It was the biggest let down of my career - Alan Quinlan
'WHEN the announcement was made that I had been picked for the British and Irish Lions team in 2009, it was the greatest feeling of elation I've ever had as a rugby player.
'Obviously, though, it didn't work out and I made a hames of it a few weeks later. I will say to the day I die, that the incident with Leo Cullen wasn't intentional, but it was still something that was within my control – a spur-of-the-moment thing that I never thought about."
I'm having tea with former rugby player Alan Quinlan in the Fitzwilliam Hotel, and we're discussing the infamous incident that led to the 39-year-old Tipperary man receiving a 12-week suspension in 2009, causing him to miss the Lions' tour to South Africa.
It arose during the Heineken cup semi-final defeat, when Alan was cited for making contact with Leinster captain, Leo Cullen's eye area. Eye-gouging, it was called, conjuring up a horrible image that seems to overstate the incident, but the ban was imposed despite Leo writing to the sport's disciplinary body in support of Alan.
"I went from elation to devastation," says the Munster legend. "It was the biggest disappointment of my career, and although it made me a bit stronger, it will never leave me. I will always look back on it with regret. Sometimes your greatest challenges are the best ones, because they make you stronger. Mistakes are only bad if you don't learn from them, so you learn to try to make the right decisions and be positive. If there is a pattern of bad decision-making and you don't learn from it, it will smack back and hit you in the face again."
The thing that strikes you when you meet Alan, is his eloquence and depth. He may have been talented on the pitch, and let's face it, pretty easy on the eye, but the tall, personable sportsman, Munster's most-capped player, is also honest and reflective. He has been through wonderful times, which included caps for Ireland, a successful rugby career, marriage to one of Ireland's leading models, Ruth Griffin, and the birth of their son, AJ, but has also experienced challenges, including the demise of that marriage, physical injuries and mental health issues.
At the time of the aforementioned incident, life was good for Alan, as Ruth, whom he married in 2008, had given birth to their son AJ in January 2009. By mid-2010, the marriage was over.
Alan and Ruth, known as one of Ireland's golden couples, had separated.
"I didn't like that label and Ruth didn't either," he says. "We didn't feel like a golden couple, and that scrutiny kind of puts pressure on your life. I'm still pretty rounded and humble and no different from anyone else out there.
"Things didn't work out between us, and I know it's a difficult situation for both sides, but we have the most beautiful son, AJ, and he's the most important thing to us.
"We made a decision, as parents, to spend as much time together with our son and do stuff as a family, as that's good for him. No matter what, Ruth, myself and AJ will always be a family, as we're both very dedicated and committed to him. He's the light of our lives, and the day he was born, and I held him in my arms, was the best day of my life."
Alan lives inLimerick, but flits between Limerick and Dublin, where AJ is based. He will shortly be getting a base of his own in the capital city.
Growing up on a dairy farm in Limerick Junction, outside Tipperary Town, Alan came third of his parents' four children. He recalls having a very happy childhood, surrounded by locally residing cousins and relations. He attended the all-boys Abbey CBS, where he was very much into sport. He was pretty shy around women at that time.
Speaking of women, the Tea department would like to know how his love life is going at the moment? "Nothing doing," he laughs. "My dedication and love for AJ comes first, and with working and everything, I'm not sure that I'd be a good partner to anyone at the moment."
Damn, anyway, but it would be fair to say that Alan hasn't always been as open and chatty as he is these days.
"I probably used sport as a mask to portray a happy and outgoing side to myself, but the other side was shy and lacking in confidence," he says. "I didn't apply myself properly at school, which was always a bit of a regret. I had the brains, but was a messer and struggled to concentrate. I'm going to try to make sure AJ doesn't make the same mistakes, as school is so important."
Alan started school at three-and-a-half, so did his Leaving Cert at 16, and says that he was probably a bit immature and behind everyone else in terms of development at that stage.
