Age hasn't withered Quinny the elder

Sat, Apr 11, 2009, 01:00

RUGBY HEINEKEN CUP QUARTER-FINALS:THERE WAS a lovely moment amid last Saturday’s endgame. Munster were effectively out of sight, job done, game over, whereupon there was a time-out for an injury. Alan Quinlan had more or less assumed the leadership role for the night, and as he passionately addressed his fellow forwards yet again Paul O’Connell lent on Quinlan’s shoulder and listened intently again, writes GERRY THORNLEY

All night long it had been Quinny at his brilliant best, doing what he does best. Tapping a penalty to himself and making a 50-metre touch-finder; spotting a gap on the fringes for a huge rumble; annoying opponents to the point of distraction; snaffling ball from the opposition scrumhalf. He’s one of the most endearingly straight and likeable Munster rogues you could meet, and he must be one of the most annoying opponents around.

The fires, as he puts it himself, are still burning, and as long as he feels he can still play at this level he’ll keep going. And, after playing through a groin injury for the first few months of the season, that fire was abundantly evident last week.

At 34, he’s in a good place. Quinlan is now the father of a 12-week-old baby boy, Alan John Paul Quinlan, or “AJ” as he’s known. “Ruth’s done a fabulous job,” he says. “It’s a wonderful experience for both of us. She’s a wonderful person and woman.”

He’s been offered another year’s contract with Munster and is in the process of signing on the dotted line. If there’s any positive from all his injuries and suspensions, it’s he’s a relatively low mileage 34-year-old. For, as much as any Irish player around, Quinlan’s career is proof positive what doesn’t break you can make you.

Munster’s quartet of Heineken Cup experiences illustrate the point. In 2000, he started all the pool games, only to make way for Eddie Halvey in the knock-out stages and have “frustrating” days as a non-playing replacement in both the semi-final against Toulouse and the final against Northampton at Twickenham.

“I learned from it. It helped me over the years to not take things for granted. I’ve never taken my place for granted on the Munster team. I’ve always tried to keep my feet on the ground, and never get cocky or kinda think I’m guaranteed a place. You definitely learn from them (disappointments).”

More of that followed, for although he worked his way back into the team for the 2002 semi-final and the final, it “was bitterly disappointing”, not least because “it was Claw’s last game as well”.

Leicester were, he concedes, a better team, better drilled.

The lesson here? “As a group we needed to get fitter and stronger. They were physically powerful and we were still in the early stages of our development as a team. Just from a line-out point of view, I remember thinking after the game and talking to Paulie about it, they had a lot of analysis done on us and stole a lot of our line-outs. I suppose those experiences helped us realise what was required.”

Come 2006, they were ready collectively, although Quinlan barely so. Completing a remarkable comeback from an operation on his cruciate ligament after the opening pool defeat to Sale, barely seven months later he played the last five minutes of the win over Biarritz.

He acknowledges a lifetime’s debt to a variety of people. To his team-mates, to the IRFU’s rehab specialist Brian Green and Kirsty Peacock and the rest of the Ireland and Munster fitness and medical staff. Not to mention, after just two half-games back, Declan Kidney.

“It went down to the Thursday night and I still feel sorry for Stephen (Keogh) but it was really special for me to be involved. I had the feeling all along, after we got to the quarter-finals, the lads were going to go on and win it and I had this feeling that ‘jeez, I could miss out on this and it might be my only opportunity’.”

It was an achievement for which he can forever feel proud, even if, as he freely admits: “I don’t think I touched the ball, or made a tackle in those few minutes. I didn’t really care. Just to be on the field when we finally won the Heineken Cup was amazing.”

He had played the last quarter for Shannon the week before in the AIB League final against Clontarf. “It was probably a bit unfair on Clontarf and on the club scene, because I hadn’t played with Shannon. Because of that, I’d say they changed the rules.”

Inspired by Quinlan and other serial winners such as Mick Galwey and Anthony Foley, Shannon were the founding fathers of the winning culture that has been sustained even to this season’s Grand Slam success.

