Wednesday 24 May 2017

Comment: Why the quite remarkable Jamie Heaslip is worth every single cent of new deal

Durability of Ireland's No 8 benefits both sides as he eyes final pay-day from IRFU

Jamie Heaslip of Ireland is tackled by Tommaso Benvenuti of Italy
Jamie Heaslip of Ireland is tackled by Tommaso Benvenuti of Italy
Jamie Heaslip. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

This time around, there was no drawn-out saga.

Toulon dangled a house upon the Cote d'Azur before him in 2014, Montpellier threw open their facilities to the eager visitor and, amongst others, Racing 92 and Grenoble had also sniffed out the potentially itchy-footed back-rower.

Burned by the prospect of Ireland's leading stars playing themselves off in negotiations between the IRFU and deep French pockets, there seems to have been much less enthusiasm in France during this round of negotiations.

Instead, Heaslip's cv was circulated amongst French clubs but, beyond that, there seems to have been much less enthusiasm to engage in a fruitless round of opaque auctioneering.

When Heaslip flatly refused to discuss his contract status ahead of the Six Nations trip to Rome last week, the reasoning was much more anodyne than might have been imagined in previous times. For the deal had already been concluded.

Essentially, it means that Heaslip will be retained by the IRFU until the last ball is kicked at the 2019 RWC in Japan; the 33-year-old wondered 12 months ago would he even make it that far but his durability means that his presence there is almost a given.

What happens next remains unclear; Gordon D'Arcy signed a short-term deal before the last competition with the IRFU but, when he failed to make the cut, he had not been retained by Leinster and drifted slowly into retirement.

Heaslip's trajectory may more closely align itself with that of Paul O'Connell's endgame, if not exactly following a similar path.

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Jamie Heaslip and Paul O'Connell in action for Ireland. The Leinster number 8 expects big hype when O'Connell lines up for Toulon against the Irish province in the pool stages of next season's Champions Cup

O'Connell decided before the last World Cup that he wanted to be released early from his contract to pursue a career in Toulon; injury would scupper that dream even though the IRFU granted him his wish of an early release.

It seems they will not allow themselves to be put in a similar position again. Heaslip will, therefore, have two options open to him and they will fully engage his consistent desire to justifiably ensure that his personal interests are central.

He can either finish his career with Leinster in the summer of 2020, following the 2019 World Cup, even beyond should he so wish, though he will be 36 by then.

Or, he could finally pursue the options abroad that he has thus far resiled from since making his Ireland debut in 2006 and take up what may still be eager interest from overseas, whether France or even Japan.

His remarkable playing longevity, which has ensured that his employers have always achieved worthy value for their investment, may yet allow him the deserved luxury of topping up his rugby-playing pension before he begins what he calls "the afterlife".

For now, his current life has plenty of road left, as evidenced by yet another storming individual display as captain of the side that dismantled Italy in Rome last weekend.

Much of the credit, he has readily acknowledged, is hewn from the unique status of his position within a widely-admired system whereby his work-load is managed by his employers, rather than exploited by it.

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Ireland's Johnny Sexton

The experiences of Jonathan Sexton in Racing 92, and the subsequent toll taken on his body by constant travelling between France and Ireland for international duties, has served as a warning sign to other potential exiles.

Yet Heaslip's remarkable durability since making his Irish debut in 2005 has not merely been down to being cosseted by the Union here or, indeed, any sense that luck has played its part, although obviously it helps.

His own commitment to ensuring his physical and mental well-being astonishes those close to him, whether in terms of nutrition or his willingness to submit his self-confessed Wolverine blood to medical extremes.

He has invested time in a hyperbaric chamber, a claustrophobic, three metres by one metre enclosed space which allows users to breathe pure oxygen at higher than atmospheric pressures.

He did so for 90 minutes, three times a week, earlier this summer but does so only once during the playing season; prevention, for him, has always been preferable to being forced to find a cure.

When he was injured in 2015, Leinster's chief rehab coach Diarmuid Brennan's attempts to recover his patient's medical history were complicated by a simple but glaring omission; Heaslip had not been sidelined since 2010 so the file containing his previous hospital scan was wafer-thin.

He rarely misses a training session which stands in stark contrast to the often unfair, and at times cruel, public perception that paints him as some sort of dilettante who cares more for his interests outside rugby than those within it.

As usual, he donned his headphones in the build-up and approached the coin toss in Rome with his flip-flops on; three years ago he was endlessly trolled on Twitter for such seeming disdain for nicety; now, nobody bats an eyelid.

Appreciation, it would seem, at last, for what he is rather than what people want him to be.

The public's indifference has always been an illogical stance but one which has been fuelled by his doggedly persistent approach to his profession. When he is on rugby duty, he is utterly immersed in it. When he is not, he completely switches off.

This mental balance, as well as his physical prowess, has contributed to his Olympian endurance in such a brutal sport. His core is superb, his regular testing revealing equal measures of outstanding numbers in terms of both stamina and speed.

He has started 36 of Ireland's last 41 internationals. Last season, an extraordinarily brutal one bookended by a World Cup campaign and a three-Test tour to South Africa, he played all but one of the 17 Tests.

His body, for now, is his business.

But, from start-ups to restaurants to bars, Heaslip has always been minded to think of his future financial well-being which may be as uncertain as the present, where career-ending injury can strike at any moment; two of his fellow 2005 debutants, Stephen Ferris and Luke Fitzgerald, had quit before they reached 30.

His is an earnest private belief and not merely one for public consumption, or assumption. Both he and the Irish rugby public appreciate just how valuable it has been for him to achieve that sense of well-being without having to leave the country.

He has been worth every cent. And, should he decide to leave for one final swansong, few would begrudge him the opportunity.

Jamie Heaslip factfile

Born:  December 15, 1983

Height: 1.93m

Weight: 110kg

Birthplace: Israel

Made his Ireland debut in the 61-17 win over the Pacific Islands in November 2006, the 1,000th player to do so.

Has won 93 caps for Ireland, scoring 13 tries and has started 36 of Ireland's last 41 Test matches and 19 of last 20.

Made Leinster against the Ospreys in March 2005 and has since made 227 appearances for Leinster scoring 38 tries.

A two time tourist with the Lions (2009 and 2013 - 5 Test appearances).

Won a Grand Slam (2009) and two Six Nations Championship titles (2014, 2015) with Ireland and three Heineken Cups, an Amlin Cup and two Pro12 league titles with Leinster.

Started all Ireland's games in both World Cup 2011 and 2015, skippering the team against Romania and then Argentina in the quarter-final.

Shortlisted for the World Rugby Player of the Year Award in 2009 and 2016 and also collected the World Rugby Try of the Year award in 2016.

Irish Independent

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