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Authors: Scott Quinnell

The Hardest Test

The Hardest Test

Scott Quinnell


Published by Accent Press Ltd – 2008

ISBN 9781909335462

Copyright © Scott Quinnell 2008

The right of Scott Quinnell to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the publishers: Accent Press Ltd, The Old School, Upper High St, Bedlinog, Mid-Glamorgan, CF46 6SA.

The Quick Reads project in Wales is a joint venture between Basic Skills Cymru and the Welsh Books Council. Titles are funded through Basic Skills Cymru as part of the National Basic Skills Strategy for Wales on behalf of the Welsh Assembly Government.

Printed and bound in the UK

Cover photo and design by Darryll Corner

Quick Reads
used under licence


Scott Quinnell reached the very top of his profession. The former Scarlet, 52 times Welsh international and British Lion, is now one of the most recognisable faces in world rugby.

The Hardest Test tells
the story of how, despite a difficult childhood battling debilitating learning difficulties, Scott Quinnell managed to power his way to a successful rugby career and how, after retirement, he sought to conquer dyslexia in order to change both his life and the lives of his children forever.

Chapter One

The morning of 21 November 2000 should have been the happiest moment of my rugby career. We were preparing to face South Africa at the Millennium Stadium the following Saturday. As I was eating breakfast, Graham Henry, the Welsh coach, came over to talk to me. An injury had ruled out stand-in captain Mark Taylor and he was offering me the Welsh captaincy for the first time.

I was very honoured and obviously happy. To captain your country is the pinnacle of any player's career. But the more I thought about it and what the responsibility entailed, the more I began to worry.

For the week leading up to the match, I hardly slept. Believe me, it had nothing to do with captaining Wales in front of 72,000 people, nor indeed anything to do with rugby at all. What absolutely petrified me was the prospect of having to speak in front of the players, their families and dignitaries after the game. That was it, nothing more.

My mind would go back to being eighteen again when I was asked to open a fête in my old primary school and the fear that had triggered. Then, too, I hardly slept during the nights leading up to the event. It might seem crazy – I only had to say “I declare this fête open”. It must seem surprising that something so easy could cause me such anxiety, but my experiences up to that point had left me with little or no confidence when it came to such things.

There's a picture of me when I'm very young at primary school wearing a red rugby jersey. I think it must be one of my dad's, because it's drowning me, but I look very happy. And yet at that time I had no idea what rugby was, let alone how much of a role it would play in the rest of my life. It makes me smile just to look at it.

I started school aged four. Five Roads Junior School was barely 300 yards from where we lived and was very much part of the small village where I grew up.

Learning at that age is all about fun and you soon forget about being left at school every day by your parents. To me, it was just somewhere else to spend time with the friends who were so much a part of my life outside school. That's what made things easier, I guess – we grew up discovering new things together and it was like one big family.

Everywhere there were familiar faces. I recognised the teachers from around the village and even the dinner lady was my best friend Martin's mother – her cawl was one reason for anyone to want to go to school!

You hear of schools struggling these days with large classes; at Five Roads we benefited from the extra attention that being in small school groups allows.

Thinking back, and with what I know now, I must have shown early signs of learning difficulties. But I don't think there was anything particularly different about me. I was quite a confident kid, eager to have a go at anything.

I remember vividly being given the responsibility of being milk monitor, a job I took to with relish – my proudest moment up 'til then, with the added incentive of being able to have an extra bottle now and again!

Five Roads was and still is very much a close-knit community; everyone knew each other's families and it was safe for us kids to play out until all hours.

Regular events like the carnival brought the community even closer together. I've a vivid memory of one such carnival enjoyed by myself, my friend Martin and my younger brother Craig. We all dressed as rugby players and insisted on walking round all day in those thick, cotton jerseys in the sweltering summer heat, getting up to no good in Mervyn Daviesstyle headbands. Craig and I had little idea that in the years to come we'd be spending quite a lot of time running around in kit – though I must say I've not been tempted to adopt my godfather Mervyn's ‘John McEnroe' look any time since.

The move from primary up to secondary school is enormous for any child. It's gut-wrenching to be separated from the friends you've grown up with and to move away from the security of a school where the teachers know you almost as well as your parents. Leaving Five Roads School was no different – and I really wasn't prepared for the struggle that secondary school would bring.

Chapter Two

My next school was Graig Comprehensive School down in Llanelli itself. I used to catch the bus from the village square just outside The Stag's Head with my friends each morning but, instead of spending all day together, as soon as we got to school we'd all have to go in our different directions.

Arriving at secondary school can be an isolating as well as a daunting experience – for a start it's the first time in your life your academic ability is truly measured, and by being put into streams or sets you get labelled. I found this particularly difficult.

I've always liked the idea of learning and, looking back, I think how great it would have been to be one of those people who could devour all the new information. Unfortunately, I just couldn't. My poor concentration made this impossible.

