I was gravitating more towards the younger, athletic population, people you could have more of a long term influence with."
Being based in the capital had its advantages, too, when Limerick ended a 16-year wait for Munster SHC glory last year.
As the county got carried away on a tidal wave of hope and expectation ahead of the All-Ireland semi-final loss to Clare, Breen was able to insulate himself from the hype.
He recalls: "For me, it was great. I'd come down from Dublin, pull into the Gaelic Grounds, train and head back for Dublin again, almost under the cover of darkness."
Breen still returns home at the weekends and the family recently moved to Cratloe in Clare, two doors from the Collins twins, Podge and Sean.
"You'd meet them every now and again, chat away and talk about transfer papers!" Breen smiles.
"I've actually moved closer to Na Piarsaigh since moving to Cratloe, than I was over in Corbally."
Breen, born in 1985, spent the first five years of his life in Cahir, county Tipperary. His father PJ, a native of Kilteely in Limerick, was an anaesthetist based in Cashel before taking a job in Limerick's regional hospital, where David had been born.
The family dropped anchor in Corbally after the move from Tipp and while Na Piarsaigh is based on the other side of the city, the Breen brothers joined there and won Limerick and Munster club titles in 2011 and 2013.
Adrian, the younger sibling and Kieran, the elder, have also immersed themselves in the medical life.
Kieran specialises in neurology at St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin and Adrian is in the final year of his pharmacy studies at UCC.
"Mam was a nurse back in the day, retired now. We were probably causing her too much hassle at home!" David smiles.
The Breens are a tight-knit bunch and fiercely ambitious in their professional and sporting lives.
But while renowned as a ball winning half-forward with Limerick, it's a label that David is not entirely comfortable with. A remarkable self-awareness has told him that he hasn't fulfilled his vast potential as an inter-county hurler, either. Injury, he concedes, has played a part in that.
He explained: "I've always felt I've never really hit my potential at county level. The last thing I want to do is go through my whole career and that being my one regret. Apart from that it's positional as well.
"Any player or any of my clubmen that know me know that the half-back line is where I seem to get the best out of myself.
"I've been involved since 2005, but I wasn't really taken seriously since 2009 when I made my championship start.
"That was in the forward line and I've been stuck up there ever since. "You kind of get that label of being a big man and being a physical presence.
"I grew up playing in the half-back line up until I was U-21 and that's a position I'm most comfortable in. I've gone back in centre-back with my club for the last two years and that's where I feel I can get my best.
"I'd hope to get a stint at county there at some stage if I can play my way onto that part of the field."
But for now, David Breen's sole focus is on regaining full fitness.
Then, and only then, can he start making up for lost time.