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Joker in the Lions pack

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Simon Austin | 16:08 UK time, Thursday, 30 April 2009

Ireland legend Donal Lenihan was his usual affable self until I queried Alan Quinlan's place in the Lions squad to tour South Africa this summer.

Did the Munster man deserve to get the nod over young England flanker Tom Croft, I asked. And is he there because he's regarded as a good tourist who can help the players bond off the pitch, as the Lions management suggested after announcing their squad at Heathrow last week.

"If you only wanted people who were a craic, you might as well bring a couple of comedians on tour," bristled Lenihan, who has known Quinlan since the player joined Munster in 1996.

"People see Alan as the court jester, but he is a ruthless player and will be a match for anyone in South Africa."

Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell and Alan Quinlan with the 2008 Heineken CupPoint taken.

Close followers of Munster have every reason to be irked by such suggestions because Quinlan is arguably the form number six in Europe at the moment.

The 34-year-old will get the chance to showcase his skills to a wider audience this weekend, when his side take on Leinster in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup at Croke Park. The game is an 82,300 sell-out and Quinlan will be key to Munster's fortunes.

Croft - whose Leicester team face Cardiff in the other semi - might be more eye-catching, but few blind-sides are currently more effective than Quinlan.

"Munster are kings of the breakdown and Alan is probably their finest practitioner in that area, slowing down opposition ball and turning over possession," said Lenihan, who played for the province and is now the chair of their academy.

"A lot of what he does goes unseen, but he stops the other team playing and is very highly regarded by everyone at Munster."

Quinlan's man-of-the-match performance in last year's Heineken Cup final victory over Toulouse perfectly illustrated what he's all about. He set the tone for his side after just two minutes, sending Thierry Dusautoir careering backwards with a thumping tackle.Quinlan scoring a try against Saracens

From then on, he was Toulouse's chief irritant, slowing down ball, thwarting attacks and infuriating their players with his constant verbals. It all became too much for the French team's skipper, Fabien Pelous, who planted a boot up Quinlan's backside shortly after half-time and was shown a yellow card.

This was something of an accolade for Quinlan - he had provoked France's most-capped player into a stupidly impetuous act and there was no way back for Toulouse after that.

Having said all that, you can't blame some people for being surprised by the veteran's Lions call. He was overlooked by Ireland throughout the Six Nations, with Ulster's Stephen Ferris preferred at blind-side. And even the player himself didn't rate his Lions chances, spending the night before the squad announcement searching online for a holiday in June.

Yet Lenihan believes he is tailor-made for the trip to South Africa. "First of all, you have to match the Springboks from an abrasive point of view, you cannot take a backward step against them," said the former lock, who toured with the Lions three times as a player and once as manager, in 2001.

"Alan is incredibly abrasive and confrontational. But more than that, you have to negate South Africa's back row, which is one of their strongest areas. Schalk Burger, Pierre Spies and Juan Smith are incredible athletes, all over 6ft 3ins, and they are great going forward.

"If you watch the Springboks, a lot of their attacking moves come from quick ball. So it will be absolutely crucial for the Lions to get to the breakdown quickly and slow their ball down. Alan is the man for that."Alan Quinlan and Lions skipper Paul O'Connell

Lenihan believes Quinlan could even force his way into the Test team.

"If David Wallace plays number eight, with Martyn Williams at seven, then you will need a lineout option and that could give Alan a way in," he said.

The Munster man will be 35 in July, yet his poor injury and disciplinary records mean he doesn't have as many miles on the clock as his age might suggest. Quinlan has spent almost two and a half years injured and half a season suspended during his career.

"Ian McGeechan isn't picking players for the future, he's picking them purely for now," Lenihan said. "You need someone who will be effective for this six-week period."

Once he had mounted such a staunch defence of Quinlan's playing abilities, Lenihan was happy to discuss what the player could bring away from the pitch. "Alan is a confident guy who is not slow in coming forward," he said.

"He's a great mixer and will be up the front of the coach with a microphone in his hand, taking the rise out of the other guys. When you are on the road it's important to have lads who will lighten the mood."

The Munster players praise 'Quinny', who is married to the model Ruth Griffin, for keeping his chin up and encouraging his team-mates during his long periods out injured. This ability to stay involved even if not involved with the Test team will be crucial on a Lions tour.

And there is one other benefit Quinlan might bring to the Lions. His mother Mary is well known for giving holy water, gathered from Lourdes, Fatima and Međugorje, to the Munster players before their matches. It's served Munster well in recent years... perhaps now it can work for the Lions in South Africa.


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