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Buckley is home again after a career of ups and downs

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'I played a lot of games where I shouldn't have played' - Tony Buckley's professional career was blighted by injury and illness. Picture credit: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

'I played a lot of games where I shouldn't have played' - Tony Buckley's professional career was blighted by injury and illness. Picture credit: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

'I played a lot of games where I shouldn't have played' - Tony Buckley's professional career was blighted by injury and illness. Picture credit: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Around lunchtime tomorrow in Lansdowne Road, the launch of the Ulster Bank League will get under way. It's not likely to be a high-profile affair, and neither will there be a media frenzy to feed off the quotes from the Kanturk representative there.

Not too long ago the north-west Cork outfit were hanging on in the third division of the Munster Junior League. They had a play-off then against Killarney to retain their junior status. As dogfights go, that's feral stuff.

Next weekend, however, they will line out for the first time as a senior club in the national competition, and with a bit of luck Tony Buckley - 34 next month - might be fit enough to play some part.

It's a good story: a pro player returning to his roots with the desire to make a contribution, on and off the field. Does he have a passion for the place? Well, late last season when Kanturk were lining up against Instonians to secure their place in the new world, Buckley had a weekend off from Sale where his career was winding down. So he drove over from Manchester to Newmarket, dropped the three kids off with his mother, and hopped on a bus leaving the club for Belfast.

"The lads played brilliant," he says. "They were unbelievable."

Buckley's plan was always to go home, the surprise perhaps being that he had been so long away. He was 15 when he left Cork for Newbridge College, thanks to a connection in Bantry who was on the look-out for young fellas to contribute to the school's rugby programme. The deal was a few bob off the fee rather than a scholarship. "My mother had to break her arse working to pay for it," he says.

His three years there included a six-month exchange in New Zealand, then 11 years in Limerick between amateur rugby with Shannon and the pro game with Connacht, Munster and Ireland, and finally three years in Manchester before returning to Cork in the summer. And the assessment of it all?

"I didn't have a plan like. It just all happened so quickly. People told me all the way up, 'You'll never make it'. So I'm sort of happy that I proved them all wrong. I wasn't happy though with how it finished."

That he 'made it' is inarguable for the stats say 25 international caps spread across an 11-year career. In truth, though, Tony Buckley's rugby career was all about what might have been rather than what unfolded. There are a few reasons for this: he has technical limitations coming late to a highly combative and intricate position; he doesn't have the mean streak which, to front-row forwards, is basic survival kit; following close behind is a genial personality that allowed himself be steered down roads he shouldn't have travelled. And then he also had his fair share of bad luck.

A man who worked with him in Munster once told us of a day they were sitting together in the departure lounge in Shannon before the squad flew out to a European fixture. Buckley, he said, mentioned that the airport was familiar territory for him as he had spent happy years working in the maintenance hanger.

"Jeez, look where you are now!" his companion enthused. "You must be delighted to leave that behind?" Buckley shrugged his shoulders.

Was this not evidence that he wasn't exactly chomping at the bit to be a star player?

"I suppose you could say that," he says. "I did want to (be a pro) but I quite liked working inside there. I never disliked going to work. It's different in rugby like: you're playing tighthead and everyone's looking at you and if you don't go right you've got the whole squad of 30 guys looking at you. And you've let them all down and stuff. It's a lot of pressure.

"For a few years it was fine; it was good; I was really enjoying it like but I sort of didn't get enough coaching as well. I tried with other people and you'd do well for a while and then fall back in again and you'd have coaches coming in and it mightn't have been a priority for them. I had illness as well - left right and centre."

The move to Manchester three years ago looked like it would either make or break him. That he would never be a fixture in Munster was obvious after the saga in 2007 when he was left hanging on until a game-changing offer materialised.

"I was on peanuts at the time - I didn't ask for massive money and they said, 'No way'. That was basically it. I had a look around then. And Bath came back with a really good offer, and Munster changed their minds and didn't want me to go. It cost them a lot more than it should have. That's all it was really."

A few years later he had a vaguely similar experience over his international contract when an offer was taken off the table in the run-up to Christmas. Given that his wife Elaine, herself a former Ireland international, was already battling cancer, and they had three toddlers on their hands, he wasn't carol singing around the streets of Limerick.

