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Vincent Hogan: Heaslip uncovered

Jamie Heaslip isn't happy among the customers. He feels out of sync, clumsy. Saturday was his first time missing a game through injury since he was 17. Ten years. Leinster put him high in the RDS stand, filming set-pieces and the cold burrowed into him with pewter knuckles.

"Absolutely hated it," he sighs.

He is sitting in a room in Naas clubhouse now, puffs of breath rising from his words like shots of steam. The ankle is raised and safely entombed in a protective casing. He could give a running seminar on its stubborn progress, but that would be just a scenic route to the bottom line.

It is Tuesday morning and he knows he won't be doing the Friday night shift in Paris. Needs more time.

Through most media eyes, Heaslip's story is a blizzard of simplification. Almost an assembly of clichés. People talk about the tongue stud, the canary yellow boots, the 'showboating' try celebrations and you could almost believe that they were profiling trouble.

He is Irish rugby's 'free spirit'. Team-mates gasp at his deportment in a big-day dressing-room where, whilst all around, little, manic rituals abound, Heaslip tends to sashay about as if in smoking jacket and slippers. He is, they enviously observe, tough as burlap. And about as hard to tear.

The running joke for years in Leinster was he wouldn't recognise a physio's table if he saw one. Jamie just trained, played, showered and went back to his music. The lust for stereotype could have extended to a short novel.

So, how on earth did he become one of the best No 8s on the planet?

You can YouTube Sebastien Chabal's ferocious tackle on him in the first minute of last October's RDS clash with Racing Metro and, even in slow motion, it carries a homicidal intensity. In the Sky commentary box, Frankie Sheahan chuckles: "Oh good God, I haven't seen such a hit in a while."


What isn't mentioned is what happens immediately after. On hitting the deck, Heaslip turns instantly and delivers the ball back to his team, precise as a surgeon handling an organ for transplant.

In the wash of superlatives for Chabal, no-one seems to notice that Leinster still hold possession.

You remind Heaslip of the moment and he is impassive. "You know," he says "especially with Chabal, a lot of things look better than they really are (laughing). Know what I mean? He can stand out on the wing if that's what he wants to do."

Already he has an early morning boxing session in the tank. His maternal grandfather, James Whelan, was a decent pugilist and, when Jamie got his "extended holiday" last summer (after that red card in New Zealand), he threw himself into 10 days of intensive work with masseur, Mike Thompson, a former karate pro.

The incident with Richie McCaw left him chastened and bemused. Chastened because he knew he'd left his team "in the lurch" on a day they could least afford it. Bemused because of the frenzy with which the New Zealand media flapped around the story.

Before Declan Kidney even cleared his throat in the half-time dressing-room, Heaslip was on his feet, apologising to the team.

The following day, he jokingly likened the media vibe at his disciplinary hearing to something more appropriate to "a murder trial." His comment was taken up literally. "I was just thinking 'Ah lads, have ye not got something better to do?'" he recalls.

"There were cameras everywhere and I thought it was a bit mad."

When McCaw and the All Blacks pitched up in Dublin for the subsequent November International, Heaslip could sense questions coming at him from a convenient angle. Some wondered aloud if the business of New Plymouth might carry over.

"There was almost this idea of my picture being up on the New Zealand dressing-room wall with a big X drawn through it," he says, laughing. "I was a bit wary of interviews going into that game. I was being asked would it 'affect things' and I just said no.

"I mean I've got into fisticuffs with lads on pitches before. I remember playing against Glasgow and Kelly Brown and myself ended up pucking the heads off one another. We both got binned and we were mouthing at each other coming off the pitch.

"Afterwards, we're looking at each other going 'We're two right f*****g idiots, aren't we?' After last year's Six Nations game against Scotland, he was sitting beside me at the dinner and we had a great oul chat. Look, you do stupid stuff. But you don't carry it home with you."

As it happens, he sat with McCaw and the New Zealand captain's parents at the post-match dinner in November and they enjoyed a civil evening.

