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‘We were about to hike up a volcano in Chile… I got an email saying Ulster Rugby want you over’

Neil Walsh recalls the unlikely series of events that led to an incredible opportunity.

Neil Walsh pictured during a 2013 Pro12 clash between Ulster and Zebre.
Neil Walsh pictured during a 2013 Pro12 clash between Ulster and Zebre.
Image: Darren Kidd

IT’S A rugby story with a Cinderella-like quality.

One moment, Neil Walsh was doing what many young people with time on their hands tend to gravitate towards — travelling, wandering around South America in this instance, while trying to minimise costs and maximise enjoyment.

But suddenly, an unlikely opportunity presented itself. With barely a moment to reflect on what was happening, he found himself thrust into the limelight and lining out for Ulster Rugby in the Pro12.

“That was a funny time,” he laughs, in conversation with The42. “And even when I was in Ulster telling people where I’d come from, they were kind of looking at me funny, going: ‘Really?’

“They’re used to guys that are training every single day, have always had aspirations of making it, and played for representative teams all the way up.

“Even one of the guys asked me: ‘Oh you were in that year, I don’t remember playing with you for Irish 21s, did you play with x, y and z for Leintser 21s?’ I was kind of going: ‘I never made any of those rep teams.’”

1. Bahrain and beyond

Walsh didn’t even start playing rugby seriously until he was “15 or 16″. Before then, he had become accustomed to travelling from one country to another.

Born in Bahrain to Irish parents, he spent the first four years of his life there, before another 12 months in New Zealand, three years in Ireland and then a couple of years in America, before returning to these shores just in time for his Junior Certificate year.

In America, it was mainly roller hockey,” he recalls. “That was the be all and end all. We were in Greensboro, North Carolina, which is where the [professional ice hockey team] Carolina Hurricanes are. But also, in school, I played basketball, volleyball, baseball and American football in the playground.

“I never completely excelled at everything, but I was okay. The hockey I was good at and a bit of athletics, I was quick enough. My mum was very sporty. She played hockey and football growing up, so I got more off her than I did my dad. He’s also big into sports and that’s where the rugby came from.”

Walsh continues: “I was glad we moved from America, to be honest. Different people love it, different people don’t, but where we were living, we were wrapped in cotton wool. You had to be driven everywhere. You can get your licence at 16, but I think they all go nuts when they go to college, because they’ve been so wrapped in cotton wool whereas in Ireland, you can get the bus around, and you’ve got a bit of freedom and you learn to stick up for yourself. 

“I remember coming home and we ended up living out in Enniskerry, but before we found a house, we were renting somewhere near school, not ages away, and mum saying ‘you can cycle to school now’. I remember thinking: ‘Oh shit, would it be safe? Would I get lost? I might get hit by a car.’ Because in America, you just don’t cycle on the road. You stay in your little neighbourhood. You don’t use public transport, because there is none. You’re living in a small city, it’s not like a Boston or a New York.”

Jonathan Sexton 15/2/2003 Jonathan Sexton of St Mary's is tackled by Neil Walsh of CBC Monkstown during a 2003 Leinster Schools Senior Cup match. Source: ©INPHO

2. An education

Walsh’s experience of the sport he would grow to love was limited at best in his early schooldays at CBC Monkstown. Though he had played a bit of mini rugby and watched his father compete in the sport while growing up, and consequently knew the basics, he wasn’t overly familiar with the intricacies of the game.

“I remember I was training for the Junior Cup team, my very first training session in a ruck, I just crawled to the other side of the ruck to pick up the ball, crawled back to my side, placed it on my side, and I thought I’d won the ball,” he recalls.

“I remember a fella told me he wanted to punch my head off [as a result].”

Walsh gradually improved, making the Junior and Senior Cup teams, though these sides never really came close to challenging much bigger schools and traditional powerhouses of the competition like Blackrock and Belvedere College. They did, however, win the Leinster Schools Vinnie Murray Cup — the second-tier competition at schoolboy level — with Walsh featuring as a winger and a centre at various points during this era.

