December 10, 2023

‘I’m not sure we need to dumb rugby down to lowest common denominator’

'I'm not sure we need to dumb rugby down to lowest common denominator'

It’s peculiar how some ex-rugby players reflect on their careers, the victories that got away haunting them more than the memories of the great successes. Leo Cullen, for instance, is wired that way. There he was last week killing the buzz of Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final thrashing of Leicester by referencing a 20-year-old semi-final mishap against Perpignan in Dublin. David Quinlan fully understands that pain.

These days he works as head of legal and player welfare at International Rugby Players, the industrious global union tasked with bettering the workplace for the modern player. Back in the day, though, he was a teammate of Cullen, suffering in the trenches at a time when the now impressively dominant Leinster were blunderingly only making up the numbers on the European scene.

“I played in the Perpignan match so I have very vivid memories,” the sharp-as-a-tack Quinlan told RugbyPass. “That was a bad day at the office, that’s for sure. I remember going in at half-time and everyone was just absolutely exhausted. You looked around the dressing room and a lot of people were struggling to come to terms with the way the game was going.

“We didn’t feel in control of it at all. I’m not sure we had anybody who really grabbed it by the scruff of the neck or got the group together and said this is what we need to do for the next five minutes or the whole of the second half to get us back on track. It slipped away. It’s one that you regret, for sure.”

So too the Varsity match three years earlier when representing Cambridge. “Probably the lowest day of them all. I missed a bad tackle for their winning try and didn’t make a great decision for their first try either. It was just a bad day. I came in under-prepared having been injured.

“We played Blackrock, my old club, in a friendly a couple of months before and I got a bad ankle injury and probably wasn’t at full fitness going into the match. The pitch was unbelievably heavy and wet. Lots of poor excuses, but in any event didn’t have a great day defensively. We did alright offensively, and the papers were reasonably complimentary afterwards, but that missed tackle at the end would haunt me for a little while.

“It’s 23 years ago now. You move on a bit but that will always be the lowest point probably alongside Perpignan in my career,” he admitted before reassuring that it wasn’t all doom and gloom. “I look back on my career with a lot of fond memories. Thankfully, those bad days were fewer than good days.”

For those who need their memories jogged, Quinlan was a twice-capped Ireland midfielder who switched from Leinster to Northampton in 2005, going on to have two seasons in the Premiership before concussion finished him at the age of 29. At that time in 2007, the issue that forced his retirement felt trivial. Not now.

“The level of awareness amongst players, medics, coaches, fans, referees – everybody involved in the game – is just a totally different level from when we played. It’s very difficult to draw comparisons between the two eras. It doesn’t seem like a long time ago that I finished but certainly in that area of awareness and understanding of concussion, it does seem like a long, long time ago.

“I remember watching videos where players got concussed, including myself, where you get knocked out by a knee or whatever and the initial reaction of the team was to have a laugh. It was an amusing thing to be completely poleaxed whereas people are much more aware of the gravity of the situation now. We have moved on a long way from those days, thankfully.”

The progress is similar in so many other player welfare areas. It was 2019 when Quinlan joined IRP, trading the ebb and flow of private commercial and sports law practice with various London legal firms – including working at the 2012 Olympics – for a dedicated rugby brief back in his native Dublin. His joining message was that rugby increasingly “needed a strong global player voice”. Four years on, how are IRP doing?

“As an organisation, we have made some good strides in that time. There is still a lot more we can do but if you just look at the level of representation within World Rugby committees and hopefully in the not-too-distant future on the World Rugby executive board, there are player representatives throughout the decision-making process there.

“Whether they have the ultimate say or dictate policy or direction is open to question, but the voices are at the table and are being heard – and that is a massive development,” reckoned the 45-year-old who is now 16 years retired as a player. “It is important that continues and we continue to arm those player representatives with the views of the players around the world.

“From domestic leagues and domestic issues all the way up to the more topical international issues including concussion and World Rugby regulations around player release and eligibility and all that kind of stuff, we cover a whole range of topics. But if you were to point to one particular area where we have made real progress it is in getting our representatives embedded in those decision-making processes.

“In fairness to World Rugby, I do think that is a big step forward for them to recognise the need, the importance and the benefits for everybody. We always say it, the player view is beneficial to everybody. If decision-makers are hearing it and acting on it to the extent possible, that can only benefit the game.”

Quinlan was talking just five months out from what everyone hopes will be the greatest Rugby World Cup yet. So many tier-one countries are neck and neck with each other, while tier-two nations have been boosted by the eligibility change that now permits players such as former All Blacks Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa to represent Tonga.

“We were supportive of it,” he said. “People want to see the best players playing in the showpiece events and there is no greater showpiece for the sport than the men’s XVs World Cup, so to have these players playing can only be a good thing and to raise the bar.

“Amongst the traditional top tier, the level of competitiveness is probably better than it has ever been but even that next level down, for their level to arise can only be a good thing for the game. We will hopefully see improvements in those teams in this World Cup – but it might be another World Cup down the line before we really start to see some of these changes.

“Particularly when you are talking about the Pacific Islands, the benefits that are being derived from having their teams – Moana and Drua – play in Super Rugby Pacific. There are some really positive developments there. There are still challenges, there is no doubt about it for Pacific Islands in particular, but there are some positive developments and it’s hopefully this World Cup and further down the line that we see those developments really manifest themselves.”

