Obsessives don't have a monopoly on success
Heaslip proof that easy-going characters can join tortured perfectionists at top of pile
Published 12/03/2014 | 02:30
Des Smyth cracked a smile at Government Buildings in Dublin last Thursday, when he pointed out that "sport is 99pc failure anyway". The 61-year-old was speaking at the Ryder Cup vice-captaincy announcement alongside captain Paul McGinley and fellow vice-captain Sam Torrance.
It was a throwaway remark, part of a wider point about his intent to appreciate the glorious privilege of another Ryder Cup experience. Golf is certainly 99pc failure – the odds are perhaps less brutal in other disciplines, but Smyth's over-riding point is sound.
Sport throws up an inordinate number of disappointments and setbacks; there are hurdles and failings aplenty, with ample time for reflection. The trick, as wily old Des knows, is to see the bigger picture.
I think Jamie Heaslip sees it. Recently, I sat down for an interview with him. It was the Tuesday after Ireland's defeat at Twickenham and I anticipated a glum interviewee.
He was, however, the polar opposite. I heard him laughing in the next room before I saw him. We chatted about 'House of Cards', sports websites and the future of radio. On mic, as we parsed through the wreckage of the England game, he stopped apologetically, to say: "Look, I'm always the optimist with this stuff."
"What's not to enjoy?" he said when I brought up his demeanour. "I play rugby for a living! That was my 63rd cap and it felt like my first. It's very hard to describe to people at times.
"When you find a job that you love... man, I'd be doing this on a Sunday for free if I wasn't getting paid, you know. There are perks and pluses and minuses, of course, but the positives far outweigh the negatives. My fear in life is that, after rugby, I won't find a job like this."
A long-standing issue with Heaslip, is that many fans equate his general chirpiness with not caring all that much about winning or losing.
But, of course, it's patently clear he cares a lot. It's clear he prepares fanatically. His work rate and stats are top of the class, which doesn't just happen by coincidence. He can compartmentalise, he said.
And yet we tend, myself included, to be far more fascinated with the 'tortured genius' in Irish sport. We fetishise the complex, self-berating, insatiable, perfectionist. We celebrate the Johnny Sexton-Ronan O'Gara-Roy Keane approach as the touchstone for all aspiring sportspeople.
But, having read his book, Sexton's approach struck me as draining at best and downright miserable at worst.
Somewhere in his thirties, realising how quickly time was passing, O'Gara made a concerted point of stressing less and enjoying more; Keane bristled his way through the most successful captaincy in Manchester United history. Is that to say they are wrong or misguided? Or course not. They are utterly sensational achievers. And clearly perfectionism and obsession have their upsides.
But it is worth noting that there are other routes to achievement. Those who carry the world on their shoulders don't have a monopoly on success. There is something equally great about a guy who possesses all the perspective to match his three Heineken Cups, winning Lions series and Grand Slam.