Some days later, he was at an 'Area 22' gig in Dublin when his attention was drawn to a photograph from the game. He had just cleaned McCaw out of a ruck and was, as he puts it, "kind of laughing." So Jamie, someone asked, what were you saying to Richie?

"When I saw the picture, I could remember the moment," he smiles. "It was after a ruck and I'd just blown him over. And I realised someone could so easily put a spin on it or over-analyse what was going on.

"And that's basically what I'm saying. Something funny along the lines of, 'Imagine what they're going to write about this ... ', within a second, you're getting on with the next job. He's a great player, a master of the black arts.

"But there certainly wasn't any bad blood between us."

Heaslip's not inclined towards politesse or faux deference and, high as his star now rises, he still bristles at the memory of losing an U-21 World Cup final to New Zealand in '04. He was a student at the time and recalls seeing some of those players graduate as fully-fledged All Blacks the following November.

He was, he says, sitting "in the Pav in Trinity after a game with a beer and a chicken curry" watching the likes of Jerome Kaino and Luke McAlllister stride into the big time.

His decision to complete a degree in Medical Mechanical Engineering at DCU prior to committing full-time to a life in rugby again maybe hints at an innate pragmatism slightly out of kilter with the popular caricature.

Heaslip's durable physique is something inherited from his Brigadier General father, Dick, and shared with two significantly older brothers, Richard and Graham. Both played rugby at a high level and, during the '09 Lions tour to South Africa, Heaslip drew loud guffaws from Warren Gatland with his recall of a shared car journey the Kiwi had long forgotten.

Under Gatland's Connacht watch, Graham was the province's captain and, with Dick Heaslip now based in Zagreb, the occasional surrogate father to young Jamie.

"I was telling Gatty about sitting between him and Graham coming away from a game one day and he suddenly remembered it. Apparently, I wrecked his head with 20 questions and he was sitting there, thinking 'Who's this little s**t bag?'"

That Lions trip gave Heaslip a window into a new world.

Though he never missed a Heineken Cup game under Michael Cheika and had, by then, established himself as an international regular on a Grand Slam winning side, Heaslip travelled to the High Veldt feeling a little anxious.

Ian McGeechan had a policy of players changing room-mates in every new town and Jamie found himself making small-talk with Phil Vickery. "I was s******g myself," he chuckles.

"Phil Vickery man. He's older than me, been around the block, a veteran of the game. And he's a prop as well, they're a different breed. I'm kind of going 'f**k, I don't know about this.' Then I get into the room with him and it turns out he's a great guy."

He roomed too with Adam Jones, Lee Byrne, Gethin Jenkins and a direct opponent for the No 8 shirt (which Heaslip would wear in all three Tests), Andy Powell. The Welsh back-row, who subsequently shot to infamy for some late night high jinks in a golf cart on the M4, proved a revelation.

"He amazed me," recalls Heaslip. "We were rooming with each other the week of the first Test, both going for the same spot and both knowing it. But he was the first guy to come up to me when the team was announced and he was unbelievable for the whole week.

"The guy has a heart of gold. Just a great, great guy. That week, I wouldn't have held it against him if he was a bit cold. He must have been shattered.

"The night the team was announced, those not in the match squad all went out on the town. So, we're having dinner and they're getting stuck into the wine because they're going out. And I remember thinking 'f**k, he's going to be locked when he comes in ... '

"But when they came back, he just went and slept in one of the other rooms. When I asked him what had happened, he was just 'no man, you've a big game coming. You need your sleep, I'm not taking a chance of waking you.

"He did a lot of little things as well. I just thought that was class by him."

In his autobiography, 'Lion Man', McGeechan would describe Heaslip's performance in the third Test as "probably the best game he had played in his life." It spoke of a calm, almost easy ferocity that has, since, become his signature.


Heaslip admits: "I can't see the benefit of getting wound up in a changing-room. Wasted energy, if you ask me. Say your piece, great. But I always think there's no point getting really, really angry.

