Deputy Sports Editor
James Hussey sits down with former Scotland and Edinburgh flanker Alan MacDonald to talk about his time in professional rugby, his high hopes for DUFC and his reasons for swapping the scrum-cap for the scalpel.
It is seldom possible to pinpoint the end of an era. The great movements of human history have fluid boundaries, their conclusions interwoven with the beginning of a new age. For Irish rugby’s “Golden Generation” however, there was a definitive day, a decisive moment, that confirmed their dénouement.
The plaintive sound of bagpipes rang across Croke Park on a chilly Saturday afternoon, cutting to silence as Dan Parks steadied himself to attempt a penalty kick from the Hogan Stand sideline. Standing beside my father in Hill 16, there was an ominous air of inevitability about the enigmatic Australian’s stance.
A collective groan escaped from the crowd in our section as the ball left the kicking tee. It sailed between the posts with 78:55 on the clock. The doctor had just announced the time of death. The “Golden Generation’s” pulse stopped with a final hammer blow after an engrossing contest. “Scotland the Brave” peeled out again and approximately 80,000 fans went home saddened, but strangely euphoric after an amazing spectacle.
This seemingly unnecessary preamble sets the background for my interview with one of Dublin University Football Club’s newest recruits. Alan MacDonald started on the substitutes’ bench for Scotland that day, a call-up to the Scottish Six Nations squad after outstanding form at flanker for Edinburgh Rugby. Sitting in the confines of a generic coffee shop might be half the world away from GAA headquarters in March 2010, but MacDonald’s new lifestyle is one that, after a period of acclimatisation, has proven very rewarding.
“Throughout my time at Edinburgh, I used reading as a release from the pressures of training and the intensity of professional rugby. That led to part time study which I found immensely enjoyable. It was something that I always had an interest in and it gave me a focus during long days of huge physical and mental exertion and effort.
“Over the past few years, while engaging with part time study, I felt that my life needed a new direction, one that rugby wasn’t providing. That is one of the main reasons for my doing medicine, the intensity of professional rugby was something that I needed to remove myself from.”
“Unfortunately, however, I didn’t fit into any of the brackets for mature entry students in the UK. Ireland was the most attractive other option and, after looking at various colleges, I decided to come to Trinity to study medicine. It’s funny because the emphasis on things in my life has completely shifted. Instead of wondering have I done enough training, I’ve come to start thinking about physiology I haven’t studied. It took a while, but I’m getting to grips with my new lifestyle.”
Leaving professional rugby was a tough decision but one that, due to a number of personal reasons, was a necessary one for MacDonald. In what, from an exterior viewpoint, might look like a strange decision, the former Scottish back-rower, felt “fed up with rugby”, and looked to a long-harboured ambition to provide a new impetus and challenge in his life.
“I have been in rugby since the age of 7, where I started with a youth side connected to the secondary school I went on to attend, Royal High School, Edinburgh. After playing rugby throughout my years in Royal, I then played for a club side before training with Edinburgh Rugby. This led to a professional contract and the beginning of my senior career, so rugby has been an ever-present in my life, a continuous series of training sessions and games.
“ Over the past few years, while engaging with part time study, I felt that my life needed a new direction, one that rugby wasn’t providing. That is one of the main reasons for my doing medicine, the intensity of professional rugby was something that I needed to remove myself from.”
Despite apparent misgivings with the life of a rugby player at an elite level, MacDonald pointed to the happiness the sport has brought him in the past, and something that, in a different way, continues to bring him a sense of satisfaction. Having represented Edinburgh in the then Magners League and Heineken Cup, Alan spoke about his experiences on the pitch for his hometown team:
“A couple of months after signing a professional contract with Edinburgh Rugby, I made my debut against the Neath-Swansea Ospreys. That initial step-up into elite competition was a strange one. At 18, you adapt to things very quickly, and take everything in your stride, even if the world feels it’s going at 100mph. You go out on the pitch, be it in training or during a match, learn your trade and improve as a player, while simultaneously fitting into a radically new environment.”
“It is great to learn off the veteran players and those more experienced than you. Playing with Edinburgh was such an up and down thing. I would love to be an O’Driscoll or a D’Arcy, with a few Heineken Cup medals rattling in my pocket, but a lot of it is down to luck and circumstance. Our problem lay in a lack of consistency but it was exciting.
“One of my fondest remembered games was against Castres in the Heineken Cup; they were highly fancied but we beat them on their home turf. Those are the days where everything is just right, and the result goes your way. I can also recall a particular game in Donnybrook where Leinster put up 50 points against us and we were stuffed. There are two sides to that coin!”
“Although the training and matches are still intense, it feels more like a group of mates, particularly in comparison to professional sides where there are rivalries, turnover of players is bigger and people feel like they are competing for their job. DUFC is a much nicer environment.”
Alan’s exploits in an Edinburgh jersey eventually led to a call-up from Andy Robinson to the Scottish national side, an unforgettable experience for MacDonald, and one that provided both a deep sense of relief and humility.
“You never know if you’re going to get the chance to represent your country. Competition is so strong for places and you have to peak at the right time for selection. Looking back at it now, it was a fantastic honour to be able to represent Scotland. That sense of honour was tinged with relief for me however, as I was there or thereabouts for quite a while on the national scene, without getting over that final hurdle.
“I was humbled to play for my country and the matches where I saw action were unforgettable. Unfortunately, we lost in my debut against Argentina but to be a part of the Six Nations’ game in Croke Park was amazing, especially with Parksy [fly-half Dan Parks]slotting that penalty in the last minute for the victory.”
MacDonald, in his current path as a medical student, has been afforded the opportunity of joining the ranks of DUFC, a new challenge for a veteran of numerous international competitions. The difference in style has been noteworthy for the Edinburgh native, something he indicates when talk turns to the less regimented, looser play characteristic of his new club, and Irish Ulster League rugby in general.
“Without being condescending to Scottish rugby, the standard of clubs in Ireland is slightly higher at the moment, something that is visible all the way to the top level players. I have really enjoyed my time so far with Trinity Rugby. At the start, I moved here without knowing anybody so it was great to get into the club and get to know some people. Due to the nature of club rugby, it’s more like a hobby, a release for the players.
“Although the training and matches are still intense, it feels more like a group of mates, particularly in comparison to professional sides where there are rivalries, turnover of players is bigger and people feel like they are competing for their job. DUFC is a much nicer environment, it’s very tight knit and I have really enjoyed getting into the structure. It’s great to perform in an arena that’s a little bit more off-the-cuff, where you can improvise your plays in the loose a little bit more.
“In terms of our league performance so far, we are cautiously happy. We have won all our games without putting in superb performances, something that indicates the potential of the team for the rest of the season. I suppose a source of disappointment for us as players and our coaches is the fact that we haven’t won games as convincingly as we are capable. We have conceded the odd silly score here and there, but if we can shore those mistakes up, and continue to show our fighting spirit, DUFC is in for a great year.”
Alan MacDonald is an invaluable asset for the progression of rugby in Trinity College. His experience and nous will be an essential aspect for the forward momentum of a club whose rapid movement through the upper echelons of Irish club rugby has drawn rave reviews from Ulster Bank league spectators. Any potential symbiotic relationship between MacDonald and his new team can only be positive, as Trinity Rugby will look to build with this exuberant young group of players.
For DUFC’s new “Golden Generation”, behind the likes of Lavelle, du Toit and Marsh, any sign of a death knell has been postponed for many years to come. The one heralded by MacDonald and his Scottish peers in Croke Park two winters ago is firmly out of the flanker’s head, the blossoming has only begun.