Wednesday 21 March 2018

Worrier with heart of a lion

Alan Quinlan's long career path has had more than its share of twists and turns, writes John O'Brien

Riding high in April, shot down in May

THE morning had dragged slowly and brutally. He had been deemed surplus to requirements for Ireland's upcoming summer tour and, in his adversity, his Munster colleagues sensed an opening to have some fun and extract payback for previous slights. Every shot he fired, each desperate riposte, was met with the cruel and stinging refrain: "the ex-international Alan Quinlan." The situation was hopeless. Silence, he decided, was the better part of valour.

It was April 2009. Later that day the squad for the Lions tour of South Africa would be unveiled. Quinlan didn't figure it was of much personal relevance. People tried their best to convince him. His wife Ruth told him not to give up hope. His brother Andrew assured him he was a long-shot. But no matter how hard he looked he couldn't see it. Alan Quinlan, Lions flanker. The words didn't fit. Not at 34. Not at this stage of his career.

He remembers reaching his home in Castletroy around lunchtime, thinking he'd grab an hour's sleep and record the announcement so he could check how his team-mates fared before he went back to training. But curiosity took hold and he sat there staring at the television until he heard his name being called out, frozen in shock the way a man might be upon seeing his lottery numbers flash up on the screen.

So he headed back to the University of Limerick in a daze and, in place of the morning banter, he was applauded into the gym and warmly embraced by his team-mates. Of the eight Munster players selected, no story dripped with more poignancy or relevance than Quinlan's or bore a greater testimony to hard work and durability. The world, it seemed, had finally woken up to the gifts Munster people had cherished for more than a decade.

And, suddenly, the words fitted together like a glove. Alan Quinlan, Lions flanker. Nobody could take it away from him now.

* * * * *

Right now, as you read this, the chances are something will be eating at him. He'll be worrying about this piece and how it portrays him. About the Ospreys and the gnawing fear that he'll cross the line today and disappoint his colleagues and supporters. By match-time, his pulse will be racing and the anxiety will have seeped through to his bones. He is Alan Quinlan, Munster flanker, ex-Ireland international, nearly-Lion and professional worrier.

Worrying is what he does. He remembers when Liam Hayes approached him last year floating the idea of writing a book and, as much as it enticed him, he saw the pitfalls too. "I asked myself all these questions. Did I have a genuine story to tell? Would it work? And you know it's a double-edged sword. Doing a book while you're still playing. Being in the limelight again, creating all that extra pressure for yourself. Did I really need it?"

He realised the obvious paradox of his story too. He wanted to tell it out of fear that he'd be remembered solely for the dramatic fall-out from his clumsy tackle on Leo Cullen during the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final, yet knowing that, without it, there would have been no approach in the first place. So be it. He doesn't imagine for a moment that it is the perfect rugby book or that he is the perfect player. He was as good as he could be. He would take that as his epitaph.

He looks back and sees little enough to complain about. There is no temptation to play the victim's card. He accepted the incident with Cullen looked bad and felt vindicated to be found guilty of carelessness rather than malice. He finds the notion that he would deliberately gouge a player's eye and recklessly endanger his last chance to tour with the Lions repugnant. He has his faults, for sure, but self-destructiveness and stupidity are not among them.

Until then he had lived his life in the margins, the same way he played the game, and being cast into the centre of a media storm proved uncomfortable. "I didn't understand the impact it would have," he says. "It was a huge shock to me. The worst thing was the repeated slow motion replays of the clip and everybody having their opinions, most of which I disagreed with. At times, I felt like a mass murderer."

While the slimmest hope that he could retrieve his summer survived, he felt he had to pursue every avenue and that kept him focused and motivated to get up in the mornings. Ultimately, however, the sense of false hope that engendered was draining. When the appeal concluded and his last hope was quashed, he remembers a great weight lifting off his shoulders. He went to Las Vegas for a family wedding and, without the case preying on his mind, enjoyed himself for the first time in weeks.

He has been candid about the depression he suffered during that period, but now that worries him too. Even as the blackest cloud enveloped him, he still had the friendship of his Munster team-mates to call on and the support of Ruth and their recently-born son, AJ, to help put things into perspective. It was one dark episode, he says, in a life that has been blessed with beautiful sunshine.

On reflection, he supposes the Lions setback merely reinforced a long-standing condition. Even as a kid, growing up blissfully in the rolling fields outside Tipperary town, he remembers the anxieties that would periodically visit him. He saw other kids at school, more diligent than him at study, getting ready for college and the careers that would await them. Even then he remembers wondering agitatedly how his life would turn out, how he would provide for his wife and kids.

His big moment came when he had qualified as a mechanic and quit his job six months before the IRFU handed out the first professional contracts in 1997. He played with Shannon and trained alone every day in a gym in Tipperary. People told him he was mad to give up a job to chase what was then a vague and distant dream, but he had the application and self-discipline to carry it off. Deep down, too, there was the dreaded anxiety of being left behind.

That anxiety has shadowed him throughout his career. He has worried his way to more than 200 appearances for Munster, 27 caps for Ireland and the near-miss of a glorious swansong in South Africa. It has been his tireless companion, tying his stomach in knots during the stress-filled preliminaries to big games, until he reached the sanctuary of the pitch where his competitive instincts took over. Now he realises there may be better ways to cope.