While considering himself a decent player at that level, the thought of professional rugby never crossed the youngster’s mind back then.

To really make it, you’ve got to have a self-confidence. Even when things aren’t going well, you say ‘I’m better than this’ or in terms of making it professionally, that you think you’re good enough, you keep on pushing it. Whereas even when I was being told, ‘you should be making a representative team’ or ‘have you ever thought about giving professional a crack,’ I always brushed it off because I thought it was either nice words or I was just looking good [at a lower level].”

After school, Walsh combined a degree in civil engineering at UCD with a stint playing club rugby for Lansdowne. He was on the same U20 team as future Ireland and Leinster star Devin Toner, reaching underage All-Ireland and Leinster finals, before graduating to the senior set-up.

It was a considerable step up in standard from schoolboy level and Walsh felt happy to simply be making the side initially, improving his kicking and other areas of perceived weakness during this time.

“Even at that stage, I was a solid player, but I wasn’t anything special,” he says. “My rugby development came quite late, just because I didn’t grow up with coaching, a lot of it was self-taught.”

With an hour and a half travel every day to Earlsfort Terrace (where his college course was based), coupled with rugby training or gym work most days, it meant he usually left home at 7am and did not return until 10pm. 

But despite all this hard work, success in the form of silverware eluded Walsh and his team-mates.

“The previous seasons, they had been battling relegation. Each of the three seasons I was playing with Lansdowne [first team], we were mid table — we had good players, they just never realised their potential.”

Neil Walsh 18/2/2006 Neil Walsh pictured playing for Lansdowne in the AIL League in 2006. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

3. Australia

Having no serious aspirations to play rugby at a higher level, Walsh moved to Australia after finishing college. The initial plan was to just go travelling for 12 months, but it wasn’t until roughly nine years later that he left the country for good. During this period away from home, the financial crisis hit Ireland, in the process helping convince the young graduate to stay put.

“I remember talking to my parents and they were saying: ‘You might as well stay out there, there’s nothing much to come home for.’”

In the initial part of the trip, Walsh and his travelling companion spent a couple of months in southeast Asia. Many Irish emigrants will recognise his recollections of trying, with limited success, to balance work and play.

“Coming from Thailand, we were used to everything being dirt cheap and you’re buying at the bar — you can burn through a lot of money very quickly if you take that attitude in Australia.

“We kind of said ‘we need to get out of Sydney now’. There are heaps of Irish and we wanted something a little bit different, so we got a ticket over to Perth. We were pretty broke at that stage. We didn’t even have enough money for both of us to stay in the hostel, so one stayed in the hostel and the other would sneak in and sleep on the couch until we did enough cash jobs to get back on our feet.”

They spent six months in Perth, playing rugby for a local club without taking it particularly seriously. 

By the time Walsh made his way up to Melbourne, his friend had decided to go home. He had only originally intended to stay himself for just a week, sleeping on friends’ couches or in the van he had bought. Nonetheless, he got a job doing removals, before ultimately deciding to try to make use of the engineering degree. The CV he put together amid the job search just so happened to list rugby as one of his hobbies.

A guy was looking at my CV and said: ‘Well, I don’t have any jobs for you, but I play rugby here: do you want to come down and play?’ I said: ‘No, I’m not in town for long, thanks though.’

“As I was walking out the door of the recruitment agency, I got a phone call and it was the Melbourne Rugby coach. He didn’t know if I was a good player or not, he just rang, he said: ‘I hear you’re in town and want to play some rugby?’ I said ‘no, I don’t’. He was saying this and that, ‘we’ve got a great scrum machine’ and he said ‘at the end of the day, it’s just a good bunch of lads to have a few drinks with’. That’s what actually got me.

“I went down to the training and through a friend at the rugby club, I picked up some engineering work and ended up staying in Melbourne for the next eight years.”

Devin Toner Walsh played alongside Devin Toner at underage level for Lansdowne. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

4. A band of outsiders

Even as himself and the team went from strength to strength, for Walsh, rugby remained very much a casual pursuit.

