Sport Rugby

Wednesday 24 January 2018

'I have an appetite to keep on playing'

Wallace back and ready to put body on line for Ulster once more

Ulster's Paddy Wallace
Ulster's Paddy Wallace
David Kelly

David Kelly

Is it really worth it? Two Saturdays ago, if Paddy Wallace had enough time between getting dumped by an illegal late tackle and having his face shoved in Scottish mud by a lissome, languid centre almost half his age, this is the question he would have asked himself.

When he went to bed that night, the question barely needed repeating. He already knew the answer.

"That's it," Ulster's 34-year-old former Ireland international recalls now, with a smile. "I'm handing in my retirement papers!"

But then he didn't spend nine months of often lonesome, torturous mental and physical toil to have some young punk puncture all the dreams that propelled him through the dark days.

There were times when he never thought he could play professional rugby again, so there was no way a young kid was going to run a red pen through the script. He had worked too hard to just walk away.

And so, a week later, Wallace again lined out for Ulster's second side against Ayr in the British & Irish Cup.

Sure, he would finish the match in the sin-bin -- "I needed a rest" -- but, as Ulster reversed the humiliating defeat of a week earlier, he offered a dazzling reminder of his innate skill.

A shimmy through a gap. An offload in the tackle. An Ulster try.

Paddy Wallace was back.

It was fitting that Scotland should provide the setting for the first real test of his reconstructed knee; after all, it had shattered 40 miles down the road in Glasgow in the 49th minute of a Pro12 game on February 22.

DILAPIDATED

He would work all week, his ruinous body mocking his claims to be an integral part of the first team, while the mind tried to pretend that somehow he was.

When his team-mates departed for whatever game they were playing on the weekend, his mind games had been trumped by his dilapidated body, trapped as if within a prison sentence.

"It can be frustrating at times because you sometimes feel better than you actually are," says Wallace, likely to make his return to the first-team at Ravenhill tomorrow night against Italian whipping boys Zebre.

"It's the time element that really gets you. You have to break it up into bits of time -- that keeps you motivated. Otherwise you have the nine months hanging over your head. It's such a long time. It can be frustrating, sometimes you're not making the progress that you think you should be. And on other occasions, you think you can push ahead, but you have to be held back.

"So, yeah, I've seen the family a wee bit more than I usually do. At least I was home for the weekends. That's the strange thing about it. And you're in work all week. It feels like you're part of something. But then the last part of the week is always hard. You're left alone by yourself or with the injured group. They go off to play and all you can do is just sit at home and watch TV."

While all around the cruciate may heal and strengthen, the graft that replaced the ligament needs time. A player can think he's ready. But he's not. "It needs to be at a level when you can play again. It takes a year before it's 100pc, I'm now around 90pc."

Wallace, brave as they come, has suffered more physical punishment than most; as he impatiently waited for his cruciate to heal, he decided to undergo shoulder surgery -- as you do.

He hadn't really been able to lift weights properly since around the 2011 World Cup; he had surgery at the end of that season on his right shoulder and continued to play with pain. Then, he tore a rotator cuff in his left shoulder at the beginning of last season. With his lower half out of action, he figured he may as well work on the other half.

"It's a bit like Father Time is knocking on an old man's door," he says ruefully. On some days, it has felt as if his diminishing, uncooperative body was been dragged through a jungle. Sometimes he would greet the day and feel capable of anything.

"I'd feel all those things, sometimes in the same moment," he says now. "I've had a whole body MOT after a few years of punishment. Being undersized in my position probably doesn't help.

"I do feel fresh, though, I have had that amount of time out to sort out other parts of my body. The proof of the pudding will be when I get back playing properly, how my body reacts and how it feels in the next few months.

"I have an appetite to keep on playing. But I won't do that if my body is not helping me. I don't want to do it if I feel like it's at a sub-standard level."

His IRFU employers have stuck by him, extending his contract. But, at the end of this season, whatever about Wallace making a decision, others will too.

The IRFU are unlikely to offer him much; Ulster's willingness to offer something will depend on what Wallace can offer them in return.

"I'll have to wait and see how I feel myself, in terms of whether I keep going or not," he reveals. "I'm still looking very much in the short-term. I'm going to really test the knee in these few weeks.

"Then, when I come through that, I should have more clarity in terms of how it may feel long-term. In terms of training, I feel very capable and feel that I've a lot more to give.

"I'm aware of how much strength in depth we have in my position and around me here at Ulster. So I know that I'm not going to force myself straight into the team. There are lots of things to consider."

He wants to win another title with Ulster; it's been seven years since he last tasted success with the province. He wants that elusive 200th cap, too -- he is currently on 188.

He would have loved the opportunity to work with Joe Schmidt, but accepts that avenue may have closed for good.

"I haven't really thought too much about Ireland. It's a new lease of life and a freshness that I would have loved to have been involved with.

"When you hear Brian O'Driscoll raving about someone, you know he's world class and it would have been nice to work with someone like Joe."

Small steps. If the last year has taught him anything, it is not to allow his mind to jump ahead of himself. Especially if his body can't cash the cheque.

"That at least was the good thing about that day in Ayr," he says. "I was getting all the treatment, the late tackles and all that. But I could take it."

A muddy pitch. Wind and rain. Kids trying to outfox the old guy. "Jesus, we really got our asses handed to us," says Wallace.

Funny thing is, he wouldn't have wanted it any other way. It was both awful and wonderful. And, more importantly, worth waiting for.

Irish Independent

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