Alan Quinlan - Merry Christmas? Not for pro rugby players because despite temptations, they can't sample festive spirit
It was Christmas Eve … but I wasn't in the drunk tank. Instead I was at the parents' house, watching television in the sitting room, far too sober for a man my age.
I was 29.
Ten years earlier I'd have been out on the town. But that was before words like sports science and hydration entered my vocabulary. And that was before St Stephen's Day fixtures became important dates in my diary.
The phone buzzed.
I didn't pick up.
And then it went off again.
All night I'd ignored the messages because I knew who they'd be from but finally I gave in and read one of the texts.
"We're in Kiely's. All the lads are home. You coming in?"
I wanted to.
And it wasn't because I was dying for a pint - simply because I wanted to feel normal again.
Because this was the reality - for 51 weeks of the year I loved my job. I was a lucky man. And knew it.
But for the 52nd week of the year - Christmas week, when I was missing out on Christmas parties and the build-up to the day - I was full of envy and resentment.
My friends - gathered in Quinlan's, my cousin's pub, or else Kiely's in Tipperary town - worked as plumbers, drivers, every kind of job. And this was their time off, their chance to relax. And me?
I rarely was relaxed around Christmas - because Christmas meant a big derby match on St Stephen's Day or the day after, when you played an unofficial Irish trial, when Eddie O'Sullivan was watching, and when you had a chance to stake your claim for a place in the international team.
Therefore we were working at a time when the rest of the country was on holiday.
I wish I could paint a more rounded picture of someone who was able to take a wider view of the world back then, of a man who was fully aware of how fortunate a hand life had dealt him, who was able to look at what he had, rather than what others had.
Yet that wasn't how it was.
In the week of a big game, and there was always a big one in Christmas week, I'd be anxious. Quiet. Snappy.
And that was how I was here - sitting in my parents' front room - looking at a TV screen but taking nothing in.
There were two cups of tea on the coffee table next to my seat. Both had gone cold.
I checked my phone.
There are three missed calls and about a dozen texts.
"Come out to f*** ya boring b*****."
Everyone was there, guys who were now living in America, England and Dublin - but who were now back home for the Christmas.
"Go down and meet the lads," my mother said. "It'd be good for you."
And it was.
But it wasn't.
While catching up was great - with fellas I'd known all my life, gone to school with, played junior rugby with - I found it hard to relax. I'd have a drink and worry about what effect it was having on my body and whether my performance levels would slip in a couple of days' time.
I'd listen to the craic and love the old stories but every now and then, the mind would drift off to the upcoming game. "What if I don't play well? Will Eddie be watching? I should have been home in bed."
And my mates would have been aware of that.
"Do you know, I'm envious of what you lot have," I said. "Ye can enjoy your Christmas."
They gave me a look.
"You're envious of us?" one of them said, in a nice way. "You're the one that gets to pull on the Munster jersey. If you're not happy, there's nothing stopping you from walking away from it in the morning."
Except there was something stopping me.
There was that feeling I got when I ran down the tunnel at Thomond Park.
There were those memories from wearing an Ireland shirt and listening to the national anthems before an international.
There were those recollections from childhood - the big interpros games for Munster, Saturday afternoons watching the old Five Nations games on television - memories of Donal Lenihan's charge, Michael Kiernan's drop-goal, Triple Crowns and re-enactments of the drama in the front lawn with the brothers and friends.
Growing up I dreamed of playing for Munster and Ireland - and yet here I was, supposedly living the dream - and, for one week of the year, the reality wasn't matching the fantasy.
If this sounds like I was an ungrateful, spoiled child - then so be it. For that week of the year, I was.
And if you want the truth - there are dozens, maybe even hundreds of sportspeople, who will be experiencing those same mixed emotions over the next couple of days.
They'll resent not having their old lives - in some shape or form.
They'll hear the stories of their friends and family meeting up - of pints being drunk, of late nights out and long days in bed, of people calling to the house for a catch-up, of everyone being relaxed.
And even though we all know how privileged we are to be paid to play a sport we love, you cannot hide away from the fact that this was the one week of the year we wanted some time off.
"Why the f*** do we have to play on St Stephen's Day?" I'd ask. "Why can't we just take it easy?"
And yet, I wasn't a prisoner to fate.
This was the life I chose.
Before I became a professional rugby player I worked as a mechanic, earning £120 a week.
There was nothing stopping me from returning to that profession and playing a bit for Clanwilliam, my local junior club, at the weekend. If I did that, I could have my Christmas off. I could go out for the pints in Tipperary town and let off a bit of steam. I could get stuck into the selection boxes at home - could get stuck into a chipper on the way home and not worry about putting on excess weight.
Most of all, I could relax.
I wouldn't have to worry about what Eddie O'Sullivan or Alan Gaffney thought of me - the way today's players will wake up this morning wondering what Joe Schmidt or their provincial coaches thinks of them.
Trust me, there will be plenty of Irish rugby players who'll get out of bed this morning and wish they were someone else … a guy who had Christmas off.
And it'll stay that way until the match starts, until the first tackle, until the first roar from the crowd, until the first time they hear someone shout, 'Well done,' until the adrenaline kicks in and those childhood dreams turn out to be as magical as you imagined.
Those 80 minutes are when you're transported back to your childhood, when you're brought to this place that is as close to perfection as you will ever get.
But if you lose, you question the sacrifices you make.
That, though, is the life we chose.
We opted out of normality, not understanding the commitments required, selecting instead to live inside a bubble, surrounded by driven sports people who would have tackled their granny to get to where they wanted to.
We chose the life of drinking mineral water in a pub on Christmas Eve, of turning down the mother's offer of gravy or cranberry sauce to go with her Christmas dinner and of hitting the hay at 11pm on Christmas night even if there was a good film on the box that you wanted to see.
We chose to be anxious about a game of rugby at this time of year instead of being relaxed.
And do you know what?
While I can't wait to see my son's face when he opens his presents tomorrow, to be kicking the shoes off and not giving a damn if I'm piling on the calories, I know a time will come when I'll yearn for my old life again: that life of anxiety and stress leading up to a game; and that buzz I got when I left the dressing room in Thomond Park, hearing the noise of studs thudding off the concrete floors, then seeing the lights and the steam rising before you heard that roar from thousands.
Why did I voluntarily put myself through so much pressure on Christmas week? That was why.