“I always loved rugby and everything, I just saw it as a good way to travel,” he explains. “I didn’t think of it as anything more than that.”

While it has changed for the better in the intervening years, the standard was not great at first.

“It probably wouldn’t have even been All-Ireland League standard,” Walsh adds. “Over the next couple of years, it got to that and probably even surpassed it.

“I ended up playing for the first team there and it was a low enough standard that if you were any way decent, you made the team.”

Melbourne, Victoria, unlike other parts of Australia, is by no means a rugby stronghold, with Australian rules football very much the dominant sport.

Everyone that plays rugby isn’t from there,” Walsh says. “It meant that when you were having a few drinks after the match, everyone was new and in the same mindset. Whereas if you go to a place where everyone is quite settled, they’re a little bit more closed off — they’ve got all their school friends or college friends, so they don’t always need to make friends. That whole team, it was right place at the right time. A load of people had just moved to Melbourne — same age, same mindset and it ended up being a few good years.”

There were also some talented individuals involved — two of Walsh’s team-mates from that time have gone on to play professional rugby in France and New Zealand respectively.

“I wasn’t the star of the team. I was one of the good players, but I was also surrounded by very good players.” 

The style of rugby was also different to that which Walsh had been accustomed.

“As a winger, in Ireland, you might touch the ball twice a game, maybe three times if you’re lucky. 

“In Australia, with the dry weather, you might touch the ball 10 times or more in a game. As you start to do well or score tries, then they’re actively looking to put the ball in your hands instead of it being part of the play.

“They’re also pretty big fellas, especially the Islanders, so it was a physical league. But I always quite liked tackling. Even in Ireland, I was never the biggest fella, but I was usually one of the better tacklers in the team. It was higher skill, they were better running with the ball, so in terms of the skillset and the speed of the game, it took a bit of getting used to. 

“I think Irish rugby has changed a lot these days — it’s started to become a lot more skilful. But certainly in Lansdowne, when I was playing, it was way more tactical and you’d have a lot more rainy days, kicking to the corner, and your position had to be perfect. Whereas sometimes in Australia, they’re a bit more off the cuff.”

AFL EAGLES DEMONS Walsh played rugby in Melbourne, where Australian rules football has traditionally been the dominant sport. Source: AAP/PA Images

5. From Patagonia to Ravenhill

In his years abroad, Walsh developed into an increasingly confident and effective rugby player. Encouragement from the coaches emboldened him further.

“I’d had a particularly good season in Melbourne. Then my coach and the assistant coach said: ‘Have you thought about giving rugby a crack? We think you’d go well in a professional set-up.’

“I kind of said: ‘Ah yeah, never thought of it, but sure I’d be interested if something came along.’ They actually took footage of the different matches, made a video and sent it off to an agent friend.

“I thought nothing of it and initially heard there might be a spot in a Championship team [in England]. That fell through, so I thought: ‘That’s the end of that.’”

Around this time, Walsh left Australia, taking an extended break from work to go hiking around South America with his wife, who he had originally met in Melbourne. It was supposed to be a six-month trip, but it was unexpectedly interrupted. Early on in his travels, Walsh received an intriguing message from an agent.

“As I scrolled down, I saw the original inquiry had come from [then-Ulster Director of Rugby] David Humphreys. I thought: ‘Okay, this is legitimate.’ But it was just asking: ‘What’s your availability for a trial?’ I had no confirmation, nothing. I wasn’t exactly the fittest and hadn’t touched a rugby ball in three months, but I said: ‘Yeah, I’d be available.’ And that was the last I’d heard of it for a while.

“I asked the agent: ‘What’s the story?’ And he said: ‘We just have to wait and see. I suppose you need to be prepared just in case.’ It was November and for the next month or so, we were travelling through Patagonia in southern Argentina, I was training without any real knowledge as to whether it was going to happen or not.

