Rugby Union: Quinnell big enough to take the knocks

Depending on your point of view, Scott Quinnell is either the most gifted forward in British rugby or a one-man awkward squad far more trouble than he is worth.

As Richmond prepared to mix it with Bath in this afternoon's big Tetley's Bitter Cup tie at the Recreation Ground, Chris Hewett tracked down an elusive talent and found him full of positive intent.

A great French film director once aimed a sardonic sneer in the direction of his contemporaries across the Channel by dismissing the expression "British movie" as a contradiction in terms. There are those who consider the Scott Quinnell Interview to be something very similar and it is undeniably true that the famously taciturn Welshman would much rather play a good game than talk one. When groin problems forced him to abandon last summer's Lions tour of South Africa, he was on the plane home before the Woodwards and Bernsteins of the rugby press realised he was injured.

"The hardest decision of my life, that was," he says now, sitting bolt upright in the empty bar of the Richmond clubhouse, staring suspiciously at the notebook before him and looking about as comfortable as a shark in a sand dune. "It was a double hernia, as it turned out. I'd been struggling with it for a while, but I felt fit and strong enough when we first flew down to Jo'burg. I just happened to aggravate it in the game against Northern Transvaal and I knew it would take increasingly long periods of treatment to get me ready for matches. In the end, I felt I wouldn't do justice to myself or the squad by sticking around."

So Quinnell, a stone-cold certainty for the Test No 8 spot, became the Lion Who Never Was. His critics back home in the valleys call him something else: the Welshman Who Never Was. If they go misty-eyed at the mere mention of his rugby ancestry - his father Derek was a three-tour Lion while his uncle, Barry John, remains a 24-carat legend - they soon purse their lips at Scotty's unspeakable defection to rugby league, his equally heinous decision to return to 15-man business with a swanky London outfit like Richmond rather than his Llanelli nursery, his much-publicised contractual squabble with the Welsh Rugby Union.

All of which hurts, though Quinnell is too self-contained a character to show it. What he does display, repeatedly, is a genuine enthusiasm for international rugby, a relish that is about to manifest itself in the annual hothouse of the Five Nations' Championship. "Of course, I'm committed to Wales," he says. "I don't play for anyone unless I'm committed. I'm not the sort to turn up out of habit or because there's nothing better to do. Apart from injury, nothing has kept me out of a Welsh squad since Christmas '96. I'm in the present squad and I badly want to play in what I believe has the makings of a very strong team. I'm no different to any other Welshman when it comes to the red shirt. No different at all."

It is startling to think that Quinnell, 25 last August, has yet to reach the midway point of his career. His name, made famous by the family flesh and blood that went before him, was being bandied around the west Wales grapevine before he started shaving and he climbed the rungs of the representative ladder as to the manner born. He made his Test debut against Canada in 1993 as a blind-side flanker before lording it over the rest of Europe with some thunderous displays at No 8 as Wales won the 1994 Five Nations.

He had the world at his feet. Unfortunately for an adoring Welsh public, that world was an amateur one. Rugby's big bucks were then confined to league and when Quinnell signed for Wigan, the sound of a thousand camera shutters snapping in unison was drowned out by the wailing and gnashing of teeth back home. When the bucks transferred themselves to south-west London, he resurfaced at the Richmond Athletic Ground. Does that make him a rugby mercenary, a bounty-hunting slave to his own bank account?

"It's a professional game and players make the best living they can," he says with unarguable logic. "I felt it was better for me and my rugby to get out of Wales, even though it's my home and there is nothing I enjoy more than going back over the bridge and spending time with the boys in the squad. To be honest with you, I found London difficult to come to terms with at first, but the simple fact is that there is now a huge difference between the club games in the two countries.

"In Wales you can still rest players and beat the weaker sides by 50 points. You simply cannot do that in the English Premiership, where the week-in, week-out matches are so much harder. There is no such thing as an easy 80 minutes here and if you look at what is happening at Richmond, it's making better players of us all.

"I do worry, though, about the club game back home. You can't stop people making their livelihoods and you might argue that the English-based players will strengthen the Welsh international side by bringing in new ideas. But if all the top players head for England - and if Neil Jenkins decides to join Bath, for instance, a lot of the big names could well follow him over the bridge - it will do nothing for the game domestically. If we're not careful, we'll lose the most important thing, the fan base. If the crowds start turning to other things, we're lost.

"It's a problem for the Welsh Rugby Union to sort out. I'm contracted to Richmond until 2002 and, as we speak, I can't see myself playing club rugby for a Welsh team again. But something has to be done to give the players who are there some real opportunities."

Richmond has been good for Quinnell and judging by the way he is performing at present, the benefits are mutual. The Londoners started their Premiership campaign with a limited bish-bosh game plan depressingly reminiscent of league and the wisecrackers wondered whether it had been worth Quinnell's while leaving Wigan, but Ben Clarke's expensively recruited outfit have added a harp-full of strings to their bow and are now playing with pace and style.

"There's bags of potential here and when we learn to win games while playing below our capacity, we'll be right up there with the big boys," Quinnell says. Talking of which, his outsized brother, Craig, is also cutting mustard by the jar-load at the Athletic Ground these days. "He's bloody huge, isn't he?" Scott laughs. "I'm glad he's on my side." And you realise that if both exiled siblings are going to wrap themselves in the Welsh flag over the next couple of months, it will have to be a very large flag indeed.

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