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Former Leinster and Northampton Saints ace David Quinlan looks back on rugby career and Cambridge University RUFC days

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David Quinlan at the Cambridge University RUFC Rugby World Cup dinner. Picture: Tom Ellwood Photography (26912890)
David Quinlan at the Cambridge University RUFC Rugby World Cup dinner. Picture: Tom Ellwood Photography (26912890)

A pantheon of rugby greats have had the honour of pulling on the light blue of Cambridge University RUFC.

The trend in recent times has been for the game’s elite to arrive at the academic institution either at the end of or towards the twilight of their professional days, with Dan Vickerman and Jamie Roberts being notable exceptions.

Step back a couple of generations, and CURUFC was a stepping stone to international honours. The role that Cambridge has played in the careers of those individuals has never been forgotten, and so they are always keen to put back into the club wherever possible.

Rob Andrew, Mike Hall and Eric Peters are three such stars who came back to represent their national sides – England, Wales and Scotland respectively – at a special pre-Rugby World Cup dinner at St John’s College last September, while flying the flag for Ireland was David Quinlan.

It is probably fair to say that the 42-year-old former centre was not such an instantly recognisable name, but his achievements, both on and off the pitch, are meritorious.

Quinlan almost straddled the divide of the past and the present, coming to study an MPhil in criminology as a postgraduate student in 2000, and then going on to earn international honours.

“I remember the first night at St Catharine’s College and you were just struck by the grandeur and history of the place – it’s amazing,” he recalls.

As a then 22-year-old, Quinlan was taking his first step outside of Ireland, where he had done his undergraduate degree in law at University College Dublin.

He had still been living at home, but had played age group rugby throughout for his country, and it was Mike Haslett, the Light Blues captain in 2000, who suggested going to study at Cambridge.

“It was quite a different experience as I had just grown up with my Leinster/Dublin crew, so it was quite an eye opener,” says Quinlan.

“It just broadened your horizons, hanging with people from different backgrounds. We were all rugby players of quite similar mind, but it was something I hadn’t experienced before.

“The traditions of the place I loved as well. Going for port and nuts before the Varsity Match at the president of the rugby club’s college, the formal halls, it was all hugely different to anything I had come across before.

“If you go there with an open mind and embrace the experience, it’s just fantastic. I loved all of that tradition, and some people can be very down on it in this PC age but I loved it. I think it is a great thing and should be respected and upheld for as long as possible.”

The experience of studying at Cambridge, and all of its history, clearly left an indelible mark on Quinlan, and so to did the 2000 Varsity Match, but for all the wrong reasons.

“It was a pretty emotionally scarring event, I have to say,” comments Quinlan.

On a soaking wet pitch, Cambridge had recovered an 11-point deficit at one stage to lead 16-11 midway through the second half.

But Oxford hit back and Quinlan’s missed tackle on Werner van Pittius led to the Dark Blues centre getting the ball away to Rory Jennings to get the winning try, in a 19-16 victory.

“The Varsity Match will always be a big regret,” says Quinlan, “but it was one of the best years I’ve ever had and I absolutely loved it.”

He came close to staying at Cambridge for a second year but, instead, returned to his homeland to play for Leinster, where he found some fierce competition for a place in the backline.

Opposing for one of the shirts were Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Shane Horgan and, therefore, the same was true for the national team.

Quinlan would go on to make 50 appearances for Leinster, and represent Ireland at every level, captaining the sevens team at a number of international tournaments, and earning two full caps on the tour of Japan in 2005.

That summer, he hopped back over the Irish Sea to sign for Northampton Saints, with a squad that was bristling with the talents of the likes of Carlos Spencer, Mark Robinson, Ben Cohen, Sean Lamont, Bruce Reihana and Steve Thompson.

“It was a wonderful experience and Franklin’s Gardens is a pretty special place to play rugby,” he says.

However, Quinlan’s playing days were cut short.

After only 18 months, he was forced to retire on the advice of a neuro-surgeon due to the impact of concussion.

That was 13 years ago, in 2007, when the awareness of head injuries was nowhere near as acute and heavily monitored, for the good, as it is today.

“Certainly, when I was at Leinster I remember doing video reviews on a Monday morning and you would see people getting concussed and you would laugh at what they were up to in those days,” says Quinlan.

“The only reason I thought about it was that I was conscious I was getting more of these knocks than the guys I was playing with, and I definitely knew that was not a positive thing.

“I was always aware of it. I think there was just less concern generally about it.

“Now, it’s taken a lot more seriously and people are aware of the risks involved a lot more. I think generally the progress that has been made in that area has been very positive.

“I think it has probably evolved with the evolution of the game and professionalism.

“I guess rugby recognised that it had to do something. World Rugby and the governing bodies have reacted to it, and I think the changes they’re trying to make are very well intentioned.”

On leaving the game, Quinlan was able to fall back on his studies.

He qualified as a corporate lawyer with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP in London in 2010, and has led a corporate career as distinguished as his playing days.

In an almost exclusive commercial or financial nature, Quinlan has advised football clubs on takeovers and share-dealings, advised UK Sport, acted for Budweiser on their FA Cup sponsorship and did a stint with the legal team at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

But his stand-out role was a secondment to the London 2012 Olympics’ legal team.

“It was very different to anything I had done before and it was something you experience once in a lifetime,” says Quinlan.

“My brief within the legal team, I was only a trainee at the time, was pretty wide-ranging and covered a lot of different areas.

“I really enjoyed that, and was working with some very good lawyers.”

He is now back home though, in two regards. Quinlan returned to Dublin last year to become head of legal and players’ welfare at the International Rugby Players.

It is the global representative body on issues of importance to professional rugby players.

“We represent players on international matters,” says Quinlan. “It would be law changes, international season structure, player release, player eligibility, all the big picture stuff.

“It’s a dual mandate. We will represent the player associations where they exist and where they don’t exist, we will act for the players directly. My role is the legal role within that so it’s a pretty wide-ranging brief.”

In many ways, it is a role that seems fitting for a player that bridged the divide at Cambridge, just as the professional era was starting to take flight.

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