“I thought I was going on trial for their second team and I wouldn’t be anywhere near the first team. I wondered: ‘Do they take 10 players for a trial and only one makes it?’ I didn’t really know how it all worked.”

Training in these unusual circumstances was less than ideal. Nonetheless, Walsh made the best of a difficult situation, and persisted with some unorthodox methods.

“Our whole travel plan was to go for as long as our money lasted. I was only taking what was on my back — you want to minimise that when you’re hiking. I wasn’t going to go investing in a brand new pair of runners, because 100 US over there is four nights’ accommodation and dinner to go with it. So I was using my hiking boots and doing whatever we could in terms of what we could find.

Because it was Patagonia and really mountainous and frozen ground, I could find almost nowhere flat that you could run on without breaking an ankle. We’d get up in the morning and usually the side of the road was the best area to run on. We’d be doing sprints along the side of the road in our hiking boots at five o’clock in the morning, six o’clock in the morning, freezing cold, and any locals if they did pass were just like: ‘What are these two gringos doing? They’re just fucking stupid.’

“That’s what we did for about a month. We had no gym. I had no rugby ball. I had nothing like that. I was just doing loads of sprints and lots of hiking all in a big pair of hiking boots.

“I remember one particular day, we were at a famous little mountain that you hike up to in Patagonia. We did our sprints in the morning for a 45-minute session. You’re pretty knackered and doing squat jumps and just everything that you can do with bodyweight. Then we went on a hike, which was supposed to be seven hours. Maybe we took a wrong turn, as it ended up being a 10-hour hike. By the end of the day, you’re just absolutely knackered.

“We did that almost every day for a month without even knowing if there was actually anything to come at the end of it. I had stopped drinking and everything at that stage. My wife did all of it with me, and if anything was going to happen, I was the only one who was really going to benefit. So the fact that she came along and was happy to do it all was a massive help as well.”

David Humphreys Ulster's then-director of rugby David Humphreys helped initiate Walsh's move. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

6. The opportunity of a lifetime

All this arduous exercise ultimately proved worthwhile. A few days before Christmas, Walsh received confirmation from Ulster that he would be granted a trial.

“We were about to hike up a volcano in Chile,” he recalls. “I still remember, because we didn’t get to do it. There are these special trousers you wear and then you slide down the volcano on your arse. It’s supposed to be great fun.

“I got an email saying: ‘[Ulster Rugby] want you over, get over here as soon as possible.’

“I think I was flying [back to Ireland] on the 23rd. I spent Christmas at home, a bit of time up in Enniskerry trying to get extra fit. I went down to one training session in Lansdowne and that was the only time I touched a ball in 4-5 months before I was up there.

“It was a little bit of a rush in the end, probably not from their perspective, but for me, I was gone from within a few days, living the backpacker life to being back in Ireland, trying to train for a pretty high standard of rugby that I’d never really been exposed to.”

Despite all the work he had put in on his South American trip, it was still a baptism of fire for Walsh.

Their level of fitness is just incredible. And also, they were halfway through a season, and that makes a big difference — they’ve already done a full, professionally coordinated pre-season, a huge amount of weights and everything. So in terms of my gym and strength, that was nowhere near what it should be.

“In terms of the actual aerobic fitness — my lungs and that — it was pretty good. But as soon as you’re thrown into a rugby match, instead of just your lungs burning, you get exhausted from the physical impact. I was a mile off the pace because of not being exposed to it — you can’t really replicate that in training unfortunately, without running into a wall or something.”

Even after linking up with the team, Walsh had minimal expectations. The rookie back, who was 27 at the time, essentially thought he was there to make up the numbers and bolster a squad that had been ravaged by injuries over the course of their campaign.

Ruan Pienaar Walsh was especially impressed by Ruan Pienaar at Ulster. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

7. ‘No pressure’

Notwithstanding the apparently low stakes, Walsh admits to feeling nervous during the three-week trial period.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he explains. “It was another level that I’d never played at. And even my very first training session, I arrived in Belfast on a Friday, I went and did what I thought was just going to be meeting people. It ended up being a fitness test and my lungs were absolutely burning.

