“It was a rough time in my life,” Paddy McAllister says with absolutely no hesitation, like a man who has had a long time to reflect on the often difficult journey which has brought him to the west coast of Ireland in the green colours of Connacht Rugby.
The 30-year-old prop signed for the western province ahead of the 2019/20 season and the latest chapter in his career began so promisingly.
He started in the preseason victory over Munster at the Sportsground before making the first XV for the opening three PRO14 fixtures of the season.
It was in that third fixture against the Dragons when he would have feared the worst. He was stretchered off the Rodney Parade turf with a serious-looking knee injury.
As it transpired, that damage will likely see McAllister out until the turn of the year where he will no doubt hope to be back in time for Connacht’s final two Champions Cup pool fixtures.
The former Royal School of Armagh student almost describes it in a positive fashion despite the glaringly obvious disappointment that would come with suffering such an injury just a few weeks into the season with your new club.
But McAllister has the benefit of hindsight. He knows how bad it could have been, he’s experienced it before.
As a 23-year-old, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament and lateral collateral ligament during his time with Ulster – an injury, which combined with some tragic personal circumstances, would have a major impact on his career and life.
The wheel of Irish professional rugby is constantly moving and it does so quickly. Pause for a moment and it’s easy to be left behind.
In that sense, it is easy to forget McAllister’s meteoric rise for Ulster which saw him help his side reach a Heineken Cup final in 2012.
It’s all the more impressive considering he didn’t pick up a rugby ball until he was 14, for McAllister was raised and spent the majority of his childhood in the Congo.
McAllister’s grandparents, after World War II, worked in the central African nation as missionaries and this was where his father was born. His father later returned to the country with his French wife and they managed a dairy and beef farm.
This was where Paddy and his siblings “were born and raised” as McAllister describes:
“As a young kid, there’s probably nothing better,” McAllister tells Pundit Arena.
“I was obviously very oblivious to the dangers of what Africa and the Congo entailed but I just woke up every morning, went to school and then saw a jungle in my backyard. People hardly believe me here but at certain stages of my life, I had pet snakes. There was one guy we were friendly with who dropped off six baby crocodiles to let me keep for a few months until he came back to collect them off me.
“I remember in my room I had an incubator with six baby crocs I had to feed meat every day. I still have the scars on my hands from these things, getting loose in my room and me trying to find them! So stuff like that which I have many fond memories, my parents actually still live in Congo at the moment. It’s definitely a different childhood to many here but it’s something as a young boy growing up, I probably couldn’t have asked for any better.”
An unorthodox childhood to say the least but even more so in the context of a professional rugby player.
McAllister never played rugby until he moved to Northern Ireland and began attending the Royal School of Armagh as a 14-year-old.
From there, he took to his new sport like a duck to water. An academy place with Ulster was secured and it didn’t take long for a senior debut to follow.
Throughout this journey, he was also rising through the national ranks with Ireland schools, U19s and U20s. He travelled to Japan for the U20 World Cup in 2009 alongside Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Ian Madigan and Rhys Ruddock to name just a few – the future looked bright.
That was until August 2012 when he suffered that serious knee injury.
A month later, McAllister’s teammate, roommate and best friend, Nevin Spence, died in a tragic slurry tank accident on Spence’s family farm. Spence’s brother Graham and father Noel also lost their lives in the tragedy.
McAllister’s world came crashing down.
“I was on top of the world as a young kid, I was playing regularly, every game for Ulster. I guess I had a really bad knee injury in one preseason, it was one of those horror injuries where I’d knew I’d be out for a minimum of 12/13/14 months.
“I think what tipped me over the edge was after that injury my best friend had passed away in Nevin Spence. My head, mentally, was all over the place. Mental health right now in rugby and in the general public is such a big thing right now. Looking back on that, I definitely went through something probably for five months where I couldn’t get out of this hole.
“It wasn’t really until my girlfriend at the time, who is my wife now, didn’t really give me an ultimatum but I remember it as clear as day. Being perfectly honest, it was a rough time in my life.
“I remember that week, I was just looking for an escape in life, to sleep even. I was drinking a lot. She had enough. She was telling me and giving me the hard talk that I needed.”
There is no correct or textbook methodology to deal with grief. Everyone tries to get through these incredibly difficult periods in their life in their own way. For McAllister, the familiarity with Northern Ireland, Ulster and provincial rugby were just too much to deal with.
He needed a fresh start.
