Rugby Union: Quinnell strides back a league ahead

Ian Stafford meets the prodigious rugby talent recruited by Richmond after his productive spell at Wigan
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The Independent Online
It was that try that did it. From the moment Scott Quinnell ran for the line in Cardiff, with four Frenchmen bouncing off him in desperate attempts to stop him, the world of rugby took notice.

Here, quite possibly, was the new star of Welsh rugby union, following in the footsteps of his father, Derek, and his uncle, Barry John. Here was the reason why Welsh rugby would re-emerge from a decade of misery. He may have won only nine caps, but Scott Quinnell was a player the Welsh could boast about.

It seems a lifetime ago now, but back in 1994, when there was only one professional code of rugby, Quinnell was too big a prospect, and too poor a union man, not to be snatched up by the giants of rugby league, Wigan.

Now, 18 months later, and still only 23 years old, he returns once more as a union man - and a pretty wealthy union man - when he turns out for the money men from the English Second Division, Richmond, who face Maesteg in a friendly on 31 August. He then travels to Coventry on 7 September for the start of a campaign which both he and the club hope will end with promotion to the big league.

So was the trip up north worth it? "Without doubt," he insists. "I won everything there is in the game, except a cup medal, and I represented Wales and reached the World Cup semi-final. My eyes were opened to a whole new way of playing rugby. I learned what it was like to be really fit, and professional. Although I had no idea at the time, it has prepared me well for my return to rugby union, now that it, too, has turned professional."

Judging by the reception Scott Gibbs received in Wales after he left Swansea to join St Helens, Quinnell got off lightly when he broke the news that he was leaving Llanelli.

"It was almost as if they wanted me to leave," he says. "I've never quite been able to work it out. I was expecting some terrible flak, but I'd say that 90 per cent of the people were behind me. I announced my decision on the Friday, and the following day I went down to Stradey Park to watch Llanelli play Pontypool. Everyone there seemed to wish me well."

Although the call from Wigan was out of the blue, Quinnell, after consultation with his wife, father and uncle, needed little time to be persuaded. "Basically my Dad and Barry wanted what I wanted, and did not attempt to stop me leaving Wales," he says. "Like everyone else, there was little going on in Wales, and I had my three-year-old daughter's security to think of. I was also genuinely interested to give league a go, because I believed it suited my style of play."

And did it? "In the end, but it was a hell of a shock at first. They kept playing me in the seconds in order to let me find my way. I kept asking to be given a crack in the first team, and when they did, after five or six games, I could see why they were holding me back. It was only against Rochdale, but afterwards I was looking forward to playing for the seconds again.

"But it got a lot easier for me by the end of the first season, and I played all my matches for the firsts last season. I wouldn't say I'd cracked it, but I was a much better player when I left, and I will be a better union player for the experience."

Which is good news for Richmond who, together with fellow Second Division club Newcastle, have ambitions to become one of the dominant forces in English rugby before not too long. Like his Wigan decision, it took little time to be sold on the Richmond ticket.

"I was impressed by the other players they'd signed, by the way they outlined their package to me, their plans for their whole structure and, to be honest, I always saw myself as a union man. I'd been playing the game since I was eight, so by coming to Richmond, although not geographically, I feel as if I am returning home again to my sport."

The next few weeks will be interesting times for both Quinnell and his club. Will the money pumped into the club by the businessman from Monte Carlo, Ashley Levett, start to pay off, and will Quinnell make the start he is looking for, both for Richmond and possibly for Wales, and if so, in what position?

"As far as I'm concerned, I'm playing at No 8," is Quinnell's answer to that, even though England's Ben Clarke has joined as club captain.

"I have no intention of playing in the Second Division next year, and I have no doubts that I won't be. As for Wales, the plan is to try and make the side as soon as possible, but I know that I can't expect to just walk in."

While there will be few doubts about that, one thing is certain: two former luminaries of Welsh union are quietly raising their glasses over Quinnell's return to his first sport.

"My dad and uncle have always supported me," Quinnell says, "but I know they're both delighted that I'm back in union.That's where I really belong."