Fabien Pelous handed in his notice during the week. Five more games in Toulouse red and that'll be that for the great wedge-chinned French lock. Off to venture in the outside world for a while, albeit that he's fully expected to be brooding down from the coach's box at his national team eventually. Asked on Thursday for his best memories of a rugby life lived out in epic chunks, he nominated three – his first ever big win as a senior player with club side Saverdun, the 1999 World Cup semi-final extravaganza against the All Blacks and his first Heineken Cup win against Perpignan in 2003. Good times all.
Alas, poor Fabien, if he only had an inkling of what small fry dwell in the waters of his reminiscence. We, of course, know better. For all that he put down a career of solid oak conviction, immovable and immutable as the French Alps themselves, it's still a stretch for any Irish rugby watcher to think of Pelous without allowing themselves a little titter at the yellow card he picked up during last year's Heineken Cup final. Few in the crowd saw what it was brandished for at the time but when it came the replay couldn't but prompt a guffaw. To watch Pelous, this 34-year-old leviathan of the times, finally take the bait and give Alan Quinlan a good, old-fashioned, ya-hoor's-bastard-ya kick in the arse and then get binned for his troubles was nothing short of a hoot.
Whether South Africa's second-row duo of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha were watching or not isn't a matter of record but nobody doubts that Quinlan has booked his seat on the plane to South Africa for more than just his ball skills and tackle count. Every Lions tour comes as freighted with psychology and in that kind of warfare, Quinlan is a predator drone. He gets himself in where the action is messy and usually gets himself out unscathed too. Not always, but usually. It isn't the foremost part of his game and nor is it the main reason Ian McGeechan enraged the British press by picking him in the squad ahead of Leicester's young colt Tom Croft. But it is undeniably one of them.
Best part is, nobody holds Quinlan's flair for agitation against him. Having kicked him in Cardiff that day, Pelous was moved afterwards to sadly shake his head and kick himself. "I did lose the head a little bit," he said. "The player did stand on my foot and I reacted by kicking out at him. Unfortunately the referee only saw the second kick but it is a real shame that at my age I reacted that way."
Rugby is different like that. Where Gaelic footballers get rolled eyes and a cop-on scolding for the heinous crime of mouthing, Quinlan is almost regarded as fondly as an old uncle. In his sport, the crime isn't crossing the border between right and not-quite-right; it's getting caught in the glare of Border Patrol's torch once you're one the other side. When Shane Byrne said on Wednesday that "the greatest compliment I can pay him is that he's the most annoying man to be on a rugby pitch with", he was kidding but he was making a serious point too.
"Quinny just seems to have that instinct," Byrne says, "to know where to be at the right time and how to make sure that his team is controlling things rather than the other side. So the cheekiness is a big part of that. He knows exactly how and when to have a little grab of the ball to slow it down or to tug on a guy's jersey. He's plays an extremely physical game and has such a great footballing brain. But on top of that, he could drive the South Africans absolutely nuts out there and that's exactly what you want.
"Like with Pelous that time, everybody in Ireland knew that Quinny either said something to him or did something to bug him. Of course he did. You knew exactly that by looking at him and anyone like me who's played against him saw that and would have said, 'Sure, you'd love to give him a kick in the arse.' But that's just the way it is. There's no animosity in it because he's one of the best people you could meet. But on a rugby pitch, he knows exactly where the edge is and how to play on it. He gets caught sometimes and those times are hilarious because he has also perfected the look at the ref as if to say, 'What was that for?' And you just look at him and go, 'Quinny, plainly everyone can see what it's for.' But that's him."
And so Alan Quinlan is going to be a Lion, as unlikely a name as was to be found on McGeechan's list last Tuesday. You'd forgive him for not being keen to dance a jig just yet, though. Even typing the sentence seems like tempting fate a little given how often the gods have intervened to whip what seemed like solid ground out from under him. For Munster and for Ireland, taking nothing as read is as natural an instinct as wandering in front of an opposing scrum-half to accidently slow down a tap penalty.
