The life of a professional rugby player is spent training hard on weekdays and travelling abroad on weekends. For most professional athletes, a lot of your time is spent with your coaches and teammates. COVID brought a lot of hardship, but there has been a positive for people all over the world and that of course is more time with family and loved ones.

Spending time at home with loved ones for 3 months consecutively is something Paddy McAllister had not experienced in his 10-year career as a professional rugby player. Coming out of this period away from training and his teammates, Paddy has reflected a lot and made some realisations during this time. Quarantine has given Paddy a new perspective and an even greater appreciation to do the job that he loves.

We sat down with Paddy to discuss how he dealt with his mental and physical health during this time, growing up in The Congo as a young boy where he only wanted to play football, to his first week of training post quarantine.

Paddy firstly I would like to ask how you been getting on? How has quarantine been for you?

One thing I have realised is that when I finish rugby, I do not want to wait around to start a job. I want to be able to transition quickly when that time does come. It was quite tough being at home with the two kids, but we were able to do so many things together as a family.I have never looked forward to fitness in my life but during quarantine, I enjoyed running on the pitch beside my house because it gave me an hour of peace by myself. I looked forward to those moments throughout the week. We had unbelievable family time which we will look back on in years to come with fond memories.

It was hard to manage the gym work with the two kids, I would try to get into the room for an hour but there were times I would literally barricade the door with the couches so they wouldn’t walk in! All they wanted to do was join in and do some push ups with me and participate in the training, but they always ended up getting in the way. My wife was amazing, she always organised around it and gave me the time when I had to train. Coming back into Pre-Season this week , getting to go back to the gym with your friends and being able to work hard was just great. I certainly won’t take it for granted anymore.

Quarantine made you realise that after rugby you want to make sure you have something set up when it does happen. Were there any other realisations that you had from being at home all the time over the past 3 months?

At the beginning it was a novelty, it was something I hadn’t experienced before because I went straight into professional rugby after secondary school and was given my weekly schedule and told what I had to wear and what I needed to do, we were spoon-fed. As rugby players we are so lucky, we have 90 percent of our lives planned out for us, to then walk out of that into this scenario, it was almost like I had retired but was still receiving a wage which was a luxury in the sense that if you do retire you don’t get a wage. I had that to fall back on but there was so much time to fill, you can get bored and frustrated very quickly.

I was up early in the mornings with the kids playing with them, after a few weeks you start running out of ideas on how to keep them busy, especially during lock down where they couldn’t socialise with anyone. After experiencing that, I feel like I am more prepared for when retirement does come down the line, I will be ready for the next challenge that comes my way. I think if you are not prepared it can turn into a dangerous slippery slope where you have too much time on your hands after a long career. A lot of thoughts may creep up into your head such as regrets and then boredom.

We recently saw that you are going to welcome your third child in October, how are you both feeling about becoming parents of three?

When lock-down happened, my wife was 6 weeks pregnant and feeling quite sick. I was taking care of the kids a lot more, which made me have an even bigger appreciation for my wife and all the things she does when I am at training or away at games.We are very excited and nervous but ready for the hard challenge ahead.

Usually, one adult can take a child each but with three it is an extra child running around when you have another one in your arms. We are going to embrace it; we are very blessed that we can have three kids at such a young age. Hopefully, I don’t retire too early and they can remember that I did something in my life so that I can recall the memories with them, and they remember those moments.

How were you able to stay motivated and focused during quarantine?

The coaches have been great, the biggest thing they instilled was structure. As our whole careers have been full of structure, we had to set aside a few hours in the day for training. Basically, get up, do the work and then you have the whole day off. It’s very easy for frustration to slip in, but the whole S&C team as well as the coaches were constantly freshening things up. They were always setting challenges for us to do every week, there were lots of fun and engaging activities. Connacht Rugby were constantly supporting staff and players throughout the whole quarantine period.

There were lots of Zoom learning sessions, yoga classes, mindfulness classes, all stuff that we benefited from. Connacht Rugby as a club provided something we could tap into, stay engaged, and learn from daily. The club has been very good in that way, everyone has supported each other and kept in contact with lots of phone calls. It makes you appreciate coming back into Pre-Season even more. Although we are only in groups of six you are never going to take for granted the profession we do and the people that work within in Connacht Rugby. That extends from coaches to players to office staff and all around the branch, the work has been incredible. I think every player and a staff member will be very grateful for Connacht Rugby during this time.

We know your parents are living in Congo at the moment, did you get to see them before all this happened?

They had just come back to Northern Ireland before quarantine, unfortunately, my grandad had taken ill, the doctors said it would be his last few days. All our family are spread out over the world, it was amazing how everyone came together within 2 to 3 days to say goodbye. The crazy thing is, he must have got uplifted spirits by seeing everybody, he beat off everything that was affecting him in hospital. He held on for another month and the nice thing is, he got to spend time with everyone before he passed away.

During that time, my parents got stuck during the lock-down and couldn’t get back to Congo, it worked out for them because they decided a few months back that my dad was going to take a job with the same company but based in Northern Ireland. They moved back to their old house yesterday, it will be great to have them close by and to have both sets of grandparents on the same island. It will be a luxury; they have spent their whole lives in Africa, now they are coming back to lots of babysitting duties!

At the age of 14 you moved to Northern Ireland from Congo, how did you get into rugby when you arrived and had you played other sports before that?

In Africa I played football (soccer) and loved it, I still love the sport. My two older brothers played rugby in Africa and I had no interest. Even when I went to their games, I would bring a football and play football on the sideline while they were playing rugby. The one thing I said to my dad before leaving Africa was to make sure my new school in Northern Ireland would have a football team. His reply was “Yeah, yeah, no worries”, when I arrived at the school there was no football team, so naturally I started playing rugby.

