LAST month, Trevor Hogan was able to go home at Christmas for the first time in years.
Normally it is one of the busiest periods of the rugby calendar but, though he had managed to play 40 minutes against the Dragons a few weeks previously, Hogan's knee problems had escalated to the point of no return. His rugby career was over at 31, and he knew it.
"I had a week and a half, my first Christmas at home in a long time. I spent a lot of that time just walking in the fields and reflecting on everything and, gradually, I started to come to terms with it.
"My mother keeps a rugby scrapbook and there was stuff all over my room going back to my days playing for Nenagh and Trinity, Shannon, Blackrock and then the games for Munster, Leinster and Ireland.
"She had kept the report from the Dragons match a few weeks before and when I looked at that, I realised that it was the last match I would ever play.
"Then, I gathered everything up, put it all in a box and threw it up in the attic. Time for a new life."
born in November 1979, Hogan was named after Nottingham Forest striker Trevor Francis, but, although there were a variety of sports to attract his attention (not least hurling in a town that has produced All-Ireland winners of the calibre of Michael Cleary and Conor O'Donovan), rugby became his passion.
Starting with Nenagh RFC, Hogan was capped at Ireland youth level and went on to play for Trinity, an all-conquering Shannon side and Blackrock. He was on Munster's books when they landed their first Heineken Cup title in 2006.
Although he made 59 senior appearances for the province, the presence of Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan and Mick O'Driscoll meant first-team selection was always going to be a struggle and Hogan, along with flanker Stephen Keogh, decided to take the plunge with Leinster -- signing off with a memorable rendition of 'Slievenamon' after the season finale against Cardiff at Thomond Park.
The 2004-07 period was the best of Hogan's career.
He played twice for the Ireland senior team against Japan in 2005 and, after an impressive run of games for Leinster, came off the bench against Italy in the 2007 Six Nations before picking up his fourth cap on that summer's tour to Argentina.
At that point, Hogan's career was on the up, a quality second-row who mixed physicality with athleticism in a manner ideally suited to the modern game. Then came the Scarlets ...
HOGAN recalls: "It was an ordinary tackle but I got a bad tear on the cartilage in my right knee. We stitched it back together but unfortunately it got infected.
They tell you there's a 10,000/1 chance but it happened and I just had to deal with it.
"When I came back, I was never running right. You try and stay focused and try not to think about any negatives, but the truth is I never properly recovered."
There were dark days, when he questioned would he ever play again.
"I remember being out in Santry on a drip for nine days. It was a new hospital and there was no one there. You're stuck there on this drip worrying about the future and it was pretty grim.
"I came out of the place looking like a hunger striker.
"They let me back in my apartment but I still had to get the drip done every four hours on a 24-hour cycle and I got very down.
"But then the nurses would call over and tell me about patients they were treating who were dying from cancer and it put everything in perspective.
"My sister is a doctor and for those three weeks in the apartment she helped do the drip every four hours. One night around 1.30, the line going into my vein got blocked and the blood was flowing all down my arm.
"We had to make a dash for the clinic, blood everywhere, my sister frantically trying to put the line back in and me trying to make jokes.
"It was probably the darkest moment and upsetting for my family but, look, I don't want to make myself out to be a martyr; these are the things that make you stronger and there's a lot worse that people have to deal with."
Through all those dark days, Hogan maintained an unswerving belief that he could overcome his injury and last summer, during pre-season, he was ready for a fresh start.
"People on the outside only see the matches, but the hardest days are the training days when you're not able to do yourself justice and, mentally, it catches up with you.
"I probably pushed it too hard but that's the mentality of rugby players until eventually you realise your body is not up to it and you can't do the extra running or throw up the massive weights like Cian (Healy) and Jamie (Heaslip).
"But you cling on to hope and I targeted this pre-season. Joe (Schmidt) had come in and he wanted to see what people could do and then, second session in, the knee went.
"I went to (knee specialist) Ray Moran and he said: 'Trev, I've operated on it so many times there's nothing more to be done. How long more are you expecting to play rugby?'.
"I told him I had planned a big season and hopefully was going to get another two years out of it, but he looked at me and said I'd be doing well to get through the year and that was the defining moment; I realised all my positivity was for nothing and the protective shield I had put up was cracked. It was over."
when Hogan walks in, it is hard to fathom that he is on the rugby scrap-heap. He looks in prime condition and, fully fit, would be at his peak for a second-row at just 31.
There is more than enough ammunition for bitterness and regret, but Hogan refuses to indulge it, preferring to look to a positive future.
He has a degree in journalism but plans to go back to college in the autumn with a view to becoming a second-level history teacher and hopes to help out with Nenagh, where it all started.
He is also planning a trip to the West Bank with the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
"It's something I have a huge interest in because I believe Irish people have a lot in common with the Palestinians in terms of colonial history and there is not much awareness of what is going on over there. There have been seven Palestinians killed by the Israelis since the new year and it gets no attention."
That is the future, and when he dwells on the past, gratitude is Hogan's dominant emotion. "The support has been incredible. From medical people like Ray and Alfie Tanner to Hamish Adams with IRUPA and Joe (Schmidt), Guy (Easterby) and Jono (Gibbes) for allowing me to tailor my training.
"The players too always give you a lift. This is a tight-knit squad at Leinster and they rally around, while you draw strength from guys like Jerry Flannery, who has similar experiences.
"My family and girlfriend have been great as well and now that it's over I'm just so grateful.
"I think back to the Ireland Youths when the guy giving out the jerseys said: 'Some of you might never get another cap in your lives, but maybe some of you will'.
"I was fortunate enough to do that and have enjoyed a great career so why be bitter? I feel incredibly lucky."