What counts is that Niall Saunders is happy now. It took quitting rugby at the age of 22 to make it so.
Saunders had a bright future as a potential Ireland scrum-half, playing for his beloved Harlequins. But the game made him feel trapped and miserable. So he retired in 2020.
Saunders had to leave the sport for several months in 2017 owing to ITP, a blood ailment he has had since he was two. He returned to the Harlequins squad in March 2020 and played Premiership and Champions Cup rugby.
So, when Quins announced Saunders’ retirement from rugby two summers ago, many assumed it was owing to his blood condition. That wasn’t it. In reality, Saunders was miserable and needed to leave the game.
“I had a two-year period where I didn’t enjoy rugby, but more the lifestyle that came with it,” says Saunders, who turned 24 last month.
“I just felt stuck. I felt confined as a person and desired a different life.”
Saunders’ misery bled into his other life. He’d yell at his family and friends for no reason He was selfish. He began to live for the weekend, when he could get drunk and forget about the pressures of his profession. He was stacking up enormous bills to forget it all.
“I spent €2,500 on a weekend in Barcelona with a friend. “I needed that kind of release,” he says.
Covid’s birth in 2020 gave the scrum-half a chance to flee.
Saunders’ contract with the Quins was up in two years. But after explaining his feelings to then-head coach Paul Gustard, the club was sympathetic.
Saunders’ contract expired, and he and his pals fled for seven months to Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. He was suddenly Niall Saunders, a young man on the road. Not rugby player Niall Saunders.
One of the most significant things he has done in his life. “I’m virtually speechless from joy…
“I was just happy.”
Saunders sat out for over two years after retiring, but recently resurfaced, playing for Tel Aviv Heat in the Rugby Europe Super Cup. He’s now signed with the Utah Warriors in MLR for 2022.
It’s not a return to the pro game. MLR contracts are only for six months, so Saunders can travel or work for the other six. The standard is plainly lower and the pressure is lesser. These are timid steps back into the sport for fun.
But let us start over. In Niall Saunders’ storey, every strand matters.
His father, Rob Saunders, played scrum-half for Ireland and captained them at the 1991 World Cup.
He began his rugby career at the age of 12 with Quins before joining the Exiles to represent Ireland at U18, U19, and U20 levels.
Niall would joke about his father’s 13 Ireland caps as a pro, but the fact that Rob was such a fantastic player created a little self-imposed pressure in his son’s head.
I felt obligated to follow Rob’s route, because he was playing for Ireland at the age of 18, 19, and 20. My family and friends recognised me as a rugby player.”
Saunders had ITP from the start. His antibodies, which normally combat viruses in the body, mistakenly assault his blood platelets. Saunders had 1,000 platelets per cubic millimetre of blood at times, compared to the usual of 150,000-400,000.
“I clot. “If I cut, I bleed profusely, and if I am hit, I bruise because I lack clotting factors,” Saunders explains. “I was almost a haemophiliac.”
Doctors initially predicted he’d outgrow it in two years. They told him he’d grow out of it during adolescence, but he didn’t.
Saunders refused to let his illness stop him from pursuing his rugby goal, seeing physicians and trying various treatments. Despite his injury, he continued to progress and nearly signed Ulster after representing Ireland U19s.
His mother, Jennifer, is from Belfast, and his father, Niall, grew up there after being born in Nottingham. He met Ruan Pienaar, spoke with Les Kiss, and was escorted to a game at Kingspan Stadium.
Ulster “pushed the boat out” with a decent contract offer and a four- or five-year road for Saunders into the senior Ireland team. But Saunders’ doctors were back in England, and he wanted to play for Quins. He made a “split decision” to stay.
In 2016, Saunders played for Ireland U20s, who reached the World Championship final coach Nigel Carolan. Despite being only 18 at the time, the talented scrum-half impressed.
“It was definitely my most joyful experience playing rugby, just because there were no negative people there,” Saunders recalls warmly.
The same summer, he signed a two-year contract with Quins and the sky was the limit. Because of his blood issue, Saunders missed over a year of action after the U20s Championship. In training, he couldn’t even touch a tackle bag for extended periods.
Saunders now sees that moment as practically the end.
“Not playing for a while tainted my love of rugby,” Saunders admits. “I started off doing shuttles, then going to the gym, getting fit for nothing.
His body was off. He recalls little hamstring pain and bruises on the back of his leg. Ice baths were his norm.
It was impacting Saunders mentally as well as physically. So he urged Quins to discontinue his contract at the conclusion of 2016/17.
“I had to,” Saunders admits. “I was psychologically and physically weary.
The World Cup gave me a lot of confidence, but then it was right into an unenjoyable struggle.
