Llanelli's great Scott keeps the Lions on his horizon

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Among life's many irksome questions - such as why do washing machines get dirty, or why isn't there a television programme called No Rogue Traders, telling us who the good plumbers and builders are, and where to find them - there is the one about Scott Quinnell.

Put simply, why isn't he playing for Wales? The practical answer, of course, is that the Llanelli No 8 retired from international rugby, rather abruptly, in the autumn of 2002. He said then - and repeated on Friday - that the commitment required is too great for a man with three young children. "The Wales players were away for 32 weeks last year," said Quinnell. "If you've got a family, it's very difficult. It really is a young man's sport now."

And yet, almost in the same breath, Quinnell points out that he has only just turned 31, and is far from ready to be a full-time coach, although he is working through his badges and helping out with the Scarlets' regional Under-21 side.

It so happens that an attractive vacancy at Llanelli is looming at the end of the season with the anticipated departure of Gareth Jenkins to the national team. "If Gareth and [backs coach] Nigel Davies go to Wales, there'll be a huge hole in Llanelli's coaching staff," said Quinnell. "I like to think I've got another two or three years left in me, playing. People think I'm older than I am."

If it sounds contrary, that's Scott Quinnell for you, which is not meant to sound unkind. He has always possessed that indefinable extra - can it really be 10 years since he bounced off half of France for that famous Five Nations try in Cardiff? And even in a country where two men are counted as a committee, and three men as two committees, there is precious little argument over his current form.

Five tries in the Heineken Cup, equal best with England's James Simpson-Daniel and Ben Cohen before this weekend's matches, is only part of the story. It seems Quinnell's brand of barge and ballet at the base of the scrum has never been more effective. As Llanelli's totem, he leads his side today in a classic Anglo-Welsh battle at Northampton. The winner-takes-all nature is given added spice by the expectation that Saints' New Zealander coach, Wayne Smith, is, like Jenkins, preparing to quit and answer his country's call.

Quinnell insists that Llanelli, having lost Heineken semi-finals to Northampton and Leicester in 2000 and 2002, could not be any hungrier. "I don't think we need to put any more pressure on ourselves. We know if we don't perform, the Heineken Cup's gone for another year. But if it is Gareth's last year coaching in Stradey Park, it will be all the more fitting that we play to the best of our ability, and end up picking up the trophy."

The bon mots about Big Scott have been plentiful. "Simply unbelievable," said Leigh Davies, Llanelli's captain; "He's a special player and we have to stop him," said Smith. During a full career - a stint in rugby league, a couple of Lions tours, 52 Wales Tests - Quinnell has developed into a leader of men; he is chairman of the Welsh Players' Association, and undertakes regular media work.

Yet he appears genuinely perplexed and upset that a throwaway line, that he would accept an invitation to tour with the 2005 Lions, was turned in midweek into "come and get me" headlines. "It's ridiculous. It was put to me [by a reporter] whether I would tour if asked to, and I said of course I would. It's a different level of commitment, it's 10 matches in New Zealand, as far as I know, which is five or six weeks away from home, compared with 32 with Wales. But I'm not crossing my fingers or anything."

I suggest he should take it as a compliment; that while Quinnell is justifiably content to be dropping the kids off to school, and tucking them in at night, he is regarded as having left the international arena too soon. And in any case, didn't he also say last season that he might not have given Wales up if Jenkins - a friend as much as a colleague - had been coach for the World Cup?

"Maybe that's true," Quinnell said. "The fact is, I have given up, and I'm happy with that decision. If anything, it makes you more focused on the club stuff."

Which returns us to this afternoon, and a packed Franklin's Gardens. Jenkins called off training during the week, complaining that Wales squad sessions had hampered Llanelli's preparations.

Funnily enough, in that 1993-94 season of Quinnell's international emergence, the club put their failure to win a trophy down to 10 of their players doing too much duty for the national side. Plus ça change...

"Northampton have got an incredibly balanced back row," said Quinnell. "Andrew Blowers is world class, and they defend particularly well. We've got to go there with optimism and a relish for the task." Meanwhile, the rest of us can relish every remaining chance to watch Scott Quinnell.