“And then after the weekend, I was training with the first team. One of the first things that I had to do, after the warm-up, Ruan Pienaar was playing scrum-half, I think Andrew Trimble was on the wing, the first team were practising box-kicks, so I was chucked on the wing to field them.

I was a little bit in awe of the players anyway — I’d been exposed to professional rugby players through the different levels of [the game], but it’s usually guys who are on the edge of squads, so they drop down, or after their careers [have peaked]. So I was kind of going ‘shit’. I remember taking box kicks with internationals chasing up on you, and you’re just hoping you don’t drop it, so I was nervous even for the training sessions, let alone the matches.

“Then there were all the guys up there. I remember the first time I walked into the gym, within a day or two, every single person in the whole set-up had introduced themselves to me. That hadn’t happened at any other rugby club I’d been at, so it was very welcoming. It puts you at ease.”

And there was one player who Walsh was particularly impressed by.

“Ruan Pienaar, I thought, was pretty incredible. He introduces himself to you — I remember thinking: ‘You don’t have to introduce yourself to me, I know who you are.’ And just in terms of natural ability and everything, he was a pretty complete player — passing, kicking off both feet, all those sort of things. And the nicest fella in the world.

“But that was pretty common across the squad. You had all these guys that had an incredible amount of talent. The Ulster team that year did pretty well and had a lot of young fellas, up-and-coming guys that were starting to get recognised in the Irish set-up and everything.

“I was probably lucky. I wasn’t keeping up to speed with northern hemisphere rugby, I didn’t know who a lot of the guys were on the edge of the squad. I was trying to measure myself versus them and going ‘yeah, okay, I’m at that level — at least I’m as good or better than some of the guys in the squad’. If I’d been watching TV a bit more, I might have been more daunted by the experience.”

Neil Walsh Walsh pictured after the game with Zebre. Source: Darren Kidd

8. An improbable debut

Shortly after his introduction to the set-up, Walsh made his debut for the Ravens, Ulster’s second team, amid a home loss to Bristol in the British and Irish Cup.

“It was a wet and rainy night in Ulster,” he remembers. “I felt a little bit off the pace. Although comfortable at that standard, I was a bit disappointed that I hadn’t had a chance to show a little bit more.

“I remember having a sit down with David Humphreys a week or two afterwards, when it was coming towards the end of my three weeks. As you can imagine, it sort of flies by when you’re there. The first week, you’re preparing for the match, and one week goes by, and then you sit down, and there’s only one week to go.

“[David] was saying: ‘No more Ravens matches, so we’re probably going to have a look at you in training. At this stage, we don’t know. We’ll extend the trial for a month.’ I was happy enough with that.

“As far as I was concerned, I had no expectations or aspirations. I was just lucky to be there. I kind of avoided even telling people, because I didn’t think anything was going to come of it. I told my closest friends and I remember telling my old rugby coach in Lansdowne, but I told him not to tell anyone, because I didn’t think anything was going to happen.”

However, despite Walsh’s pessimism, there was another twist around the corner. Having worked hard and kept his head down in training, and regardless of suggestions not to get his hopes up in relation to a first-team spot, the winger was named on the subs’ bench for a February 2013 Pro12 clash with Zebre.

It was a Tuesday or Wednesday when they announced the team for the weekend,” he says. “I wasn’t really listening too hard. I kind of heard my name and wasn’t sure if I was named in the subs or not. Afterwards, a couple of guys came up and shook my hand and said ‘congratulations’.

“I thought: ‘Okay, I didn’t think anything was going to happen, but I’m on the bench.’ There were a fair few injuries in the squad at this stage and that’s also why I was brought over. Maybe I shouldn’t have been too surprised, but even still, I didn’t expect it.

“They still had to win games. I’m not thinking ‘throw me in there and I’ll lose the game for you,’ but you’ve got to balance between having a look at players and also not taking a risk in chasing a title. They were first or second in the Pro12 and going pretty well in the Heineken Cup.”

