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Dublin: 2 °C Friday 15 November, 2019
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'There's not a day that goes by when I don't miss Leinster'

Kurt McQuilkin played, captained and coached Leinster, but a family tragedy meant he had to leave his adopted province in 2016.

THE TIMING COULD not have been worse, but alas, tragedy so often intrudes on everyday life at the most inopportune moment. It rudely and abruptly interrupts, provides a sobering reminder of what’s truly important, and, in dealing a cruel hand, redirects this journey we call life without so much of a warning.

Weeks before Kurt McQuilkin was due to begin his second full season as Leinster defence coach on Leo Cullen’s backroom staff, everything changed. Suddenly, rugby and the season ahead, paled into insignificance.

Kurt McQuilkin Former Leinster defence coach Kurt McQuilkin. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Upon hearing the devastating news from back home in New Zealand that his father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and in the same shocking blow, his sister Kim had terminal pancreatic cancer, McQuilkin was presented with an unspeakably difficult decision. But, in truth, there was no decision to be made.

Leinster and Cullen, having endured a testing first year in the job after taking over from Matt O’Connor, could have done without the unforeseen loss of a vastly experienced, and well respected, member of the coaching staff, yet the tragic circumstances behind McQuilkin’s departure put everything in perspective.

It was clear from the outset, from the moment Leinster released a statement on 17 August 2016, that McQuilkin had not decided to hastily leave Dublin for home, rather tragic circumstances dictated that he simply had to be home.

As family took precedence, he was needed there, and Leinster — through the support of Guy Easterby and Cullen — facilitated McQuilkin’s move back to New Zealand, the former Ireland international leaving south in everyone’s thoughts. 

Eight months later, in April 2017, Kim McQuilkin passed away. She was just 48, leaving behind a loving husband, Tony, and two young children, Lawson and Mia, in what was an unimaginably painful period for the family. 

“We made the decision to go back in a couple of days,” McQuilkin tells The42. “We had to do it, we had to go back. As hard as it was to leave Leinster, it was a no-brainer really. As tough as it was, it was great spending time with Kim before she passed and that was the main thing.”

McQuilkin had been back and across from New Zealand to Ireland — to swap countries and trade places — a number of times previously, but each time it was of his own accord and in better circumstances. This time, for obvious reasons, was different.

Nearly three years on, it doesn’t get any easier but life has, thankfully, settled down for the McQuilkins — Kurt, his Irish wife Barbara and two daughters, Ella and Lilly — even if all of this wasn’t exactly in the plan.

Having pitched up in Dublin to play for Bective Rangers back in 1992, so began a love affair with Ireland for McQuilkin, as he went on to lift Senior Cups with Lansdowne, play for and captain Leinster and, in January 1996, win the first of five Ireland international caps.

He would return to New Zealand in 2002 with Barbara, whom he married three years previous, and Irish-born Ella, before arriving back in Dublin in 2006, with New Zealand-born Lilly, to play an integral role in Leinster’s first Heineken Cup success in 2009 as part of Michael Cheika’s staff.

Michael Cheika, Jonno Gibbes, Alan Gaffney and Kurt McQuilkin Michael Cheika, Jonno Gibbes, Alan Gaffney and McQuilkin in 2009. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It wasn’t long before he was back in the southern hemisphere, a year after the province’s maiden European win in Edinburgh, but a call from Cullen to come back on board as his defence coach in 2015 was an offer far too good to turn down. 

“To get a second chance to coach Leinster… I was absolutely over the moon but to have that second chance taken away from you the way it was, that was really tough,” McQuilkin admits.

Now living in the stunning surroundings of Lake Taupo on New Zealand’s North Island, life is very different for the former centre, who played 40 times for Leinster before moving into coaching. 

“We’re just getting on with it now,” he continues. “But I miss Leinster, for sure. I absolutely love Leinster, I loved playing for them, I loved coaching them. I may have been born in New Zealand but Leinster are my team. It was an absolute killer to leave them, an absolute killer.”

Watching on from afar as Cullen’s side have achieved so much success in the last two seasons has not been easy for McQuilkin, who sets his alarm for all hours to ensure he doesn’t miss a single Leinster game. 

I miss Leinster every day of the week. There wouldn’t be a day that goes by when I don’t miss Leinster. To the point that not too long after we had been back in New Zealand, they had the Women’s World Cup in Ireland [in 2017] and I couldn’t watch it because I could see UCD on the TV as the games were there.

“My wife was saying ‘Why aren’t you watching the Women’s World Cup?’, and I said ‘I can’t watch, it’s UCD, that’s where Leinster train.’ I just found it tough watching it, knowing the lads were there. It has become easier but that’s how tough it was initially.”