So the aggregate of contract dealings in Ireland pointed across the water, and by then his wife's health had become a critical issue. Manchester is home to the Christie, the biggest cancer hospital in Europe, so Sale - not a club you'd be dreaming of joining - took on a very attractive look. The cancer was a nightmare, compounded with freakish bad luck by his wife having an allergy to chemotherapy.

"I remember we were inside in the cancer ward in Limerick and the staff there are amazing, like it was always very good, the treatment was brilliant, and the first day everyone was sitting around reading magazines and watching tv getting their treatment. Then Elaine gets an itchy scalp, and once that happens the throat starts to close.

"It happened so quickly she didn't have time to tell me what was wrong. She just started choking in the chair beside me. That was fairly hairy. I was roaring for a doctor or a nurse or whatever. They switched it off and got it under control and gave her adrenaline and reversals and all that. A bit of a shock. We got an awful fright."

By the time they went to Manchester, Elaine was in maintenance mode, but still what should have been a three-hour treatment would stretch for two-and-a-half days to accommodate the painfully slow delivery of the chemo, with a doctor on permanent standby to deal with anaphylactic shock. Throughout this Buckley's own stress levels weren't too great either.

"I had glandular fever and when I got out of that I'd pneumonia," he says. "I was cursed with illness and injuries. You'd just start getting a bit of form going and then there'd be some other knock back. I'd say I'm only out of glandular fever in the last year and a half, two years. It definitely affected me in Manchester like. I'd get so tired and sick just all the time: throat infections; ear infections; 'flu. Everything. It definitely was stressful. At the same time you're being pushed to play when you're not right. I played a lot of games where I shouldn't have played."

That weakness stretched back to his Munster days when either he couldn't get over what was holding him back, or he didn't have the force of personality to step back altogether. Like a return-leg European tie in Swansea in December 2010, when the Munster scrum was marched backwards a week after having held firm.

"I felt fine in the first game and then missed a full week of training and came in to start and played like an absolute fucking joke," he says. "I still scored a try under the posts, but if you're five per cent off in your head going into a scrum, you'll be absolutely destroyed. You have to be 100 per cent in there. You can't have a bad day and expect to go in scrummaging because something will go wrong. You'll be found out pretty quick."

When you think of what was spinning around in his life off the field the potential for bad days was significant, and it was realised again in Manchester where coach Steve Diamond, for whom Buckley was his first buy, was a polar opposite on the personality scale. Think a cage fighter and a cuddly bear.

The tin hat was fitted last year, appropriately enough, by a little Gloucester scrumhalf, half Buckley's size. He tackled the tighthead around the knees, but drove one kneecap up into Buckley's femur. The prop carried on, then sometime later had an MRI when the pain wouldn't go away, and eventually, two months later, on the first day of pre-season, saw a surgeon.

"I was under the knife within three hours," he says. "So they had to re-break it. I'd been trying to do stuff in the off-season, trying to keep fit, but it was torture. They didn't know what it was because they couldn't see it on the MRI, it was right behind the kneecap. The only way the fracture showed up was by surgery, getting in and having a look. And it was worst-case scenario.

"It plays with your mind. You think, 'am I getting soft, is there something wrong with me? They're saying it's just a bruise, it's nothing there'. And then it messes your own head up, so I was kind of relieved when it was what it was. I was out till November but in no fit state to play at all coming back."

That tilted him on the slide towards the exit, and it all wrapped up in the summer.

Tony Buckley sounds like he's glad it's done and dusted, and he can go back to the amateur game where in 2001 he was chugging along happily on the Shannon thirds before zooming up the ladder uncertainly. A man of awesome strength, he could do fearsome damage in the loose so the pros were always going to chase a convert.

Some unfortunates in the AIL will be on the wrong end of a Buckley charge, and chances are he'll be doing it from the second- rather than front-row. Kanturk could do with someone of his experience.

"It's a massive step for the club," he says. "They've gone from being one of the worst clubs in the country to Senior 2B in a few years. They've come back and have some brilliant young players - absolutely unreal - and they're just as tough as the older lads. I haven't trained for a while, but we'll see."

Kanturk will be glad of this old dog for the hard road.

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