I was keen to make an impression, but it wasn't long before I began to fall behind. It was very hard to deal with the fact that while my friends were doing well I was slipping to the bottom of the class. I couldn't understand why, even though I was trying all I could to keep up, I still kept falling further behind.

I tended to keep myself to myself in classes, not wanting to attract attention to the fact that I was struggling. I'd sit at the back waiting for the moment when the bell would ring and I'd be back out in the yard with my mates, where once again I could get involved.

The teachers tried everything to help – looking back I realise how frustrating it must have been for them to work with me, one week, to the point where I seemed to grasp some aspect of a subject, only to see me return the following week with little or no idea of what we'd gone through previously.

I was to learn later that this inability to retain information is one of the key signs of a learning disorder like dyslexia. My short attention span meant that much of the lessons was spent staring out of the window, daydreaming or counting the bricks of the building opposite. Maths was the only subject I grasped to any extent. In others I just kept repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

I'd find things like copying text from a blackboard very difficult. I now know that it was my dyslexia which caused my eyes to jump around the board or the page of a book, meaning I'd miss sentences. This meant having to read things several times, so I was much slower than everyone else at completing the tasks.

One of the major things I remember is feeling sick at the thought of being asked to read out loud. It terrified me – all the more reason to keep a low profile. Some teachers shouted at me, calling me lazy, and the constant rows upset me very much.

It is important to understand that back then little was known about learning difficulties. I really don't blame the teachers – I guess they had exhausted every method they knew, to little reward. But I couldn't understand why I was being punished. Slowly I began to realise I had problems of some sort. The fact that the other children seemed to move on easily left me feeling very alone. Soon, I was bottom of every class – that's if I was in the class at all!

My wife Nicola remembers finding a box full of my school books from this time when we moved in together, all the pages empty save for the date and the title. That about sums it up, I guess.

My parents began to realise that things weren't going well. There were the concerns of teachers in the form of reports and letters in the post. I'd often get home from school in tears and lock myself in my bedroom. They found it hard to understand why their eldest son, who had been so full of confidence, was becoming increasingly withdrawn. I used to ask to go to friends' birthday parties, only to quickly change my mind when we arrived, and have to be dragged in by my mother, and then leave soon after. My learning difficulties were now affecting every aspect of my life.

At fourteen my problems were getting out of control. I'd get increasingly frustrated with myself and got into a fair bit of trouble – if I could get kicked out of a lesson or miss one completely, all the better. I once even punched a friend after a minor argument, breaking his eye-socket in the process. Something had to give.

Despite all this, my parents were brilliant, spending lots time with me while I was doing my homework and trying different tutors to help me along. They looked at every possibility. When they saw that their efforts produced little improvement in school they started questioning themselves, as well as the credibility of the (very many) tutors in the Llanelli area who were assigned the huge challenge of improving my grades!

As my father has since said, “We knew he wasn't twp or dull, but it was frustrating.”

I was pretty sharp when it came to things like sport but a complete failure academically.

Eventually my parents came to what I suppose, looking back, was a natural conclusion – that it was the sport, particularly the rugby (which by that time I had begun to get heavily involved in) which was to blame.

They imposed the ultimate penalty on me, stopping me playing rugby at Under 15 level – it turned out to be the only level I didn't play at.

I was devastated. By this time, rugby was all I really wanted to do and although I saw the importance of education I found it impossible. Everything seemed to be against me.

Thank goodness the ban didn't last for long!

Chapter Three

What's in a name? I was born Leon Scott Quinnell on 20 August 1972 in Morriston Hospital, Swansea – the wrong side of Loughor bridge as far as my family and future were concerned
though I'm told I was quickly rushed over to the Llanelli side in order to take my first breath!

My father Derek had been a three-times British Lion as well as a Welsh international, and he had the honour of being the only player in the Lions squad not to have already been capped by his country when he went on the tour to New Zealand in 1971. My uncle is Wales and Lions legend Barry John and my godfather Mervyn Davies also pulled on both the Wales and Lions jerseys. (No pressure on me then, whilst growing up, to pick up the oval ball!)

Rugby did seem to be everywhere, even with my mother – she'd become a massive fan of the game after years of following her brother, Barry, and of course my father. My two youngest brothers, Craig and Gavin, followed us into the game as well, becoming professionals in their own right. So it's not hard to imagine what the topic of conversation was around the dinner table when we were growing up!

At the age of eight, I began showing an interest in the game which would eventually become my life. I asked my father to take me down to Stradey Park, Llanelli, to play for the U11s.

It might sound surprising, but up to then I hadn't really sat down to watch a game of rugby, not even to watch my father. I know now that my learning difficulties meant I didn't have the attention span to watch a whole match. In honesty I'm still not one for watching the game, though watching the game is now what pays the bills!