Saunders spent three months in Southeast Asia with pals, clearing his thoughts and forgetting about rugby. He returned resolved to conquer his blood problem once and for all.
It was a difficult time of frequent journeys to London to see doctors (he has seen 18 specialists in his life) and trying various drugs. The ninth medication worked.
A expert who figured it out suggested Saunders try a medicine called Romiplostim, which he says is generally used to treat cancer patients. Initially, it failed.
“Everything was the lowest point because I felt it was over,” Saunders adds. “I had to suffer so many setbacks. I only wanted to play rugby, nothing else.
“We tried it again at a lower dose and it worked.”
Saunders’ blood platelet count returned to normal, and Quins facilitated a dual-registration arrangement with Championship side Esher. He debuted for Quins in the Anglo-Welsh Cup in November 2017 and played six times for the senior team in 2018/19.
Saunders didn’t feel good about making his Champions Cup debut in 2019 after trying so hard to keep the dream alive. He appreciated having a good pass, a decent kick, being fit, swift, and strong. But he grew tired of rugby being his life.
“Getting up for training, sleeping because you’re exhausted, doing two hours of homework on how training went, what the opponent’s weaknesses are… that just takes over.
“In the Premier League, there are a lot of people expecting a lot from you, so you owe it to them to do all your study. That adds to your worry and strain.
“I was depressed after training. I wasn’t really expressing my discontent, I was burying it. I didn’t want people to believe I was sad because I wasn’t picked or playing.
“Everything was just easier for me to deal with it alone, but it was stupid. The worst thing I did was bottle it.
Aspects of my life were affected. I was often upset and took it out on my family. I’d be miserable and self-centered. I’d make modest decisions only for me. reason.” Surprisingly rugby-crazed. He never shied away from hard effort, says Saunders. He would be the last on the training ground, but it had become a job rather than a joy. He was just going through the motions and knew it was time.
So, in 2020, he did.
“I felt elated. Until I stopped playing, I didn’t understand what others meant when they said they felt lighter. It seemed like I had a new lease on life and a new identity.
“I could do things I couldn’t do in rugby because I had to train the next day.”
He went on holiday and didn’t see a rugby match for years. Saunders admits to having doubts.
A rugby player had put all his eggs in one basket, therefore it was emotional. I’m a competitive person and it’s difficult for me to see my U20s team players play for Ireland.
“Deep down, I know I could have played for Ireland if I had stayed with it. Whoever hears it, I believe it. I know I would have done it.”
Some people couldn’t comprehend how he could leave behind a rugby career that appeared like a dream.
‘You’re a f*cking p*ssy.’ I’d gladly play if I had half your talent.” Il m’a reproché de squander When you see a message like that, you know they don’t know their stuff.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, but it has made me a happier person.”
Seth Saunders had planned to fly to Hong Kong to teach English and play social rugby after returning from his travels, but the pandemic disrupted his plans.
His father informed him of the MLR and connected him with USA 7s coach Mike Friday to discuss rugby in America.
“My first instinct was that it sounded like returning to professional rugby, which I despised. “I was afraid of falling back into that trap,” Saunders admits.
But he liked the idea of a six-month cycle and a more casual approach to rugby.
I’d like to return to a level where rugby doesn’t dictate my life and I’m not constantly under pressure.
Utah Warriors have recruited former Leinster underage out-half and St Mary’s RFC member Mick Saunders.
Before leaving for America, Saunders accepted a short-term offer from Tel Aviva Heat to help establish professional rugby to Israel. Coach Demetri Catrakilis is a former Harlequins player, as is Saunders’ close friend Gabriel Ibitoye.
Saunders joined them for three games last month, his first rugby since March 2020’s Premiership match against Bristol.
The time with Tel Aviv “truly revived my love for the game,” Saunders recalls. “I had no idea that was the first professional game ever played in Israel, which is really remarkable to be a part of. In the beginning, I was nervous about my fitness, passing and kicking abilities.
A Premiership club recently expressed interest in Saunders, but he declined. He just wants to have fun in Utah and play rugby to do so.
His health is excellent. His blood problem improved when he stopped playing, and he is no longer on medicine, indicating he is in remission. He knows which prescription to take if things worsen again, and his doctor is eager for him to return.
So Saunders leaves for America, backed by his family’s love and support.
“I played rugby to make my family proud,” Saunders explains. “It was difficult to abandon the path that had been laid out for me and which I had enjoyed walking.
“But my family supported my decision.
“Life is more than rugby — it’s a sport. It’s only worth what you put into it.” O’Gara for the 2022 season. His siblings and mother always cheered him on.