Mark Anscombe Then-Ulster coach Mark Anscombe gave Walsh his first-team debut. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

9. Good times, bad times

Walsh ultimately came off the bench late on and made his debut for the province amid a 26-3 win against the Italian side on 15 February. He was the 46th player that coach Mark Anscombe had used over the course of the season.

“That was an absolute lung burner,” he recalls. “It was a faster standard than I had ever played before. It was just a great experience — I really enjoyed it and tried to get stuck in. I got my hands on the ball a few times and made a couple of tackles, so I was happy enough. It was in front of a sold-out Ravenhill, which is an amazing experience.

“I remember in the week that followed, I’d asked for feedback, and they said: ‘Ah yeah, you went fine.’

“Without any word of warning on the following Tuesday or Wednesday, I was named in the starting team versus Glasgow. And it was a one-versus-two [in the table] match in Glasgow. So I thought: ‘I must be doing something right.’

Again, it was a little bit out of the blue considering I thought: ‘I’m just here on trial.’ But I played the 80 minutes in [a 20-14 loss to] Glasgow. Some things went my way, other things didn’t. Overall, I was pretty happy with the performance and that was kind of some of the feedback I got from the coaches.” 

Accordingly, just two months after returning home from his backpacking trip around South America, Walsh remarkably appeared set to secure a contract at Ulster, before an unexpected setback undermined his progress.

“I’d hurt my shoulder in the match. I didn’t even feel it at the time, but you’re always allowed to have a few drinks after the match, within reason. I didn’t drink, just in case, and the next morning, it was pretty sore.

“So when I caught up with him, David had said: ‘I hear your shoulder’s a bit sore. Obviously we need to have players available, so if your shoulder is okay in the next couple of weeks, then we’d like to offer you something and keep you on for the rest of the season. But if you’re not available, you’re not much use to us.’ He didn’t say it as bluntly as that, he said it in a nice way, but at the end of the day, you don’t bring players in that are injured. You need them to play. So I completely understood and was delighted to even have that offer.

“I kept on doing a bit of rehab and everything like that — I got a few scans and it turned out that the shoulder was going to take longer than expected to recover. So that was the end of that.”

Source: mc1lc2cc3/YouTube

10. Back to square one

Once Ulster declined to offer a contract owing to the shoulder issue, Walsh’s burgeoning career at the top level appeared over before it really got started. There were possibilities of playing elsewhere, but at the time, he wasn’t overly pushed about exploring these different avenues.

“I was somewhere between: ‘Do I want to chase this rugby thing, or do I just want to go back to my old life?’ Even throughout this whole time, in a way I was still just looking at it as if I was just a backpacker with a bit of a side trip. I was trying to keep my costs down as much as possible, so when I went back to South America, I could continue to travel as long as possible.

“The phone I bought, which I set myself up with in Ulster, came free with £10 credit. At one stage, one of the lads was giving me a number for a masseuse. This guy was one of the Ireland internationals that you’d kind of look up to. When I took it out, he laughed and I didn’t even have enough storage on it to keep phone numbers. They all had the nice iPhones and the training plan was coming out in iCal and everything. And there was me with my crappy little £10 phone — it was not a touchscreen and for texts, you still had to tap the keys.

“But when I learned from the doctor that this injury was going to take a bit longer than you’d like in terms of being able to get a contract to stay on, that was a bit disappointing. And it was quite late in the season to look for alternatives.

In hindsight, I was probably being a little bit picky with where I wanted to go. I wasn’t so keen on going and playing in the Championship down in England. I was a little bit out of the loop with northern hemisphere rugby, but it’s a very good standard there and a very reputable place to go and play.

“I still had this mentality of 10 years previously, where it might not be the nicest brand of rugby or something.

“I never thought of it as a career or anything, in terms of the way they say ‘you’re never going to make it,’ I never looked at rugby in that way. Even at that stage, I still wasn’t far off that mentality.”