This new beginning came in the form of ProD2 side Aurillac who he signed for at the end of the 2013/14 season.
“I changed from there,” McAllister continued.
“I still couldn’t escape the bubble of Ulster Rugby, the bubble of Northern Ireland, the bubble of…every province is so small within the grand scheme of things in world rugby that you turn a corner, there’s the same fella, you turn here in this shop and it’s the same question. I almost fell out of love with what I was doing in Northern Ireland, in Ulster.
“Jeremy Davidson was the coach at Aurillac in ProD2, he kind of said to me, ‘listen, there’s an opportunity for a year to play a bit of rugby and get out of the place’. My wife and I, my girlfriend at the time, we were getting married that summer and we kind of said, ‘you know what? We’re young enough’ and I kind of backed myself, I was 24, to get out of top-flight rugby and get back in it somehow after that.
“We decided to take the jump to go to France and leave all our friends and family behind and to be honest with you, it was probably the best thing I could have ever done. We still hold that year very fondly. Friendship-wise, culture-wise, the rugby is tough.”
That season in France played a crucial role in helping McAllister continue with his career. Despite being a step down professionally, it reignited his love for the sport and just four months into his time at France, David Humphreys who was involved with Premiership side Gloucester, bought McAllister out of his contract and brought him to the West Country.
Four seasons were spent at Kingsholm until the opportunity to come back to Ireland presented itself.
It helped that Connacht were long admirers of McAllister because there is little doubt how difficult it would have been for the 30-year-old to return to Ireland – a country where he found himself in some incredibly difficult circumstances the last time he lived there.
“I was having this conversation with my wife, it wasn’t a hard decision to make because obviously a club who wants you here and is trying hard to get ya, it’s obviously very pleasing for a player but at the same time, on the back of the season that Connacht just had, the conversations I had with Andy Friend and certain players that I knew here, we just found that it was an easy decision.
“I’m kind of glad because we made it very early on in the year, it took the pressure and stress out of trying to find a job. Because I’ve seen it too many times now, it’s very hard for rugby players to get contracts in top clubs at the moment. There’s a lot of great players in lower leagues who struggle to find those contracts, so, it was an easy decision and I was glad it was early.”
For McAllister, he says the “stars aligned” when describing the move to Connacht because the prop is now in a very different stage of his life to those days in Ulster. He’s now married, he has two young children and a wealth of rugby under his belt. What better place to raise a young family than the west of Ireland?
“Family-wise, it was a great decision because we had two small kids under three years old in England which we both had in England with no family, grandparents or anything like that around you, it’s very difficult for a young couple to concentrate on a marriage as well.
“We obviously knew coming down to Galway, my wife’s family are only up the road outside Belfast so that was definitely a positive.”
Now that McAllister is at a new stage of his life and career, he responds humbly to the question of what goals he has for the future. There’s no talk about Ireland or impressing Andy Farrell, he simply just wants to play rugby and enjoy his life.
Being told that you only had a 50% chance of playing rugby again after that horrific knee injury at Ulster puts things into perspective.
“I talked about that big injury. When the surgeon said to me that there was a 50% chance you’re not going to play rugby again and I’m back playing now for the last eight years after that for a few great clubs and a lot of rugby, I take that as a massive blessing.
“Now that I’ve started the season here really well, worked really hard in pre-season and managed to start the first four games, I felt I was building into my stride. On a personal level, starting to play better every week, the team were functioning well. And then, stuff like this in rugby happens where there is nothing I could have done to avoid what happened with my knee. It looked on TV that it could have been a lot worse so it was a kind of a weird scenario over the next few days celebrating that it was only a 12-week injury rather than a season-ending injury.”
“I really want to put my best foot forward, play as much as I can for this club, stay as long as I can at this club. I’d love to be here for four or five years and more. Age is just a number but I feel I do have a lot of rugby in me. It is a young squad, I feel like young squads need a bit of experience.
“There is Tom McCartney here as well who is in his 30s and there’s Robin Copeland. I think that adds value in terms of experiences of previous clubs, previous leagues and just ideas. I feel there’s definitely a lot left in me in terms of performances of playing a lot of rugby for Connacht and ideally, winning a lot of trophies too.”
McAllister’s story is a lesson in perspective and defiance. Not many can claim to come from the jungles of the Congo or to have survived some of the toughest battles that life can throw at you, both on and off the field. And his story is far from over. With Connacht hoping to reach new heights this season, the latest chapter promises to be a special one.