Cork man Quill part of the 'Irish mafia' helping US rugby to new heights

The former Dolphin and Munster academy back row is a key part of the Eagles squad.

Murray Kinsella reports from Chicago

USA FLANKER JOHN Quill already has life after rugby figured out.

The Cork man, who has earned 27 caps for the US and starts today’s clash with the Māori All Blacks at Soldier Field after Ireland play Italy, plans to move into the family bakery business.

Quill’s father, Fergus, runs Collins Bakery back home in Youghal and is the fourth generation of the family in charge of the business.

John Quill and Niall Scannell Quill with fellow Dolphin RFC man Niall Scannell after Ireland's win over the US in 2017. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

28-year-old Quill spent time in the bakery growing up but only realised in the last year that he loved the trade, working at Detour Bakery in Denver, Colorado part-time in between playing Major League Rugby for the Glendale Raptors.

“My long-term goal is that I’ll be the fifth generation,” says Quill as we sit in the Eagles’ team hotel in Chicago.

“I’d never considered it until the last few years. I have a degree in Sports Science from CIT that will probably sit on the shelf now but I jumped into it this year just to try it out and I absolutely loved it.”

Before he commits full-time to kneading and proofing, Quill has lots more left to do in rugby.

The former Munster academy back row has already retired from Test rugby once, stepping away from the Eagles in the wake of their disappointing performance at the 2015 World Cup.

He didn’t last long out of the Eagles frame as they convinced him to return and he remains a key man under new head coach Gary Gold and Irish attack coach Greg McWilliams, contributing powerfully to their stunning win over Scotland in June.

Quill will be a vital figure again this month as the Eagles take on the Māori on home soil before they head on tour to play Samoa in San Sebastien, Romania in Bucharest and his native Ireland in Dublin on 24 November.

The abrasive flanker has played against Ireland before, scoring a try directly from his own block-down of a Joey Carbery kick in a 55-19 defeat in New Jersey in 2017.

“I sat on the bench for 80 minutes against Ireland in Houston in 2013, but I got a second bite of the cherry last year,” says Quill.

“I’m definitely looking forward to this challenge at the Aviva. Whatever team Ireland put out is going to be a strong team, but we have shown that we’re capable of upsets now.”

RUGBY 2018: USA Men's Rugby Team vs Scotland Men's Rugby Team Quill helped the US to beat Scotland in June. Source: Maria Lysaker

Quill qualifies for the US through his New York born-and-raised mother, Eileen – who is a great-granddaughter of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.

Growing up, Quill visited New York frequently, spending summers with his cousins and taking part in basketball camps and whatever other sports were on offer.

But rugby was a passion from the start with Youghal RFC, then Sunday’s Well, as he earned caps in Munster’s age-grade system and with the Ireland U19s, spent a season out injured with UCC and settled in with Dolphin as he worked his way into the Munster academy.

He loved playing with Dolphin – where the likes of Brian Scott, James Cronin, Paddy Ryan and the Scannell brothers also emerged – but there were frustrations with Munster.

“I wish I had gotten more of an opportunity with the A team,” he says. “The As at that time was almost more about giving senior guys who weren’t involved that weekend some game time, rather than the amount of game time the academy guys are getting nowadays.

“In hindsight, I should have hung around another year but then I wouldn’t have got the opportunity with the US. I wouldn’t change a thing looking back on it now because it’s been a journey I’ve really enjoyed, but that’s the other side of the coin.”

While the academy never led to a senior contract - Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell, Dave O’Callaghan were among the back row competition – Quill had some important influences in moulding him as a player.

“One name that always springs to mind is [former Ireland international] Ken O’Connell, who was our skills coach when I was in the academy. Ken might not have been known for his skills, but he’s definitely known for his character.

“His enthusiasm around the gym or around the pitch, he’s always be giving you confidence that when you jump in with the senior boys, have a crack and get stuck in.

THE CANADIAN PRESS 2017-02-18 Quill in action against Canada. Source: DARRYL DYCK

“You take bits and pieces from players you’ve played with. Obviously, the likes of Peter, seeing the way he operated from early doors. At the age of 18 or 19, seeing the way he stood into a senior Munster session and looked like he’d been there for years.”

Having finished with Munster in 2012, Quill and his now-wife Niamh opted to move to Boston “just to take a step back from it all.”

However, he had been in touch with USA Rugby and just two days after they arrived, the US national team called Quill into a training camp, where he impressed and rapidly moved towards his Test debut against Russia in November of 2012.

He’s been living in the US on and off for the six years since, with his accent and phraseology – “grocery stores” and the use of “for sure” to answer in the affirmative are some of the clues – indicating as much.

There have been huge amounts of travel involved, with Quill playing for Dolphin at times, as well as featuring for Munster A, helping London Welsh to promotion into the Premiership in 2014, starring for New York club NYAC in 2015, and then settling in Sacramento in 2016.

He played for Sacramento Express in PRO Rugby and while that competition is now defunct, Quill feels that “at least it started something.”

Major League Rugby’s first season in 2018 was a promising success and Quill is convinced that the league will ensure more homegrown talent pushes into the US team in years to come.

For now, what he jokingly calls “the Irish mafia” are contributing to the Eagles, with Quill an experienced presence in the back row, while former Greystones hooker Dylan Fawsitt and Aran Islands native Paul Mullen have broken into the squad. Paddy Ryan isn’t in the current group but provides another front-row option.

Ex-Blackrock College man AJ MacGinty is perhaps the key player but is unfortunately injured for the November Tests, while former St. Michael’s, Leinster U19s and Ireland Women coach McWilliams has made a big impact as attack coach.

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AJ MacGinty MacGinty is injured for the November Tests. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“The thing Greg does really well in terms of our attack is just simplifying everything and he is very much open to feedback from us,” says Quill.

“There are a lot of guys bringing knowledge from their clubs to the set-up. A guy like AJ is fantastic. If he doesn’t like what’s happening, he’s going to tell you pretty quick.”

McWilliams actually passes during our chat at the Drake Hotel and highlights the fact that Quill is part of the US’ attack group, underlining his influence on the squad.

It is difficult to fathom that Quill retired after the 2015 World Cup, disillusioned at the direction of the US team.

“It wasn’t a hard decision,” says Quill. “It should have been a harder decision and that will tell you a lot of the experience from it. There were a lot of guys in the same boat.

“It was frustrating in that a World Cup is something you’re working towards for a long time and it’s a massive achievement. But it didn’t feel like that.

“It still needs to be an experience that you’re enjoying and that’s something we’re really starting to buy into here. Gary is really making a focus point of that. We’re visiting the Chicago Bulls this week and we can tour the Blackhawks’ facilities.

“A down day now is really a down day, whereas before you were staying in hotels out in the back of nowhere. They were cutting corners on the wrong stuff in a lot of ways.

“You were sitting around looking at each other for 12 hours of the day when we could have been out making experiences, making a stronger bond with the guys you’re playing with.”

Greg McWilliams Greg McWilliams is attack coach with the Eagles.

Things are very different in the Eagles’ set-up now and Quill is excited by the thought of taking on England, France, Argentina and Tonga in Pool C of next year’s World Cup.

“It’s obviously not the easiest group but there’s definitely a confidence in our squad.

“These November games will tell a lot about our character with four tough Tests in different ways.

“We’ll learn an awful lot but we’re moving in the right direction if we can build on that. We’ve won all our games so far this year and we have now got an opportunity to go undefeated for a calendar year, which has never been done by us.” 

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Murray Kinsella

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