SPAIN-BARCELONA-CITYVIEW Walsh spent a year in Barcelona, playing rugby for a club located just outside the city. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

11. Injury hell

In the end, Walsh decided to continue his South American excursions, but fate intervened again and put paid to his travel plans.

“I went back to Australia just to validate my Visa, because I wanted to make sure I could always go back.

“When I was travelling back, what actually happened was I had torn a tendon. Sometime during that trip, it completely snapped. At the start of the trip, I could raise my arm above my head with pain, but by the end, I couldn’t. And don’t get me wrong, it was no fault of the Ulster set-up or anything, there was just too much bruising for them to be able to see it.

“I ended up coming back to Ireland, Ulster did the surgery for me, and when I got cleared, I went back to Australia and did the rehab, which took a long time.

“Then I thought I should give the rugby thing a bit of a crack while I can, and I started playing again in Melbourne.

Especially after the experience in Ulster, I had a bit of a renewed focus, I was playing probably some of the best rugby I’d ever played. Then I had an injury — a knee collision in a match and [discovered that] I did my ACL. So that needed surgery and that was another year out. 

“When I could play again — two years after the opportunity in Ulster — you’re a bit out of the loop in terms of any team that’s looking at you.

“So that’s when I said: ‘I just want to play rugby and enjoy it while I can.’ When you play for a team like Ulster or at any high standard, it’s like a passport to other teams. I wanted to use that to go and learn another language and have some fun where I could.

“I ended up going to the northwest of Spain. There was a rugby agent, he took a bit of a chance on me. It was a very low level and it wasn’t even fully professional — it was subsidised by English teaching on the side. I’d quit a pretty high-paid job in Australia to do it, but I was all worked out.

“With my knee surgery, I was still working on a construction site for 12-13-hour days. I was up at half four in the morning, on site at a quarter past five and I was getting home at seven o’clock in the evening. And the days that I did the training, if I wasn’t injured or rehabbing, I was going to that. So I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself.”

Switzerland - Impressions of Lucerne City view of Lucerne, 'Vierwaldstaettersee' lake and the river Reuss spanned by famous 'Kapell' bridge, Switzerland. Source: DPA/PA Images

12. A new beginning

After departing Australia, Walsh spent roughly half a season playing in the Spanish third tier for Ourense, who are based in Galicia, helping them win promotion during his short stint there. 

Walsh’s performances attracted interest from the top-tier in Spain, as well as from clubs in Portugal and France, however, he was “past pushing for money at this stage”.

Now into his 30s, the in-demand player joined a second division team based just outside of Barcelona, mainly because he wanted to continue learning Spanish and explore the largest city of Catalonia.

The following season, having enjoyed his Spain adventure, Walsh moved to Switzerland, where his wife is from and where he is still based to this day. Over five years on from his Ulster experience, the well-travelled back finally decided to hang up his boots at the end of the most recent campaign, after a stint lining out for a local team in Lucerne. A couple of the old knee and shoulder injuries were recurring and the veteran somewhat reluctantly decided to listen to his body.

On top of coaching rugby in his spare time, Walsh now works as a management consultant for the same person who had picked up the phone that fateful day and asked him to come play with his team in Melbourne roughly a decade ago.

If there is a message to be taken from the winger’s story, it is that few people get to be a Paul O’Connell or Brian O’Driscoll-type superstar and that significant luck, dedication and sacrifice are required to even get a small taste of sport at the highest level.

Moreover, even though Walsh seldom played the game as a child, and didn’t go to one of the so-called ‘big rugby schools,’ or get access to top-level coaching for most of his early years, he still did remarkably well considering the hand he was dealt, and could have excelled even further were it not for some particularly ill-timed and severe injuries.

Rugby isn’t forever,” he adds. “I’ve seen plenty of players that were better than me that never even got a chance, because of injuries or whatever. So it’s always good to have a plan B to fall back on. That means if it doesn’t work out, it’s just an enjoyable experience.”

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Paul Fennessy

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