WHEN Peter Stringer first came onto the club rugby scene with UCC in the mid-1990s, to say he was written off would be a massive understatement.
University sides, drawn primarily from the 18-22 age bracket, were expected to be callow, but, with Stringer, it was ridiculous. He looked about 10, like one of the waifs in a musical production of 'Oliver' and, as well as being met by guffaws of disbelief when he took to the pitch against grown men, he was also greeted with widespread scepticism about his capacity to survive at senior level.
UCC had a wing-forward at that time, Donncha Murphy, who was only about 5' 9" himself, but hard as nails, and it was Murphy who was tasked with looking after the will-o-the-wisp No 9.
"I remember Stringer coming out of school with my brother, Mick," recalls John O'Driscoll, tight-head prop on that UCC side. "He was absolutely tiny, even for an 18-year-old -- he hadn't a pick on him and we were thinking there's no way he could make it.
"We had a good team that year -- Frankie Sheahan, John Kelly, Micko in the second-row with John Fitzgerald and we had Murph, whose job it was to look after Stringer.
"Teams would try to rough Stringer up, but they had to get hold of him first and Murph was there to sort it out if they did. Stringer was fantastic, a brilliant passer and, even though he was so small, he was incredibly tough and hugely dedicated in training."
Stringer was on the UCC side that won the European Students title in 1999; by this stage he had come onto Munster's radar. He was met with the same doubts from team-mates and dismissal from opponents when he broke through, but coach Declan Kidney knew exactly what he brought to the table -- to the point where he selected Stringer ahead of two international scrum-halves, Brian O'Meara and Tom Tierney.
The international call-up was not long following. Stringer made his debut alongside Ronan O'Gara, Shane Horgan, John Hayes and Simon Easterby in 2000 and was installed as Ireland's first-choice No 9 for the next seven and a half years.
Never a smoker or drinker, Stringer bulked up impressively to mix it at the top level and his consistent displays were central to the progress of the Munster and Ireland sides through the 2000s.
It was at the World Cup in 2007 when his status as first-choice was diminished. Having started against Namibia and Georgia, Stringer was dropped for Eoin Reddan and, though he has won 19 caps since, 13 have been off the bench.
Not long after that World Cup, Stringer lost his place with Munster also, when Kidney caused a major surprise by dropping him for Tomas O'Leary ahead of the Heineken Cup quarter-final clash with Gloucester in 2008.
His consistency and quality of service have never wavered and there were powerful arguments in favour of bringing Stringer to the World Cup in New Zealand where introducing him off the bench would have guaranteed an increase in tempo.
The emergence of Conor Murray has pushed Stringer further down the selection chain with Munster and Ireland and, for a player of his quality and achievement, it has been a dispiriting experience
However, rather than slip quietly towards retirement, Stringer has taken the proactive step of joining Saracens on a three-month deal and should be applauded for still having that desire at this stage of his career.
As should O'Leary's interest in a move abroad to re-establish himself after missing out on the World Cup. Too many players would be content to get their wages and go through the motions, Winston Bogarde-style, rather than challenge themselves in search of game-time.
Stringer's decision looks like a win-win for him and Saracens. The London club need quality and experience at No 9 and Stringer has that in abundance, while playing Heineken Cup puts him back in the shop window with the Six Nations just around the corner.
Stringer turns 34 next Tuesday and has 98 Ireland caps and 90 Heineken Cup appearances to his name. He has come a long way since he had to be minded in UCC, and you would not bet against him becoming a double centurion before he retires.
"I'd like to think I've another few years left in me," says Stringer. "I'm looking to get out and play -- that's all I've ever wanted to do."