Hooker still happy, despite uncertainty
Quentin MacDonald is in limbo. Or, to be more accurate, his rugby career is on hold.
The 25-year-old Tasman Makos hooker, unsigned by any of the country's five Super Rugby franchises for 2014, had expected to be plying his trade for Irish club Leinster at this time of the new year. Instead, he is waiting patiently at his newly purchased Renwick home for a working visa so he can join the European powerhouse.
Initially signed as a replacement at the three-time Heineken Cup champions for 85-game veteran Richardt Strauss, who was diagnosed in October 2013 with a serious heart condition, MacDonald's plans were scuppered when the South African-born rake made a miraculous recovery, pushing the Makos man down the pecking order.
However, Leinster still want MacDonald's services, especially as first choice hooker Sean Cronin is part of the Irish Six nations squad and will be in camp during the national side's campaign.
MacDonald is keen to join the Irish club as soon as possible. He signed a short-term contract with Leinster soon after the Super Rugby squads were announced, a tad disillusioned after enjoying one of his best ITM Cup campaigns with the championship-winning Makos.
After being told by the Blues that he wasn't going to be contracted for a second year, MacDonald knew the writing was on the wall.
"Going into the [ITM Cup] season I pretty much knew there wasn't going to be too many contracts around for hookers, so I wasn't really expecting anything. I decided to just enjoy it, just try and play some good rugby. It was funny that I played one of my better seasons for a while and still missed out. It was a bit disappointing but I knew most of the season that there wasn't anything guaranteed.
"It was a weird year. It probably made me relax a little more. Knowing there weren't too many contracts on offer I thought, ‘If I just play well I can't blame myself for missing out', so that's what I used as motivation. Just got back to enjoying it."
Despite being contacted by several Super rugby coaches, "for a chat", after the squads were announced, there was still no 2014 Super contract on the table, so MacDonald's thoughts turned to securing a contract abroad. The Leinster offer loomed as the "perfect scenario" with MacDonald expected to step into the reserve hooker's role, play in the prestigious Heineken Cup competition and return in time for the next Makos season. But Strauss's sudden availability has left MacDonald and Leinster with a signed contract and a decision or two to make.
"I just want to get over there," said the former New Zealand Maori hooker, who got a brief taste of international rugby last year, although he didn't actually take the field. After missing the initial squad for the NZ Maori trip to the US and Canada, he was watching the side's first match at his home. "I saw Hika [Maoris hooker Hika Elliott] get injured and sure enough about five minutes later I got a phone call telling me to be on standby. The game finished and 20 minutes later I got another call to get on a plane. The match finished around 10.30am [NZ time] and I was on the plane to Auckland by 12. It was all pretty quick. I knew I was going over there just as cover, but I didn't really know what to expect. In the end they didn't need me but I got a chance to have a good chat to Colin Cooper [Maoris coach]. I was thinking it would have been easier to do it on the phone, but there were a few Makos boys on the trip so it was great to catch up with them."
He may be on the outside of Super rugby, looking in, at the moment but MacDonald hasn't given up on playing in the Sanzar showpiece in future. "I always wanted to be an All Black, and if you don't play Super rugby you can't get there, so I have to weigh that option up - do I stay here, hoping to become an All Black, or should I just go overseas and try to make a bit more money, see the rest of the world.
"Missing out [on Super rugby this year] has made me step back and look at all the options. It's not like [being a professional rugby player] is going to last forever."
But MacDonald wishes it would. After being involved as a fulltime professional since 2010 he hasn't grown tired of the life. "Because I've always loved rugby, it's the perfect job for me. There's not too many jobs you get free travel, you get paid to train, to play . . . I just love it."
Although he has been at the selectors' whim over the years, often ending up playing second fiddle in Super rugby campaigns, the ever-positive hooker harbours no grudges. "At the end of the day, it's just one man's opinion, you could be doing everything you can and still not get selected. Sometimes you feel you are playing better, but you still don't get picked. I've had to deal with a bit of that over the past few years. But that's just part of it."
It's been suggested around the traps that the wide-ranging, offloading style of play MacDonald employs with the Makos may have counted against him, with Super rugby sides looking for more robust hookers who play a more traditional, tighter game.
Although he admits he could probably be a bit tighter, MacDonald says he is playing to what his coaches and team needs and are happy with. "I've always liked carrying the ball, I'm not a run-hard, run-straight player, I try to put in a step, a little fend or an offload . . . little things like that. I would hate to just change my whole game completely, not really factoring in my strengths . . . like ball carrying and being over the ball, getting turnovers.
"It's not hard to change [my style of play] though, get into the dark places, which I'm not worried about. It's just about having that extra string to your bow.
"I definitely can play tight, but there's not too many around that can do some of the stuff I do, which could work as a positive to me."
While he hasn't yet signed for the 2014 Makos season, waiting to see what eventuates from his European opportunities, MacDonald seems likely to put pen to paper again.
He describes the 2013 season as his most enjoyable with the Makos, the side's success built from profitable pre-season camps, a better mix of players, a solid core of experience and an unyielding defence.
"It's been building since 2011, this core group has been together since then. The forwards and backs complemented each other really well."
Although Makos fans relished the team's attacking prowess, MacDonald was especially proud of their defence. "It kind of got overshadowed by our attack, but we had one of the best defensive stats going around," he said.
If MacDonald does turn out for Tasman this season, he will have some family support close at hand; his younger brother Jesse has signed for the country's newest province after playing for Hawke's Bay last season. With Jesse also vying for the No 2 jersey, there has been a bit of light-hearted family banter, but the Makos' No 1 rake is taking nothing for granted. "I know [Jesse's] a good player. He can throw the ball, scrummages well and is really good around the field, he just needs a bit more game time. Him being there will push us both. We've been training together since the break and he's looking good. There'll definitely be a bit of competition I'd say.
"It would be great to have a season with my brother, that would be awesome, and I think my parents would be happy. Dad [former Red Devils prop Paul MacDonald] has already said he wouldn't be as angry as he usually gets if I'm not starting - as long as Jesse gets the nod," he adds with a trademark smile.
- The Marlborough Express