I recall my father being away a lot playing rugby when we were young. In 1977 he was on tour in New Zealand for three and a half months and again in South Africa for the same amount of time in 1980.

As well as our good friends in Five Roads, we were lucky to have Nan and Granddad next door to us, which must have really been a help for my mother when Dad was away. It was great to have an extended family right there.

My grandfather Stan would spend hours with us as kids. I loved it when he helped me make bows and arrows and, later, encouraged me to drive diggers and tractors. What more could a boy want?

While on tour, my father was only allowed one phone call home a week and whenever I got to speak to him I spent the whole time in tears. In the end my mother decided that she would relay messages between us – a lot less trauma all round!

It had been Mr Rees, a lovely teacher at Five Roads School (who went on to teach both my daughters, Samantha and Lucy), who initially planted the rugby seed. He was the first guy to actually encourage me to pick up a rugby ball, taking us all training.

Although Dad must have been quite pleased when I showed an interest in the game, it's important to say that he never pressured me to follow in his footsteps. He was more than happy for me to make my own way in the world.

People often ask me about my hopes for my son Steele. I think they expect me to say that I'm longing for him to follow in my footsteps. That couldn't be further from the truth. I may be proved wrong but I think Steele is more likely to paint a game of rugby or write about it than play in it, and so be it! As I've learnt from my father, all you can do is let children follow their own paths in life.

Being on the rugby field brought on an instant change in me. Failure to deal with school had made me more and more withdrawn, but having the ball in my hands, caked in mud, seemed to bring out the real Scott. I felt in control for once and at last began to feel the rewards of effort and practice which had yielded so little at school.

At other times I could be found on my bike on the hills around Five Roads or playing cricket or football with friends: anything as long as it was sport, exercise and fun. The more involved I was in sporting activities, the more my confidence grew.

Later the family moved down to Pen-y-fai Lane, and the new house had the advantage of being near to town, and overlooking Stradey Park. I began to take a real interest in watching Llanelli play, and I was also now nearer to the weights gym and the squash courts. It was in these places I began to spend much of my time.

I've learnt that people with learning difficulties develop what they call “coping strategies” to deal with their condition. It usually means involving yourself in things that you are good at and not exposing yourself to unfamiliar situations, I guess it's because of fear of failure.

As books and writing and general academic work became more difficult for me, I began to spend more and more time on the rugby field or watching the game and, later, working out in the gym. It was where I felt comfortable, where I felt a real sense of belonging.

I still see that sense of camaraderie as rugby's ultimate appeal. Wherever I've been in the world through rugby I've always felt a part of a family. This was no different in the early days.

As I made progress in the game, I started to feel sure that it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. After a few games representing the school, I was made captain, which was a massive honour for me. I also began playing for Llanelli schoolboys and went on to captain the Under 16s on tour to St Helens – my first ever trip away from my parents and a truly memorable occasion.

Whilst there I got to meet former Llanelli great Roy Mathias and also Stuart Evans (whom my dad had coached for a time with Wales). At sixteen I was 6' 1" and a bit of a lump but Stuart literally had to come through the door sideways to meet us! It was incredible – he's one of the biggest men I've ever come across in the game!

On the Sunday we got to see St Helens play at Knowsley Road and I was able to witness for the first time the wonderful sense of occasion that is part and parcel of the 13-man game.

After the match I was taken to meet the Saints' board, who out of the blue offered me a place in their academy set-up. I found it hard to believe what I was hearing. It was an incredible compliment and of course a real boost to my still fragile confidence.

But I felt very much that I wanted to make my mark in rugby union, and at that time my only wish was to play for the Llanelli first team. Everything else could wait.

Back at home, things were much the same. I began to miss school regularly, Wednesday afternoons in particular, which I would spend training. I recall one teacher cornering me one day and saying, “Quinnell, you'll never come to anything playing rugby, boy!”

His advice had come far too late for me!

I began to show even more dedication to the game. I'd recently had a major eye-opener and a narrow escape, just missing out after a Welsh Under 15 trial, where I played at prop! I'd put on weight and was never so glad to have a hammering in my life! I realised if I was to get away from the dreaded front row and have a future in the game, I really had to focus.

Thinking about it, my negative experiences in school may have made me even more determined to prove myself. I wouldn't say I was a natural, but I was fortunate to have inherited a physique which, with work, helped me ply my trade in the No. 8 position.

Playing for Llanelli youth at sixteen, week in week out, against older boys of eighteen and nineteen really served to toughen me up and get me into shape. Believe me, you take some big knocks, but if you want it badly enough, you're always there the next week, ready for the next bout!

My career was moving at quite a pace and I had little time to stop and think about education and the problems of the past. Besides, I had found something rewarding. I felt useful at last.

I wonder sometimes whether or not that teacher has followed my career – I haven't bumped into him since!

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