He began work as an apprentice mechanic, and worked at that for over five years. He was also, simultaneously, making a name for himself in rugby, and began his career with Clanwilliam FC, captaining the Irish Youth Team against Scotland in 1993, before moving to Shannon.
He decided to quit his mechanic's job in December 1996, to concentrate on getting in peak condition, in advance of the first professional contracts that were being given to the provinces in June 1997. "I took six months off to train on my own, and while people said I was crazy, I had a real confidence that it would work out," he smiles.
"I had nothing to measure it against, but really wanted to be in the mix. I was very lucky and got a Munster contract and was living the dream. Getting paid to do something I loved, driving a sponsored car – it was unbelievable stuff for a lad of 22, and I look back now at how happy I was then."
So what were his proudest moments and what were the downsides?
"My first cap for Ireland, wearing the jersey and winning the Heineken Cup for Munster were among the highlights," he says.
"The injuries were the hardest, as I dislocated my shoulder scoring a try against Argentina in the World Cup in 2003, and that was a very tough injury to come back from. I've had knee reconstruction, dislocated elbows, broken jaws, thumbs, you name it! Mind you, the injuries were easier to deal with in a way as they couldn't be helped, and the Lions thing was definitely the hardest to deal with."
Speaking of injuries, Alan has also had to have some dental treatment with DeCare Dental.
"I was shocked that almost half of the population hadn't been to the dentist in the last year, but I was a bit lackadaisical myself in the past about it," says Alan.
"Then problems and expense mount up, so the dental insurance eases the burden of the huge bills that you might have. Teeth are so important for appearance, as the first thing you see is someone's smile.
"Becoming a DeCare ambassador was a perfect fit for me, as I want to look after my teeth going forward, especially now being in media."
Alan has been pretty open about the depression that he has experienced in his life, and often gives talks in conjunction with mental health awareness groups. He thinks it's great that other well-known people have been so open about their own struggles in recent years, and reckons that this is a great help for people who feel trapped and don't know where to go for help.
There was also a big reaction to him speaking about some of the challenges he has experienced in his 2010 autobiography, Red-Blooded – The Alan Quinlan Autobiography.
"I wasn't doing it for a pat on the back," he says. "I'm no expert in any of this stuff, but I suppose I have a bit of experience through having my own difficulties. I try to encourage people to get it off their chests, or go to the doctor, or one of the brilliant organisations out there who give people a bit of help and encouragement. Empathy is a massive thing around mental health, both from family and friends and from society, and a little bit of it is often the kick-start that people need to seek help in their own lives."
From speaking to Alan, it sounds as if he was quite hard on himself, but would that be a fair assumption?
"Yes, that would have been one of my problems," he says. "I was a lone ranger throughout my life and wasn't in the habit of sharing my problems with anyone. I tried not to show weakness or vulnerability, and that had an affect on me.
"I've learned that I'm pretty resilient, as I've have had some tough challenges along the way but I've come through them. I used to think I was weak and lacking in confidence, but for some strange reason I'm more confident in my resilience now and my ability to bounce back."
Now that he has retired from rugby, Alan is doing a lot of work commentating with RTE and Sky Sports.
He has a great voice for media, and laughs that he doesn't have his "Tipperary bogger's accent" these days.
He writes a newspaper column, does motivational and leadership talks, and is an ambassador for Ulster Bank. It's a big change, he admits, as players have set schedules and get a lot of support, and when you're self-employed, life is pretty erratic.
"At this stage of my life I'm still learning," he says. "When you're self-employed, you need a hunger to get work, and perseverance makes a huge difference if you want to be successful. Nothing is easy and the schedule can drive me cuckoo, but I love it."
And what about sport – does he miss playing?
"I miss my team-mates and the dressing room, but I don't miss the training schedule and the pressure of performance.
"It's like being an actor going on stage. You have to perform, and if you do shit, you get criticised, and if you do well, it's great.
"It was very enjoyable and I'm very proud of what I achieved, and I feel so lucky for the opportunities I've been given."