FINTAN WHELAN celebrated a 21st of a different kind in the AIL this year. He has just finished his 21st season playing senior rugby for Sunday’s Well at the tender age of 40 and has decided to hang up his boots but not his association with the club.
Actually you could call it 22 seasons of senior rugby if you count the season he spent in 1999 between April and October of that year playing senior rugby in Canada
In that time he has come up against some of the Irish greats during his playing career, players such as Terry Kingston, Shane Byrne, Bernard Jackman, Frankie Sheahan and Jerry Flannery and now he has decided it’s time to hang up his boots.
“I suppose for business and family reasons this year was going to be the year. I said as long as I could keep going that I would. I didn’t want to be a fella who finished at 30 and say at 35 ‘God I should have kept going.
“I’ve met a couple of former Well players over the years and all them have said to me ‘Stay going as long as you can and as long as you’re enjoying it and that’s what I did.
“I felt good and my body was ok and I said at the start of every season that I would keep it going for the year and that’s all I did, kept it going for one more season. My wife Gráinne will tell you that I was retiring five years ago but every summer I would say I will come back , I will come back.
“One of the things that kept me going as well was that you had young fellas 10 years ago coming out to support the Well and then they were coming through to play on the senior team and I used to say I want to stay playing til these lads come through so I could say I played with their fathers and now the sons,” he joked.
As a young lad growing up in Carrigtwohill, it never looked as if rugby would be part of young Whelan’s life. That changed in secondary school though.
“It’s the buddies I hang around with, guys I was in school with Colm Hayes and Paddy Lane. We left Rockwell and headed for Sundays’s Well. Paddy’s older brother John was there so my introduction to the Well was through the Hayes’ and Paddy.
“My father’s a GAA man from Waterford and my mother is from Kilkenny, there wouldn’t have been a lot of rugby in that county so my background was GAA.
“My father played football and hurling all his life and Kilkenny… you only play one thing there so my parents are still probably saying ‘Jayz where the hell did we go wrong with Fintan.’
“Ah that’s probably not fair on them though, they’ll know I’m joking. To be fair to my dad and mom Tom and Tess, they’ve both been hugely supportive.
“My dad’s a qualified chef and himself and mom are out in the club getting the club lunches before games done so I couldn’t say for a second that they have been anything but supportive.
“I had played football and hurling with Carrigtwohill. The foundation for rugby was set when my parents sent me to Rockwell as a boarder.
“I had never played rugby and back then unless you had a doctor’s note the priests at Rockwell wouldn’t let you get out of playing rugby.
“They had hurling and football at the school as well and I played them but the more I improved at the rugby the more it began to take over.”
Whelan finished school and headed into the family business Tom Whelan Veal, who deliver beef and lamb to the restaurant and hotel sector and decided to join his friends in the Well in 1991 and it has been working in the family business that has paid dividends for Fintan.
“I suppose I’ve been lucky as regards injuries. You look at the likes of Jerry (Flannery) having to retire when he’s in his prime is awful but I looked after myself and I suppose with work I would be doing weight training all year round with lifting meat boxes and carcasses so when we started to do gym work it came a bit easier to me because I was used to it. I think it certainly helped me avoid injury.”
The landscape of the AIL has changed since Whelan played his first game in the league .
“It went from amateur to almost professional which nearly ruined the game and thankfully it’s gone back to amateur status.
“Coaches and players were coming into clubs and being paid over the odds and things like underage at clubs suffered as the money was being diverted to pay for this.
“It finally told at the Well because we were trying to keep up with everybody else and it became all about keeping the senior status and keeping up with the best but that eventually told when one year the club decided that players weren’t going to be paid and players left the club and the club struggled but the lads that are there now are playing for the jersey.
“They have pride in their club jersey.”
The return to a club being run by people who know and love the club is a huge advantage says the former hooker.
“The club right through from underage all the way through is being run by Well men and that is a huge change from the heyday of the AIL when a southern hemisphere accent would probably have got you straight into the starting lineup as clubs fed into the frenzy but the return to the teams being run by people who love the club is a good thing.”
Whelan believes that the future is rosy for the Well if they can hold on to their emerging talent
“Our underage is one of the best in Munster. We are constantly bringing good players on. It’s trying to hold on to them is the problem.
“They end up going to the clubs in higher divisions.
“There’s a part of me that would love to see them stay at the club and have a bit of loyalty to the club that has done the hard work of coaching them and developing them not just as players but as young men but the realistic part of me knows that they want to try themselves at a higher level and see how far they can advance.
“Young fellas haven’t a lot of patience, they want to go in straight at the top, they’ll see it differently when they hit 40!”