Scott of the horse antics

A canter round the country is the perfect cure for the pain of a rough trot on the pitch
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The idea that owners tend to bear an uncanny resemblance to their dogs has been taken to a higher plane by Scott Quinnell. The No 8, saddled with the captaincy of Llanelli and Wales, has struck up a relationship with a horse. "He's a big lump," Quinnell said, although if his four-legged friend had the powers of Mr Ed he might utter something similar about his rider.

Clyde is a seven-year-old shire horse who stands 17 hands and weighs about a ton. He was a birthday present for Quinnell (6ft 4in and 18st 8lb) from his wife Nicola, who bought the Clydesdale via the internet. "He's a rescue horse who'd been mistreated," Quinnell said, "so it's nice to give him a tidy life."

It's a mutual admiration horsepower thing. On the field Quinnell has suffered his share of mistreatment, dislocating both shoulders, both thumbs, having a double hernia operation, tearing the ligaments of both ankles and suffering from chronic knee problems. If he was a horse he'd have been put down.

"You risk picking up an injury every time you walk out on to the field. The increasing demands of professional rugby mean that players are going to pick up more and more knocks. It takes me two or three days to get over a big game. I played 46 matches last season and it's taken its toll."

Quinnell was invalided out of the Lions tour to South Africa in 1997 but played a big part in last summer's series in Australia until his knee gave up the ghost at half-time in the final Test. Lawrence Dallaglio had already lost his own battle of wounded knee so Quinnell soldiered on. "The cartilage had worn away so it was bone on bone," he said. "I managed to get through the second Test and in the third it completely packed in."

Keith Wood shared a room with Quinnell in the summer. "He had an on-going relationship with a pack of ice," the Irishman said. "His knee was a mess. He needs to be in a pool with the horse." When Quinnell led Llanelli to victory over Leicester in the Heineken Cup a couple of weeks ago it was only his second 80-minute match for the Scarlets this season.

Before choosing Quinnell, son of Derek and brother of Craig, as his captain, Graham Henry had turned to Dai Young, who relinquished the job and international rugby last autumn after taking a lot of personal flak, and Mark Taylor, who was another casualty from the Lions tour.

"When Graham offered me the job I said, 'Yes please'. I'd always considered myself lucky to play for my country and the captaincy is an even greater honour which very few receive."

On Sunday he leads Wales against Ireland in Dublin, a city with which he is not as familiar as you might think. He has only played there once, in 1994. Wales won, after which he turned professional and joined Wigan. Two years later, after union went pro, he and Craig joined Richmond.

"Not everything was plain sailing," John Kingston, the former Richmond coach said. "He and his wife didn't like London and we reached a crossroads. Either he was going to play for us or not. He gave it everything for a season and was fantastic. He's such an inspirational player and there's nothing better than a big man giving the lead. He's passionate about the Wales cause and I think Graham Henry may have played a masterstroke. Only a small percentage of people rise to the captaincy. Through his personal performance Scott will set an example."

Quinnell, who will be 30 in the summer, does not see himself as a key strategist. "The decision makers will take over," he said, referring to Robert Howley, Stephen Jones, Robin McBryde and even Iestyn Harris. With Jones likely to play 10, Harris will probably switch to centre.

So far his transition from league to union has been bittersweet. "Iestyn's a class act," Quinnell said, "and as long as he's on the field and playing well I'll be happy. Changing codes is such a huge thing because the games are totally different. Stephen and Iestyn can both play 10 or 12 and in the modern game I'm not sure it's that important who plays where."

For club Quinnell plays under Gareth Jenkins who gives it plenty of hwyl; for country it's the more controlled approach of Henry. "They are both great judges and both have their moments. They know what they're talking about. Nobody likes criticism and the stuff that Graham took on the Lions tour was personal. It spurs him on."

Henry has strengthened his back-room team with Steve Hansen from Canterbury, Peter Herbert (fitness) and Clive Griffiths (defence). "They complement each other," Quinnell said, "and there are new ideas flying around. Although we were disappointing against Argentina we didn't concede a try to Australia. Take away the negatives and you're in with a chance."

This time there is no Neil Jenkins, Scott Gibbs or Dai Young, no Gareth Thomas (surprisingly dropped) and no Colin Charvis, who reacted to his omission by going to Jamaica. Craig Morgan could feature on one wing with Harris joining Jamie Robinson in the centre. The big question is whether Craig Quinnell will join Scott in the pack.

"We're chalk and cheese," Scott said. "Craig liked London and he likes Cardiff. He's a city slicker who enjoys running around in his BMW. When he came to the stables he got his trainers dirty and he found it all a bit shocking."

Scott has bought a parcel of land and is having new stables built to accommodate Clyde and a smaller inhabitant, a Welsh mountain pony belonging to his eight-year-old daughter Samantha. Nicola is taking lessons and as she doesn't like rugby one bit the Quinnells and equestrianism are becoming a serious item.

"Clyde is just outstanding," Scott says. "He has the temperament of a seaside donkey. He stops when you ask him to and goes when you want him to. It's a great way of spending time with the family and has been very therapeutic for me. I'm not good company when I'm injured and not playing and riding Clyde has taken my mind off it. I forget about everything."