This, after all, is a player who has lost the best part of two and a half years of his career to injury and at least another half a season to suspension. Who famously got jocked off in favour of Eddie Halvey – not even a full-time professional at the time – as Munster entered the home straight in their first proper European adventure in the spring of 2000. Who has been playing Heineken Cup since jacking in his job as a mechanic in Tipperary town in 1997 and seemed destined to be its hardest of hard-luck stories until he replaced Paul O'Connell with five minutes to go in the 2006 final. Who, believe it or believe it not, has only ever started 11 games for Ireland.
Rotten luck has had its say along the way. In January 2000, he hurt his shoulder in Munster's final pool game against Pontypridd. It was no biggie by the standards of the injuries he'd sustain in years to come but it was enough to keep him out of the first Ireland 'A' game of that year's championship. Simon Easterby took his place that night and when Warren Gatland went looking for recruits to call up en masse for the Scotland game after that year's ritual Twickenham hockeying, Easterby was at the top of the queue and was presented with the first of what turned out to be 65 caps. Quinlan was condemned to being a fitful presence.
Not that he didn't bring at least some of it down on himself. He's been involved in more citings than a law professor. He wasn't always guilty but rarely was justice completely miscarried either. Indeed, his most recent spin in an Ireland jersey ended in a three-week suspension for stamping during the New Zealand game at Croke Park last November. For all that we can smile at his incorrigible ways and the craft with which he bends the rules, sometimes bend has progressed to break and he's had to pay a harsh levy for that. Again though, McGeechan won't be unduly bothered. There'll be fire on the high veld; best to fight it with fire of his own.
Leinster will get plenty of it next Saturday too. Paul O'Connell tells a story of a team meeting before the famous New Year's Eve game in the RDS in 2005, a couple of months before that semi-final. O'Connell, Declan Kidney, Anthony Foley and John Kelly had all spoken about the need for precision, of being very careful to keep the ball away from the Leinster backs. Quinlan was in the midst of his rehab from the cruciate injury that wouldn't be fixed for another four months but even so, he was in the room along with the squad. Kidney liked having him around, sometimes for the slagging, sometimes for the sake of his own spirits and sometimes purely for dog in him.
O'Connell looked over and caught his eye. "I think Quinny has something to say here," he said. "I know that what everyone has said is right," said Quinlan. "We'll have to be precise and we'll have to protect the ball and hold possession. But boys, if we want to beat these fellas, we'll just have to get out there and smash 'em. Simple as that." Meeting adjourned.
Leinster won that battle but to Munster went the war. You couldn't contend that Munster missed him desperately in the semi-final but he very much missed them. The chance to tug at Leinster's tail? To pass a few choice words onto his brother-in-law Malcolm O'Kelly at the bottom of a ruck? It killed him not to be out there. Watch him go next weekend, watch out for how close he is to the first flare-up. Denis Leamy and Donncha O'Callaghan always seem to be the ones who get involved but have no doubt that Quinlan will be on the premises.
Enough for McGeechan to have taken a punt on him? Not on its own, no. But ask Doug Howlett why Quinlan is going and you'll hear a story from the early days of his time in the Munster camp. It was spring of last year and in the week of a Magners league match against Ulster, Quinlan – his eternal search for a weakness out of which to extract a laugh in a crowded dressing room having been mostly fruitless when it came to the all-time leading New Zealand try-scorer – fastened onto the fact that despite being four games into his Munster career Howlett still hadn't crossed the line for his new team. "What are we after signing here at all?" he teased.
Howlett had been in enough dressing rooms to hold his own but the fact stood. He was a big deal and the last big deal to blow through town had been Christian Cullen and that hadn't gone well at all. A try wasn't absolutely vital but it would be nice. So Quinlan took him aside before the game and promised him he'd give him a scoring pass before the 80 minutes were up. Sure enough, with 77 on the clock, he shipped one out to him and Howlett was off the mark.
Doubters bedamned. That's why he's going.
Honours Grand Slam squad member 2009; Heineken Cup winner 2006, 2008, Celtic League winner 2003, 2005; AIL winner 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2002
Did you know? Quinlan's mother Mary is famous among the Munster squad for her holy water, collected from holy sites at Lourdes, Fatima and Medjugorje. She often gives their press officer Pat Geraghty bottles of it with which to bless the team before games.