Clanwilliam too, deserve mention in the Quinny Story, given it was where he was introduced to the game and cut his teeth en route to captaining the Munster and Ireland Youths. Working in Pearse Motors in Tipperary town, he was harassed by Melvin McNamara, a former Shannon president and driving a Texaco truck at the time, to join Shannon. After a year with their under-20s, he was encouraged to stay, all the more so as Mick Galwey stopped off on his way from Kilkenny to take Quinlan to and from training.

“I count myself very lucky to have joined a team of that calibre and with great characters,” he says. The Tipperary cabal now includes Donncha Ryan, Denis Fogarty and fellow Clanwilliam man Tommy O’Donnell, “one to watch, a super player” says Quinlan, who nonetheless has warned him not to progress too quickly!

Continuing the theme of his seasonal setbacks, a dislocated thumb at the end of November sidelined him for the back-to-back pool games against Llanelli and effectively scuppered his Six Nations hopes too. This time at least, he fought his way back and had a starring role in the knock-out wins away to Gloucester and Saracens, before a Man-of-the-Match 80 minutes in the final over Toulouse.

“I’d say the whole season was the most satisfying I’ve had even though I didn’t get to play for Ireland. It was the most consistent I played and the most number of games I started, and the final just capped it off. It was amazing to play Toulouse in the final, a fabulous experience.”

Two seasons ago, he was suspended for six weeks, also scuppering his Six Nations hopes, and last November he made only his third start for Ireland (against the All-Blacks) since dislocating his collarbone scoring that match-winning try against Argentina in the 2003 World Cup – the others were on summer tours in Japan and Argentina.

He picked up another three-week suspension for stamping on Rodney So’oialo, even though the referee Mark Lawrence attended the disciplinary hearing and having reviewed the incident still didn’t deem it worthy of a penalty. Go figure.

In that 2003 World Cup, he was finally beginning to feel comfortable and confident playing with Ireland. “I suppose, year after year, something’s happened. Certainly there’s been good players ahead of me and a great selection of backrowers, but I’ve had opportunities and not taken them or had a bit of bad luck. I’ve 27 caps and I cherish the 27 of them, but I’m just a bit regretful that I didn’t get a decent run with Ireland.”

He had the minor consolation of training with Ireland throughout the Grand Slam odyssey, travelling to Ireland’s three away games as one of three extra players. Mixed emotions though. Delighted for his buddies, glad to be there, grateful for small role but ultimately it’s always about playing.

“I didn’t feel I earned the right to get a medal in the end, which was nice, but Paul McNaughton insisted Keith Earls, Shane Jennings and myself receive a medal. Shaggy, Girv and Mal deserved a medal more than I did, and I think there were a few more medals given out back home. I wouldn’t have taken the medal if there were only two or three extra.”

Once again though, the Heineken Cup provides sustenance through the remainder of the season. “There’s great ambition in the squad. It’s one of the main reasons no-one has left. Everyone keeps trying to raise the bar and that’s been really satisfying because I think no-one gets a chance to rest on their laurels, there’s people around you all the time trying to drive you on and trying to get to new standards; get fitter and stronger, and try to improve as rugby players every day you go training.

“It’s a fantastic place to play. That’s probably the biggest thing, there’s great ambition within the group.”

It won’t guarantee them anything tomorrow, he stresses, and Quinlan is acutely conscious that Munster haven’t played especially well at the redeveloped Thomond Park. And one of the flip sides of their drive and ambition, and special feeling toward the Heineken Cup, is defeat against the Ospreys would be disastrous. But such are Munster’s standards, and such is the fear that partially drives them.

“It would be devastating, and we don’t take these games for granted. Just because we’ve had success before doesn’t give us the right to win these games. I’m not bullshitting when I say we will have to play well. We’re not going to get through with an average, stuttery performance.

“They’re going to throw the kitchen sink at it, the shackles are off them. The Ospreys are possibly the most dangerous team we could be facing, and certainly there’d be a fear factor within the group. That’s part of our make-up. You learn from your experiences and your disappointments over the years.” None more than Quinny.