Saturday 19 October 2019

'When I was playing, the Romanian guys liked playing against Ireland'

Dr Mihai Vioreanu at the Sports Surgery Clinc in Santry
Dr Mihai Vioreanu at the Sports Surgery Clinc in Santry
Mihai Vioreanu in his playing days with Romania
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When Mihai Vioreanu and 10 of his former Romania team-mates gather together at Wembley on Sunday, their expectations won't too high.

The Dublin-based surgeon played at the 1999 and 2003 tournaments for the Oaks and knows that his country's place in rugby's pecking order dictates that they have to suit the television schedule, and taking on two of Europe's best teams - France and Ireland - in four days goes with the territory.

"It happens for the small nations, it is not a surprise," shrugs the former full-back.

"That was always how it was - in Australia we had four days' break between matches to accommodate big nations playing on Saturdays because the organisers have other priorities."

Not that Vioreanu is complaining, and when he looks back on his rugby career and all it gave him, there is a glint in his eye.

On the wall of his office at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry are the jersey he wore at the 2003 tournament and one he swapped with Conor O'Shea in 1999.

They occupy pride of place for a man who will be supporting his native country on Sunday, but has taken Ireland to be his home since moving to De La Salle Palmerston after the '99 tournament.

Incoming club president Kevin Fitzpatrick had been the Oaks' liaison and they struck up a friendship that changed the young doctor's life.

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After holidaying in Dublin, he took up an offer to play for 'Salmo'. He met his wife Orla after losing the 2003 Leinster Senior Cup final at Donnybrook, and his children Conor and Emelie are being brought up in Dublin.

He even scored a goal in Parnell Park while playing Gaelic football for St Vincent's, a feat that saw him briefly rechristened Michéal.

While playing Division One rugby, he also won two Hospital Cups, but the tradition of the rugby-playing medic is becoming a thing of the past. Felipe Contepomi flew the flag, while Jamie Roberts has a medical degree and plans to practise when he retires.

"I was one of the last guys who managed to do it," Vioreanu explains. "I had to take seven weeks' unpaid leave from being a senior house officer at St Vincent's and that was a big deal.

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"When Wendall Sailor got his contract from rugby league and a massive amount of money, I was in the newspaper graphics in Australia compared against him as the guy on unpaid leave.

"I couldn't do my rota, that meant that the three colleagues that I worked with had to cover for me.

"When I talked to the chief surgeon I was nervous, because if they said 'no' I would have had to make a decision in which way I'm going with this.

"In fact, they were very supportive and said it was a life opportunity.

"Now, people have to make the choice (to focus on your career or your sport) earlier, whereas in my life I had to make a choice in my early 30s after I came back from the World Cup.

"I was progressing through my career in surgery, you couldn't afford to turn up to work with a broken arm. People are still doing it, they just need to make the decision earlier."

Three of the current squad played alongside Vioreanu in 2003 when Ireland beat Romania 45-17 in Gosford.

"When I was playing, the Romanian guys liked playing Ireland for some reason," he smiles. "Playing France was a bit touch and go, you could have a good half a game and then get physically beaten. Against Ireland, we always seemed to have good games.

"Now, the Irish game has evolved so much to what I experienced, but Romania will still have that belief. It's funny how that trickles through generations. There are teams that you enjoy playing against.

"In all the games, the first half will be tight but the smaller team works much harder and then the physical element comes in during the second half.

"It's due to energy level and being exposed to that intensity all the time, it becoming that routine. Transforming something exceptional into something that's routine."

A knee and hip specialist, Vioreanu is well placed to assess the dangers of the modern game.

"I look at a lot of rugby and GAA players who have ruptured their cruciate ligament and I can see how much stronger they are," he explains.

"What we see now are devastating injuries, where not only the ACL ruptures, but the MCL too - multi-ligament injuries in sportspeople because they're so strong and are able to accumulate a lot of energy. What that energy goes over a certain threshold, the injury happens and it can be catastrophic."

Those are the dangers, but Vioreanu also sees the value in the game that helped change the course of his life and brought him to Dublin all those years ago.

"The kids are being brought up in Ireland but speak a little bit of Romanian, I'm trying to keep that heritage with them," he says of his family's mixed loyalties, but he knows where he'll stand on Sunday.

"I will support Romania knowing that we're going to lose."

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