I was a bit bigger than the guys in my year, my first time playing rugby was great because I was used to getting beaten up by my two older brothers and now I was more physically dominant than the guys on my team. After a couple of years playing, I fell in love with it and the Ulster Academy came at 16 and asked me to join.

They came down and trained me three times a week in secondary school during the lunch period. At the time, neither my parents nor I knew what the academy was, I had been to one Ulster game and has no idea what it was. They instilled lots of confidence in me, they said if you put in the work, we think it could be a career for you. That was risky telling a young boy because my focus then became rugby 24/7 instead of working harder on my studies which I should have done. It took off from there, I moved to Belfast after school, started my rugby career and thankfully it paid off.

Your first season in Connacht Rugby was unfortunately cut short due to COVID, how was it for you and what do you reflect on when you look back at your first season in Connacht Rugby?

It helped moving here in the summer, the weather was good, my wife and the family fitted in well, there was lots of stuff to do on the weekends. Training started well, it was a club I had been looking for the past few years and it all fell into place at the right time. I started Pre-Season well and then sustained an injury in the fourth game away to Dragons which was unfortunate, it took me out of action for three months.

I started back into it after that and was playing a good amount of rugby, then suddenly the season was just gone. It’s unlucky the way it ended, we were pushing towards the playoff stages and were due to play Scarlets next who were one point ahead of us, if we had beaten them, we would have been in the playoff stages.

It’s frustrating, a big thing I have learned in my career is that at the end of every season when players move on, it is always important to pay a special tribute to those guys who have put a lot of effort into the jersey and the club, whether it’s retirement or moving on to another club.

It was sad that we didn’t get to have a personal goodbye for certain players who have given a lot to the jersey. The club did what we could and we had a sendoff for them through a Zoom call which has been an unbelievable communication tool for a lot of people the past few months. In all, it’s been a very good but very strange season.

You have just completed your first week of Pre-Season training, what has it been like and do things feel different with the new setup?

It’s been great seeing everyone, that buzz of waking up, getting your kit bag ready the night before, and all those excitements. Monday was tough, we had fitness and gym testing, which is never the easiest part of the job, but you just have to do it. Wednesday we did a fitness conditioning session on the pitch along with a big gym session after that.

It’s so good to see all the boys back again and see the light at the end of the tunnel and get a bit of craic going again. It’s great getting back to having a bit of competition when you are training, I am looking forward to the next few weeks. It’s crazy the amount of work and effort that has been put in by the Connacht Rugby staff to organise the facilities for us to be able to train safely in our groups of six.

To be able to walk into the club and see how things are prepared for us to train, people do so much work behind the scenes which they don’t get enough credit for. It’s very different from before, the social distancing is still there, we can’t shower on-site, we can’t use certain places in the ground, and we have to bring a lot of extra kit. The gym has little areas that are quarantined, we have to clean everything that we touch once we are finished in the gym. It’s strange, but we would do anything it takes to get back into it.

We know that the gym is a very energetic close environment, do you think training will be affected by social distancing?

As a rugby player, you must be competitive if you are going to make a long career out of it. With competitiveness brings high intensity sessions that the trainers bring to every session. Within your group of six, there is still competition between everyone in the sense of who is lifting what and what shape is everyone in. I think the buildup of excitement between everyone has already created a great atmosphere, all the players are delighted to be back in.

We are all cracking jokes and telling stories. A few of the new players are in our group, we are just getting to know them which is exciting. I don’t think we are going to have a boring day. Personally, I don’t think I will ever go into work even on a cold stormy day in Galway and wish I was in bed because life in the real world is very different from the way we have it. I appreciate even more how fortunate I am to do the job that I am in.

Looking towards the games in August, how are you preparing yourself to get back to match fitness again?

The club and the IRFU have put in a good protocol and process to get us there. We have to do all the sessions as good as we can but there is a lot of individual ownness on recovery, we don’t have a long period of time after being away for such a long time. On an off day, you need to get your recovery in and do everything you can nutrition-wise, recovery wise whether that is going into the ocean for a while, rolling out the body, things like that so that the small injuries and niggles don’t creep in.

Every province and player is excited to get back into it and the fact that the first games are Interpros gives it that extra spice. Our first game is against Ulster, which will be good, my first game back from injury was Ulster away and it didn’t go too well for the team and personally.

Lastly Paddy, Friendy requested that everyone had to come back from quarantine with a new skill on or off the field. What would you say you improved on when you were in quarantine?

I didn’t have time to learn guitar or any of those things as the kids would have broken it. I would say it has been my ability to mentally ride the wave of life after coming out of quarantine and coming into the new season. Things that are uncontrollably thrown at you whether it’s in the workplace, selections, disagreements, personal things at home which can affect rugby, I now understand better that these things are always going to happen and you can’t prevent them from happening in your life.

You just have to go with it and talk to others. I have got unbelievably close to my wife this last while because we have had to rely on each other looking after two crazy kids and luckily we survived quarantine. We managed to do it with two healthy kids, and no one got injured, which is an A-plus from us.

In the future, when things come at me, I think I am way better equipped in dealing with it. It has been really tough for some people who just went through quarantine, especially those who live by themselves, people at a certain age or those who have an illness, it can be tough mentally, we all need to help each other.

The biggest thing I have gained from this is, I am a bit more weathered in dealing with those things. I hope I don’t have to deal with a lot of them but if I do, I feel like I am in a good place and have a good structure of family and friends behind me to help deal with any problems that may be thrown at me like a pandemic.

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