"The whole Lions thing was a bit of a wake-up call to do something about the stress and anxiety, being down and feeling blue," he says. "I was always a worrier. I'd let myself get overwhelmed by things. Silly things. Always trying to show I was strong and never vulnerable. It never occurred to me to open up or tell people about my problems. I'd have seen that as being soft, showing weakness.

"And I see this as being a very positive experience. It isn't negative in any way. It's helped me go forward in my life and will make me tougher in the future, more careful in what I do. I'm no expert and don't want to be advising people about their mental health. But I've been through it and if what I say can help people look after themselves better then that's a good thing."

It has helped him immeasurably in that raking over the ashes of the journey that brought him to last year's low point, Quinlan began to truly realise how magical the road had been. When Paul O'Connell wrote the foreword for his book and Mick Galwey launched it in Limerick, it reminded him that this was the calibre of men he'd had the good fortune to travel with and, along the way, he wondered if he'd been more casual about the journey than he ought to have been.

Before he faced the Ospreys in the Magners League in September, Quinlan hadn't been aware that he was set to make his 200th appearance for Munster or that, a couple of games later, he would surpass Anthony Foley's record. His career has been a medley of setbacks -- broken shoulders and torn cruciates, various suspensions and droppings -- and heroic returns. Not for nothing his team-mates called him "Bertie." No matter how low he sunk in the polls, you could never write him off.

Amongst all the glittering career figures, though, one anomaly stands out: his 27 caps for Ireland. For someone of Quinlan's talent and durability, it is a derisory total, particularly in an age when modest players can easily amass twice that much in an average career. Heroically, he severely damaged his shoulder when diving over against Argentina at the 2003 World Cup but he never prospered under Eddie O'Sullivan. Four years later, he was a bystander when Ireland's hopes fizzled out in France and, if he is entitled to feel aggrieved at his treatment under the former coach, Quinlan isn't inclined towards retribution.

"I never saw the point of holding grudges and getting bitter with people. It doesn't get you anywhere or change anything. It's just not in my make-up to hold grudges. I don't hate anyone in life. I like to think I'm a kind, considerate person. The boys are always slagging me that I'm always saying sorry. If I get into a scrap in training or say the wrong thing to somebody, I'm always apologising.

"Okay, I'd like to have played more games but it wasn't to be. And in fairness I was a bit behind coming into that World Cup so you'd have to respect Eddie's decision. I mean Jamie Heaslip wasn't even there so he could feel hard done by too. For me, the important thing is I turned it into a positive. I came back and had my best ever season with Munster and won the Heineken Cup."

He always comes back to Munster. His view of life with Munster, and before that with Shannon and Clanwilliam, is so saccharined and honey-dewed that people, observing he hasn't hung up his boots yet, might automatically doubt its authenticity, but he is adamant that it is an accurate portrait. A year from now, or five years on, he thinks, the sentiment will be the same, if not more powerful.

Over the years he had offers to spread his wings to England or France, on more lucrative terms that Ireland could offer, but resisting them never cost him a moment's thought. He knows the same is true of several of his team-mates. By the turn of the century, under the guidance of Declan Kidney and Niall O'Donovan, they sensed there was something tangible to strive for. "I'd never any doubt it was the right place to be," Quinlan says. "I grew up 20 miles from Limerick. Got the opportunity to play rugby here, to get paid for something I love doing. How could I imagine leaving?"

Nearly 14 years on from his first modest contract, he still sees the same sense of togetherness, the same desire. After Christmas he will sit down with Tony McGahan and discuss his future but, for now, there is only one imperative: the chance to perform and prove to himself, as well as others, that his ability and appetite to perform at the top level hasn't diminished with the passing years.

He likes this time in his life now. He has split amicably with Ruth, but AJ remains the shining light of their lives, the glue that binds them together as best friends. He loves the way AJ points and shouts "dada" when his father's face appears on television. Maybe in a couple of years, when AJ is old enough to understand the Munster phenomenon, he'll see his dad still wearing the shirt. A big ask, he knows, but a nice dream anyway.

"It's an exciting time right now. There's a really good feeling in the squad, way more positive than last year. We've addressed a few issues and you can see the desire in people's faces. You take November when we beat Ulster, Llanelli and Australia and lost to Dragons. Three out of four is a good return with a lot of young players in the team. These guys have shown they're not just for the future but for now. They stepped up to the plate. The signs are very good."

For all the stress they bring, he knows that when he is gone he'll miss the nailbiting tension of days like these. The Ospreys at Thomond Park. Do-or-die cup rugby with everything on the line. And the strange thing is, as he talks about the great tradition in which he has shared and the footsteps he has followed, of men with names like Claw, Gaillimh and Axel, it would never occur to him that he too might not be out of place in that pantheon of legends.

"I don't know," he smiles awkwardly. "It would feel strange. You don't think about yourself in that way. Certainly, if anyone was to say that about me it'd be very humbling. But I wouldn't see myself as a legend to be honest. Just someone who was given a good opportunity and, even if there were a few scrapes along the way, always gave a hundred per cent and did the best he could."

Of that much he needn't worry anyway.

Red Blooded: The Alan Quinlan Story (Irish Sports Publishing, €19.99)

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