Healy itching to be turned loose
As Cian Healy's career unfolds, May 1, 2010 could well be flagged as a turning point.
On that clammy evening in the Stade Municipal in Toulouse, the young Leinster loose-head was presented with a test of such physical and psychological enormity that it automatically arrived with the "making or breaking" moniker attached.
The then 22-year-old was turned inside out by Toulouse tight-head Benoit Lecouls, and with Daan Human performing similar acts of savagery on Stan Wright on the far side, Leinster's primary set-piece platform was in disarray from the off, handing the impetus to the home team and preventing Michael Cheika's men from establishing any sort of a foothold.
Urgent action was needed, and it was Healy's number that went up on the sideline with less than half an hour gone.
Premature substitutions are the equivalent of women being spotted bleary-eyed and broken-heeled, tottering down a main road in a mini-skirt on Sunday morning -- rugby's walk of shame.
With the press box situated directly behind the Leinster dugout, Healy's disappointment and frustration were all too apparent.
Slumping onto his seat, he took the tracksuit handed to him by a member of the Leinster back-room team and draped it over his head, which was then buried into his chest.
Crippled by their scrum impotence and bedevilled by injury, Leinster were unable to pull off a shock result despite an incredibly courageous and character-driven performance.
What is forgotten now is that Healy got back on in the second half after Wright was taken off, and threw himself into the fray with furious commitment.
What is also forgotten is that after CJ van der Linde (who had replaced Healy in the first half) proved ineffectual, yet again, and was removed towards the end, Healy and the then unheralded Mike Ross were rock solid for the last couple of scrums -- a taste of what was to come this season.
That second-half cameo from Healy was an extremely significant event in his progression.
True, it did not change the result, but at least the youngster could leave Toulouse knowing he had made a positive contribution rather than just being able to recall the ignominy of the shepherd's crook.
Healy's response to that day has been overwhelmingly impressive. He has played 30 matches since -- 19 for Leinster, 11 for Ireland -- and has grown in impact and maturity to the point where he is now untouchable on the loose-head side of the Irish scrum and capable of handling the best tight-head scrummagers in the game (see panel).
The self-styled 'Church' has a serene obliviousness to the increasing hype that surrounds him and with a healthy no-fear attitude, married to his ever-improving tight game and dynamic loose play, Healy looks set for a long and productive innings.
Malcolm O'Kelly certainly thinks so. Second-row is an uncomfortable place to scrummage and, consequently, locks have a vested interest in the abilities of their props.
O'Kelly was on Leinster's books when Healy came through at the province and though he customarily scrummaged behind the tight-head, the IRUPA Hall of Famer never had any doubts about Healy's worth and capacity to bounce back from his Toulouse test last year.
"Cian's done really well," said O'Kelly. "That was tough last year, the scrum was the major difference in that semi-final. Toulouse have a massive scrum and put us under fierce pressure, winning a few penalties and keeping us on the back foot.
"Since then, it's something Leinster have worked really hard on, bringing in a scrum coach (Greg Feek) and developing Mike Ross, who has been crucial this season.
"Cian's scrummaging has really come on as well and he has proven himself against some of the top guys in the game.
"He is certainly a player who was ear-marked very early on to reach the top, one of the new breed coming into the game, made to play professional rugby.
"There is almost a genetic freakishness about him -- he is immensely strong and athletic and has a brilliant attitude also.
"Work ethic is as important, if not more important, as natural ability, and Cian is always trying to improve and has a willingness to be coached.
"The other thing is his self-belief and confidence. In a one-on-one position like prop, those qualities are very important," added O'Kelly, who agreed that Healy has the potential to be a Lions player.
"Definitely. There are still things he has to work on, like keeping his discipline and his focus, but he has come along so well and is still so young.
"He's shown he can do the household chores in the tight and he is a special player on the ball, probably the most athletic loose-head in the Six Nations."
Toulouse have an array of formidable front-row options to choose from again this weekend, but they are coming up against a different animal this time around.
Healy walked the lonely walk in Toulouse and came though the other side -- now it is time to see if the visitors can hold their own in Leinster's house.