Casual off the pitch. Intense when it matters
John O'Brien discovers why Jamie Heaslip is regarded as an FIC - Future Irish Captain
EVEN in the unforgiving environment of the Irish rugby team, where sensitive souls tread dangerous ground, it seemed a line in the sand had been reached.
Jamie Heaslip should have been fair game for those whose task it is to lighten the mood at each available opportunity. He had twice aimed his knee in the direction of Richie McCaw's head and got himself sent off in the 15th minute against New Zealand in June, a moment of madness that ushered in a humiliating 38-point defeat. How could they let it go?
He expected the worst. Except, strangely, the worst never came. "There hasn't been a word," he explained at the squad's training base in Limerick last week. "Not really. Whatever slagging they wanted to give me, they gave me during the summer when we met up at camp. But it was gone after the first game."
Perhaps the collective memory remained too raw for the incident to be revisited. Perhaps too there was an unspoken sense of admiration, not for what Heaslip did which was indefensible, but for the intent he showed to front up to opponents who were frustrating them at every turn. Watch the video and notice how Cian Healy, one of Heaslip's closest friends, launches into McCaw when the play breaks up. Channelled properly, that intensity is exactly what the team requires.
For Heaslip, the biggest punishment came with the walk of shame to the dugout and a harrowing hour watching Ireland submerged under a blitz of New Zealand tries in his absence. Afterwards he was man enough to understand that there would be no hiding place. For the first time in his life he had let his team down and, although there was a context to his actions, that context meant nothing. He had to accept full responsibility and throw himself to the mercy of the court.
"I was the first one to speak. We obviously watched the game and when everyone came into the changing room afterwards, before even Deccie spoke, I stood up and said I'm better served on the pitch than off the pitch. Playing New Zealand is tough enough but with 14 men it's a little harder. Stuff along those lines. I said my piece to the guys and I think, the professionals that they all are, that was it. They kind of went right, fair enough."
He likes to think that the matter has been put to bed now. As contrite as he was, a part of him distrusted the circus that inevitably developed around him and the media feeding frenzy that ensued. When he attended his hearing in New Plymouth, he described the scene as being "like a murder enquiry." The New Zealand manager Graham Henry spoke gravely about the consequences it would have for his future. Heaslip would scoff at such sensationalist talk.
And being Jamie Heaslip he would find a way of extracting humour from a dark episode. Because his rather lenient five-week ban ended his tour, he suddenly found himself with an extended summer break. So he took himself off and spent a week chilling with his brother in London before heading to Portugal and Las Vegas with a bunch of friends. He had the time, he reasoned, so why not enjoy it?
That he would stubbornly refuse to be haunted by his summer transgression is firmly in keeping with everything we know about him. When he burst onto the scene with Leinster in 2006, we learned quickly that, for all his talent and ambition, the game didn't consume him. He is the player who happily stayed at home and watched on television when England came to Croke Park a year later and he wasn't involved. All his energy is stored and used up for the critical 80 minutes when the game is there to be won or lost.
He tells a story of the day Munster visited the new stadium earlier this month. From his apartment in Irishtown it would have been a short stroll to the ground but a managerial directive meant he had to meet up with the squad in Clonskeagh instead. The individualistic streak in him wondered at the sheer nuisance of taking such a roundabout way to go a few hundred yards. "I was looking forward to walking to the ground with the headphones on," he smiles.
The casual image Heaslip portrays is no false construct. It is how he is. "The image is the man," says former Leinster hooker, Bernard Jackman. "He's one of the most laid-back guys you'd meet. If he was at home and there was a Heineken Cup match on telly, I wouldn't be surprised if he switched over. He won't spend hours studying games but he's professional and does what he needs to do. He has a knack of being able to rise to any occasion."
When Jackman made his Leinster debut against the Ospreys in 2005, Heaslip was making just his third appearance for the province. Even before his arrival, though, Jackman was familiar with the No 8 by reputation. He was the forward who had played for Newbridge and Trinity who never got injured and seemed to score tries for fun every week. The guy who had helped Ireland reach the IRB under 21 World Cup final in 2004, garnering such a reputation that New Zealand singled him out for special attention.
What impressed Jackman most was Heaslip's durability. He played 80 minutes week in, week out, seemingly immune to the niggles that laid others low. Legend has it that during last year's Lions tour, not only was Heaslip one of a handful of players to have started all three Tests, but the only one never to have visited the physio's chair. For Jackman, five years of pristine health can't simply be dismissed as a stroke of luck.
"I've said this before. When an experienced trainer is looking at a horse he'll check for small flaws that might begin to show up a few years down the line. With Jamie there are no flaws. His core and his general balance are superb. When we did tests you'd have fellas who had great stamina but poor speed or the other way round. But he was consistently at a high level in every area. He was world class in every aspect."
To Heaslip the notion of burn-out is a foreign concept. That he plays and then immediately switches off has always been the core of his being. As he's risen through the grades, that imperative hasn't changed. He's subject, just like his international colleagues, to the restrictions of the IRFU's player welfare programme, but you sense he bears it as an inconvenience he must endure as much as anything else.
Point out that between province and country he played 28 games last season and he shrugs. Doesn't seem a lot when you think about it. "That doesn't bother me," he says. "Leinster have always looked after their players, making sure we get enough game time. Ireland are kind of looking over things now too. I don't think 28 games is asking that much really."
He knew the week would be tough and the build-up to South Africa next Saturday interminably long. Last night Edinburgh visited the RDS for an important Magners League game and international requirements meant he had to sit it out. He would be a frustrated observer again. Kicking his feet somewhere in the stand. "I get itchy feet when I don't play," he says. "I like playing. I don't like sitting around."
In Leo Cullen's absence he has captained Leinster this season and is what is known, in some quarters, as an FIC: future Irish captain. There was an irony when Les Kiss, Ireland's defensive coach, talked up his leadership qualities before the New Zealand test, but his red card changed nothing. Because Ireland has been blessed with natural leaders like Paul O'Connell and Brian
O'Driscoll, there has been no imperative on Heaslip to develop that side of his personality too soon. That will change soon, though, and it won't be a burden to him.
In ways he is comparable to O'Driscoll, not the most vocal presence in the squad, but one capable of inspiring simply through doing. Heaslip doesn't dismiss the comparison. "I'd say I am of the same mind as Briano who says he likes to lead by example," he says. "I have the same belief as that. We're lucky in Leinster and Ireland that there are a lot of other leaders on the team other than the captain."
What distinguishes Heaslip, still not 27, is the distinct lack of fear or inhibition he exudes. The savage hunger not just to be playing the best in the world, but to be beating them too. He followed an immense performance in the third Lions Test by suggesting that Ireland could take South Africa the following November. They duly did. Now they face them again in the new stadium, the World Cup looming in the distance. The competitive juices are flowing.
"It is some ground," he says excitedly. "Not a lot of noise escapes. The crowd are right on top of you and it's a pretty epic place. It's cool. I really enjoyed playing there. The noise is one thing. Even in the scrums it was hard to hear the ref, you know, crouch, touch, pause, engage. It's cool. I've got to say I was very impressed."
Nothing to do but count down the days now. After South Africa comes Samoa and then the big one against New Zealand. Heaslip will be surprised if the visitors don't make a meal of the McCaw incident during the build-up, but they won't ruffle his feathers. He will be too switched off, too relaxed, to be bothered by idle talk. They will have to wait until matchday. That is when he comes alive.