Rugby Union: Slimline Quinnell reveals his appetite

Wales' imposing second-row forward is shaping up for Saturday's full tilt at the Springboks.
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The Independent Online
NO COFFEE, no tea, no sugar, no dairy produce; no nothing, it seems, except chocolate - a non-negotiable part of his new diet - and regular helpings of raw meat, preferably human and clad in the colours of opposing rugby teams. Craig Quinnell has been devouring rival forwards with an unseemly relish these last two seasons and he is not about to turn vegetarian with the Springboks in town. Especially now that a recent fitness regime has reduced him to a waif-like 19 stones or so and left him in obvious need of a square meal.

When the formidable frame of Quinnell the Younger emerges from his country's dressing-room on Saturday afternoon - always assuming, of course, that the Wembley ground staff widen the tunnel sufficiently to allow him access to the pitch - it will mark his first Test start since Wales beat Fiji 19-15 in Cardiff in 1995. The put-upon Welsh public find that fact difficult to digest and they are not alone, for those hoity-toity English types who watch Richmond's weekly forays into the Allied Dunbar Premiership will happily testify to the big man's rumbustious talents.

It is not as if Red Dragon teams of the recent past have been so blessed by second row giants that they could reasonably afford to ignore him; after all, we are talking here about a nation that has signally failed to produce a lock forward of genuine world class since Bob Norster subsided all too gently into oblivion on the 1989 Lions tour of Australia. Those sentimental boyos of the valleys who fondly remember Delme Thomas and Allan Martin and dear old Geoff Wheel are only half joking when they wonder if Wales could now expect to achieve line-out parity with the Japanese.

Hence the palpable sense of relief surrounding Graham Henry's decision to see sense at the first time of asking. The new national coach has paired Quinnell with Chris Wyatt for this weekend's swipe at the South African world champions and if those two fail to hit it off, there really is no hope. Both men have the bright scarlet blood of Llanelli coursing through their veins and both bring a loose forward's fluency to their second-row play, which is no bad thing when you consider that the very greatest locks of the post-war era, Colin Meads of New Zealand and Frik du Preez of South Africa, took a similar approach.

"I played most of my rugby for Llanelli in the back row and Chris still turns out for them at No 8, so hopefully we'll get around Wembley more quickly than the Springboks might have been led to expect," said Quinnell, who turned 23 in July, less than a fortnight after Wales shipped 96 points to the same opposition on a gruesome high-altitude afternoon at Pretoria's Loftus Versfeld stadium. "I've probably got more ballast than Chris, who is more of the athletic sort. But I fancy myself as a bit of an athlete too, you know, especially as I've come down a touch from my 21-stone peak."

Ah yes, that diet. Given that Wales have spent much of the last decade crying out for some real horsepower in the engine room, is it not ever so slightly perverse of Quinnell to be shedding pounds and ounces on a voluntary basis? "It all started with my dodgy shoulder," he explained, after a squad session in Cardiff this week. "I had to lay off the weights for a while and at the same time, the dietician thought I might benefit from better eating habits. He cut out whole categories of food and drink - hot beverages and virtually all the dairy stuff were the first to go - and sure enough, the weight came off.

"It's not a problem, though. Quite the opposite. I'm as physically strong as ever, but I'm bringing more mobility to my game and that allows me to hit the rucks and mauls harder than before. I'm also getting my hands on the ball in wider positions, which can't be a bad thing." The current Welsh props, Andrew Lewis and Chris Anthony, will be the first to appreciate Quinnell's Ryvita approach to life in the boilerhouse. They, remember, are the poor devils who have to propel him skywards at every line-out.

As Quinnell warmed to the conversation, he mounted a sterling defence of his capacity for self-motivation. Critics have labelled him a lazy player, an in-and-outer, an unreliable performer over 80 minutes. "Quinnell jumps at two and again at four," is the kind of taunt he has grown used to since he first rumbled on to the representative scene after the last World Cup. Needless to say, he feels a little hard done by.

"That's just not me," he insisted. "Games either go your way or they don't and it takes someone very special to rise above that basic fact. If you look at my Richmond statistics, I consistently record the highest tackle count of our tight five. I'm averaging a dozen good hits a game at the moment and while our hooker, Barry Williams, occasionally manages one or two more, he doesn't do it very often. I'm carrying the ball pretty effectively too and to my mind, I can't be that lazy if I'm putting in that much around the field.

"At the moment, the buzz is very definitely there and I owe Richmond for that. Not only did they give me the chance to improve my outlook by playing alongside quality people - Ben Clarke, Brian Moore and so on - but they encouraged me to reinvent myself as a second row. Now I look on it as my natural position, to the extent that when I played in the back row for the first time in a long while a couple of weeks ago, I spent most of the game thinking: `Bugger me, what have I let myself in for here?' I still enjoy the feel of the ball in my hands, of course, but lock forwards run very different lines to flankers. Basically, we graft more and flash less!"

The line Quinnell plans to run on Saturday is the one taking him straight towards the nearest Springbok. "They might even have a run at me," he smiled. "That would be nice. The earlier the better." The last time a Welsh second row showed such an appetite for the fray, God was in short trousers. What price a revelation this weekend?

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