During those tough times, McQuilkin and his family were lifted and strengthened by the support of the wider Irish rugby community, who raised over €8,000 through Leinster’s Shave or Dye campaign. 

The outpouring of generosity, not just from within the Leinster dressing room but from the province’s supporters, confirmed to McQuilkin what he already knew, even if it made leaving that bit harder.

“We will be forever grateful, not just to the Leinster players but the whole Irish rugby community,” he continues. “They were just so terribly good to us all. It was great for me, and my sister to be part of that, she felt that love from the Irish rugby community. I’ll be forever grateful, it was amazing.

“You just realise Leinster is a pretty special place. You forge lifetime friendships and seeing them do that for my family, just reinforced to me a few things about Leinster and Ireland. I’m forever grateful, I’ll never be able to repay them.”

Kurt McQuilkin and Leo Cullen McQuilkin and Leo Cullen in 2016. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

McQuilkin is in regular contact with Cullen — ‘We Whatsapp every now and again’ — and departing scrum coach John Fogarty, while a number of players have kept in touch in the years since.

Following Leinster’s Champions Cup quarter-final victory over Wasps at the Aviva Stadium on 1 April 2017, the same day Kim passed away, Johnny Sexton messaged McQuilkin to say the players had dedicated their win to his family in the dressing room afterwards.

“I was blown away by that. Yeah, it was after the Wasps at Aviva, he dedicated that to us and, man, that certainly brought a tear to the eye. It was very much appreciated. When I told the rest of my family, they were pretty emotional about it too.

It spoke volumes about Johnny and Leinster, that they would think of my family after such a big win. To be able to call them mates, that’s special and just the support. They keep in touch, it’s like a family and you never get cut off from it… thank God!

McQuilkin was briefly back in Dublin last month for Leinster’s 10-year reunion for the 2009 Heineken Cup-winning squad and staff, but he is now very much settled down and enjoying life on the North Island.

With his eldest daughter, Ella, off to university next year and Lilly in Year 10 [fourth year] in secondary school, the McQuilkins have no designs on upping sticks and relocating to Ireland again any time soon. 

Naturally, McQuilkin found it difficult to resume his coaching career in New Zealand in the circumstances in which he arrived home, but his short stint with Wellington last winter gave him ‘his rugby fix’, before he started in his current role as Sports Director at St John’s College, Hamilton. 

Tasked with overseeing a range of 36 different sports for 750 pupils, McQuilkin, by his own admission, is very much outside of his comfort zone in this job but he was excited by the challenge of setting his focus on a permanent position outside of professional rugby.

“It’s different,” he laughs. “The school environment, you realise it can be pretty chaotic. I’ve been there about five months, but it has been good for me. I enjoy working with the boys, and it has been good for me to get out of my comfort zone. 

“We’ve got 10 rugby teams in the school and I can dip my toe in and do any bit of coaching with those sides if I want to. Do a bit of defence with the first XV or drop down the grades and help out with the younger teams.”

His school job, McQuilkin says, is filling a void he is yet to truly replace since leaving Leinster, and with rugby being his passion, there is no doubt he will be back in the professional game sooner rather than later.

Kurt McQuilkin 17/2/1996 McQuilkin in action for Ireland against France in 1996. Source: © Billy Stickland/INPHO

As for Ireland, it’s a case of ‘never say never’, particularly when recent experiences have taught McQuilkin to take each day as it comes, take nothing for granted and appreciate every moment along the way. 

“Myself, Barbara and the kids will always have a tie with Ireland,” he adds. “Who knows, if something came up and the girls are finished school, we’d definitely look at it. I’ve got such memories, both as a player and as a coach.

“One of the games that sticks out for me as a player was when we [Leinster] beat Leicester at Donnybrook [16-9, September 1997]. They were stacked with Lions who had just come back from South Africa. Neil Back, Martin Johnson. They had some hot players and we beat them in Donnybrook that day. For me, that was probably one of my abiding memories from my playing days with Leinster.

“And then as a coach, winning the first Heineken Cup in 2009 will always stand out. Winning that with Michael Cheika was special, they were all great, great days. Although it has been tough and emotional to leave and watch on, seeing the boys achieve such success has been gratifying in a way. It’s nice to have put something positive into it.”

It is clear that McQuilkin would still dearly love to be part of it all, but such is life and the way things work out. For now, from thousands of miles away, he remains Leinster’s biggest supporter. 

“I could see just before I left that the Leinster juggernaut was rolling down the road again. To watch Leo do what he has done, and for the province to achieve what they have, it has been a privilege. I’ll always be a proud Leinster man.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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