Wally Wonka's golden ticket
November 30, 2012
"Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." - Forrest Gump
It was one minute past three on August 27, 2011, and Ireland were playing England in front of a packed Aviva Stadium. David Wallace - Munster hero, Test-capped British & Irish Lion and in the form of his life - received a ball from Paddy Wallace on the right flank just outside the opposition 22 and was smashed into touch by human wrecking ball Manu Tuilagi.
It was the tackle that ruled David Wallace out of the World Cup and proved to be the one that ended his career - he had torn the cruciate and medial ligaments in his left knee. The anguish and pain was clear for all to see with him pounding the ground while his anxious namesake Paddy peered down at him.
He played three games for Munster in the 2011-12 season attempting to re-find his form, but it proved to be in vain.
But it was not meant to be that way. Heading into the World Cup he was playing at the top of his game, according to Irish boss Declan Kidney, and looked nailed on to start in the back-row alongside Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip. And while two thirds of the three ran out in New Zealand, Wallace watched from his sofa back in Limerick.
"It wasn't something that took a long time to come to realisation with," Wallace told ESPN. "It was instantaneous. When the injury happened, I knew what was going on and knew what the implications were.
"It was obviously upsetting to not go to a World Cup and there was that fear that it could end your career - though I wasn't accepting that at the time. It was very disappointing as I put in so much hard work and I'd turned a corner in many respects with my power.
"I had issues with my back for a couple of years and stayed away from the power weights and that influenced my game a little bit. I felt a little bit lighter and wasn't as powerful so I did some sledge work with Paul O'Connell that summer and that made a massive difference to how I felt with my power, my speed and my fitness.
"But it wasn't to be. Beyond the original realisation that I wasn't going to the World Cup, there were the fears of having to retire. And yeah there was a lot to swallow but I gave myself 24 hours of feeling sorry for myself and then I set my goals for getting back fit and into as good as condition as possible.
"But after three, four months when I started running and put my weight on it, it got angry. It didn't like it and the recovery started going backwards. And by the time it came to my first games back I knew it was only going in one direction. Everyone thought it was going to be my ankles that would give up but they're still screwed on strong thank God."
So it was with some trepidation but complete acceptance that one of Ireland's most successful players opted to hang up his boots.
However, he can look back on an impressive career. Wallace, one of four rugby playing brothers, has a mantelpiece laden with rugby bounty. And he is quick to pay tribute to his older siblings saying that they "set the groundwork for me in terms of showing what to do and giving me a blueprint to work off and knowing what it takes to reach the top."
And he did reach the summit of Irish rugby. He was part of a golden Irish generation and the passionate Munster support will bracket Wallace with the household names of Ronan O'Gara, Anthony Foley and Alan Quinlan when reflecting on a stage in their eclectic rugby history that saw them scoop two Heineken Cups in three years and in the process, bury the heartache from their European final losses in 2000 and 2002 as Wallace recalls.
"The crowning glory has to be the European titles, but having said that, even though we lost the two finals, they were very special. In 1999/2000 that was where everything kicked off all of a sudden. We suddenly had a full-time fitness coach for the first time and we had a group of guys who were just coming into maturity and were mixed with a group with a lot of experience - with Woody [Ireland hooker Keith Wood] coming back.
"It was a great season to be part of because nothing was expected of us and the whole thing just grew bigger and bigger. It gripped the whole province really and a lot of the country too.
"But after that, when we finally won it against Biarritz in 2006, I remember going into the stadium and had the overwhelming feeling that, for our fans' sake, we could not come back without the trophy. They'd supported us through thick and thin and had been everywhere and had spent fortunes on us travelling around and we sensed that we owed them. It was almost a sense of relief and in many ways, the victory over Toulouse a couple of years after was one that we could enjoy a bit more. It was sheer joy while the previous one was more a weight off our shoulders."
On the Test stage, the 2009 Grand Slam stands above everything Ireland have achieved since their previous one in 1948 and Wallace played an integral part in that side. But after reaching the top, there is only one way forward in sport and that, inevitably is down.
The post-rugby outlook is sometimes hard for some to adjust to, but Wallace seems to be embracing the opportunity. While some opt to move into finance, coaching or punditry, Wallace has taken a different route in a very literal manifestation of the Forrest Gump quotation.
Behind the counter in his new shop © David Wallace
After chewing the toffee, he has opted to start up a sweet shop - part of the Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe franchise - situated in Limerick and it is doing a roaring trade. Prior to Ireland XV's match with Fiji a few weekends ago, you would have seen the likes of Tommy Bowe, Cian Healy, Peter O'Mahony and Heaslip behind the counter. While you could be forgiven thinking that Declan Kidney must have balked at the sight of his chiselled athletes walking into training grasping packets of sweets, it's a suggestion that Wallace laughs off and instead points towards their powerful win over Fiji as proof that the "feel good factor" of the sweets paid off.
They clearly loved the originality of Wallace's venture - dubbed by Munster fullback Felix Jones 'Wally's Wonka's', coupled with the enjoyment of the sweets themselves, but the confectionery business is still an unusual option for one of Ireland's best ever players to turn to post-rugby.
"I never really thought of it like that," Wallace said. "But the opportunity came along and I looked at in a business sense and thought 'would I be interested it?' I found the whole concept very charming in the way the shop was laid out and run and the range they had.
"For me, it looked like a good business idea. And now that I'm spending time there and being in the shop on a daily basis, I find it a bit of fun to see people coming in and customers are generally in good form and like taking trips down memory lane with a bit of nostalgia. It's a nice shop to be involved in and I hope to be stepping into the Irish franchise in due course and that will hopefully give me a bit more scope over the way things are done."
From the turf of the Aviva Stadium to the wooden-panelled interior of a sweet shop in Limerick - it has been a truly remarkable 15 months for Wallace. Whether he stays in the confectionery business long-term or not remains to be seen, but as he says in his own words - "It's exciting times".
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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