The global IRP federation has 13 member unions under its umbrella representing players in 15 countries, but growth is on the agenda. “It’s quite a diverse range of bodies in terms of their development and even how they engage with their national unions and their players. The better-performing countries on the whole tend to be ones where you have got strong player associations and strong relationships with their unions.

“Some of our newer member associations like in Romania, it’s a challenging landscape for them to get recognition from their union to sign up all the players they need to be signing. It’s difficult when a lot of our member associations are trying to work with very limited resources. It is a priority to help them grow player representation… and we are already working with the guys in Africa to see if we can grow something out of the South African players association for the Namibians, the Kenyans, Zimbabweans and others down there.

“That is a big priority for us to try and grow player representation. South America, we have no footprint there at all. That is something we need to change but there is no doubt there are different member associations at very different stages of their development from fledgling to very, very well established and providing a full range of services for their players and being an integral part of the rugby landscape in their countries.”

What is the current mood in the room at the moment? “We fed back to the Shape of the Game conference in London in March, Conrad Smith presented for us. The brief was what are the main challenges and opportunities for the game and the range of feedback was interesting. There is no doubt, there are a lot of players concerned about the financial state of the game. That is probably more the case in England and Wales than anywhere else at the moment.

“There is definitely an understanding on the part of players that the game is challenged financially and there is some uncertainty about how it is going to continue to sustain itself. When we talk about player welfare, having a pay cheque coming in at the end of the month is a key facet. We saw what was going on in Wales and that is hugely regrettable and hugely concerning; players have mortgages to pay, mouths to feed and that kind of thing.

“Those players are continuing to really suffer and there is a lot of anxiety and worry about what the future holds for them. The player safety stuff and the concussion stuff, trying to make the game safer, is an important aspect of player welfare but there is a whole other raft of issues that also fit into the player welfare category – and we all need to be mindful of that when we talk about the priority that we place on it.”

Red and yellow cards are a searingly hot topic. World Rugby referees boss Joel Jutge has admitted they are considering adopting the Super Rugby Pacific’s current yellow card review system. While players can still be given a red card for instances of foul play, SRP referees have the option of showing a yellow that can then be upgraded to red on review by a second TMO.

Quinlan understands the merit of that law trial, but he doesn’t want rugby to generally become over-simplified in its desire to attract new fans to the sport. “I go to matches with my 11-year-old son and trying to explain to him what is going on is difficult.

“The game definitely has challenges there, but I’m not sure we need to dumb it down to the lowest common denominator entirely just to appeal to particular cohorts. Rugby has a lot of strengths in the makeup of the game, so there is a balance to be struck there.

“With the red and yellow cards, there is a balance as well. We have discussed concussion. I retired with concussion, I’d a number of them. I’m more aware than most of the issues with concussion, so the game does have a duty to try and eliminate this stuff, but we also have to strike a balance and I think that is understood by World Rugby.

“Some of the efforts that they have made recently and some of the things they are looking at, including the Super Rugby approach, they are worth considering and that is the right thing to do, to have these trials in place and to see how they are working out. It’s a fact of life: the way the laws are, there are very few clear-cut decisions in this area.

“I sit on these calibration calls with Conrad, with Jamie Roberts, Rachael Burford and Ugo Monye, all celebrated international players, and we don’t come to the same decision about lots of clips. We look at them and we review them over and over and there are citing commissioners and referees on the call and it’s rare that you get absolute agreement about what a decision should be. Should it be yellow, should it be red?

“Unfortunately, the consequences of the yellow card versus the consequence of the red card as things currently stand are notable or significant and that is a challenge that we face. We all look at the exact same people and people see different things. It is definitely a tricky area and it is one that we need to continue to work through.

“Those calibration calls and that work in trying to establish what a yellow card looks like, what a red card shouldn’t look like and what red cards should be reserved for, that work needs to continue because nobody wants the spectacle to suffer unnecessarily.

“Certain acts do need to be eliminated from the game and we should all be supportive of that but at the same time nobody wants to see the game suffer unnecessarily and certainly come World Cup in the autumn, hopefully we get as many games with 15 versus 15 for 80 minutes as possible because that is what people want to see.”

Overall, it sounds as if Quinlan is well-settled in his post-playing afterlife. Curiously, though, he suggested that the transition out of the game in his day was easier than now. “Where it has possibly got a bit harder is, notwithstanding the support structures, players are probably becoming professional players or very close to professional players earlier than we did. They are straight out of school and straight into academies.

“We were IRFU foundation as it was known back then but you lived a pretty normal college experience if that was the road you went down. And the generation before that, the Shane Byrnes, the Victor Costellos and these lads who were the first real generation of professional players, they had other career interests.

“It is tougher for players now that never really experience the real world until it is the end of their rugby career. That is definitely a challenge and I would say in other countries that have less well-established support structures, that is a real challenge. If you have got kids going into academies at 16 or 18 or getting involved in academies at that level without even experiencing the real world, that is a tough thing.

“Whether you get let go by an academy or have a full senior professional career, it is still a huge transition and from a number of different respects, loss of identity, loss of routine and loss of camaraderie you have in the dressing room, all the stuff you read all the time. It is real and it is something that players go through and is something that players struggle with and will continue to struggle with.

“The importance of having these player personal development programmes in place in player associations and ensconced in clubs, we can’t say enough about the importance of that and that is a message we repeat with World Rugby – that they need to be supporting and promoting their unions to be supporting their national player association to provide these programmes.”

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