"Relaxin' and buzzin' and getting a nice kind of -- yeah -- happy-go-lucky, goin' out on the town kind of feeling, you know really looking forward to it ... that's the kind of vibe I go for.

"I always write out a list of things I want to do in a game, carries or whatever. But the last thing I write is always 'enjoy it all'."

Like Jonny Sexton, he has yet to commit to a new IRFU contract and doesn't discount the possibility of an eventual move abroad. At times, the over-bearing negativity in the country makes him think a couple of seasons in France or even somewhere further afield might not be the worst proposition in the world. Yet, no sooner does the thought start than he's assailed by goosebumps at the possibilities brewing for Leinster.

"The thing about my generation is it's nothing to my friends to go travelling for a year," explains Heaslip. "To say 'sod it, I'm off to Australia!' The way the country is now, lots of my friends have done it. So that's not an issue for me.

"It's very negative in this country right now. Day in, day out. You just feel people are talking us into a ditch. So it would be no big deal for me to go abroad. That said, I really want to stay and play with Leinster because there's something special brewing.

"It's an organisation that's doing the right things, not just for now, but going forward as well. I keep likening it to the NFL in America where someone puts their own brand on a franchise. Not just the players, but the staff, the people in the office. The whole operation has a distinct personality.

"So, my preference would certainly be to stay. But who knows? You know, these things sometimes just don't work out."

On Tuesday, he met two long-time friends -- Ryan Cunningham and Stephen McGrath -- for lunch in Naas. At one point, the conversation turned to September, the World Cup and their hopes of travelling to New Zealand. And Heaslip pointedly changed the subject.

He didn't make it to France in '07 and, though himself and a brother intend sending their parents Down Under for this one, he's not comfortable talking about something nine months away.

Being omitted from Eddie O'Sullivan's squad four years back, he describes flatly, as "the lowest point of my professional career, big time." He'd been rooming with Gavin Duffy and they both knew they were borderline.

So, they came back from the warm-up defeat in Scotland, settled into their Killiney base and waited for white smoke. Heaslip was on his own in the room when O'Sullivan knocked.

"He gave me his reasons and I kind of gave him my thoughts," recalls Heaslip. "And that was it. No point arguing. I didn't agree with what he said, but there was no shouting match. I just told him what I thought pretty matter-of-factly.

"He left and I literally packed my bags and was out of the hotel in about five minutes. I didn't want to see anyone. I hopped in the car and didn't even go back to my apartment. I just went straight to Naas and rang my mates. 'Get to hell down to the pub!' It was a Sunday.

"I was in Lawlors by about 11.30, then quickly up to Kavanaghs. On the way down, I'd texted Quinny (Alan Quinlan) and (Stephen) Ferris, because they were the two guys I thought would be taking my spot. Just 'Look, I'm not in, I think you are. Best of luck.' They both got back.

"Darce (Gordon D'Arcy) and Mal (Malcolm O'Kelly) had been really good to me in camp and they both rang. I rang Michael Cheika, told him I wasn't going and he went off on a little rant for me. And that was it.

"By that time, I was in the boozer in Naas and turned the phone off."

People said to him afterwards that "in hindsight" maybe it was best he missed the tournament and he almost jumped down their throats. "F**k that. I would have been out there in a heartbeat!"

So, the road to the next World Cup essentially starts in Rome on February 5 now and Heaslip's not looking any further. The Italians, he knows, will offer a belligerent opening challenge. "You know, we ended the November series well, but started badly," he says. "But we found a way we want to play. We found what works for us, for the squad.

"In the Six Nations, we won't have that luxury of time to find our feet. You've got to be on fire the week of the first game. You've got to be ready to go. And Italy is a great game to open with because they're going to be physical, they're going to demand that we earn the right to play.

"To do that, you have to be very physical. They've a very claustrophobic defence. They make you think."

And personal ambitions for a man trumpeted as a possible future Irish captain? "Win everything," he says without a hint of a smile. "I never make any bones about that. In 2011, there are potentially four trophies I can have at the end of the year.

"Why not want them all?"

Irish Independent