Sport Champions Cup

Tuesday 17 September 2019

Sinéad Kissane: 'Setbacks have formed the comebacks for ever-present Healy'

Cian Healy. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Healy. Photo: Sportsfile

Sinéad Kissane

Inside the concrete bubble that is the San Mames stadium, Cian Healy's summation of how Leinster played to become champions of Europe for the fourth time didn't come from the usual stock of post-match quotes for a team that had just gone all the way.

Then again, that Saturday last May made a fool of presumptions. We went to Bilbao expecting a sizzling Basque sun; what we got was spitting rain and wind. We went anticipating Le Show-Biz showdown with Racing 92; what we got was a game chained to a stifling 9-9 scoreline with over ten minutes left. And, unexpectedly, there were no tries scored by the most rampant team in the competition. Yet, still, Leinster found a way.

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"It was probably like winning a fight without throwing a punch," was Healy's succinct description of Leinster's 15-12 win over Racing. "We didn't really get to unleash anything we'd planned. Their defence was rock-solid, savage, so we just had to grind our way through".

Healy has seen it all with Leinster and their impressive roll-call of European finals. Between the arm-wrestle with the Leicester Tigers in 2009, the comeback against Northampton in 2011, the peak against Ulster in 2012 (when Leinster scored the most points, 42, and the most tries, five, to win by a record margin in a final) and the grind against Racing last year, there are three common denominators in those four final day wins.

Healy, Johnny Sexton and Devin Toner were all part of those match-day squads and today at St James' Park against Saracens the trio go for a record-breaking fifth Heineken Champions Cup winner's medal. What's more, Healy and Sexton started all four finals. (Rob Kearney also has four medals. EPCR records only recognise players who were in the match-day squads for the day of the final. Kearney missed the 2011 final because of injury.)

Arm-wrestle. Comeback. Peak. Grind. No wonder Healy was there for them all. You only need to run your finger through the names in the Leinster pack from that 2009 final a decade ago to appreciate how long Healy has been working it with the province.

In their 19-16 win over Leicester Healy lined up in a front-row that featured Bernard Jackman and Stan Wright. The rest of the pack that day were Leo Cullen, Malcolm O'Kelly, Rocky Elsom, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip.

In Leinster's 33-22 win over Northampton at the Millennium Stadium, Healy started in the front-row alongside Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross. It was the same front-row a year later for their 42-14 win over Ulster (Healy scored a try in that game). And for last year's star number four in Bilbao, Healy was alongside Seán Cronin and Tadhg Furlong for starters with Jack McGrath replacing Healy after 55 minutes.

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This week before their Champions League semi-final second leg against Barcelona, the official USA account of Liverpool FC tweeted: the comeback is always greater than the setback. This week has shown us the awe and wonder of comebacks. Healy has gone through his own versions of them.

He says he doesn't remember what it was like in the dressing-room at half-time of the 2011 final against Northampton at the Millennium Stadium when they were down 22-6 at the break. Neither does he remember the half-time speech Sexton gave his team-mates recalling Liverpool's Champions League final fightback in Istanbul seven years previously.

But Healy remembers not feeling like it was a comeback they had to pull off, because he felt they were never out of it to begin with.

"I think it was a weird one. We never really felt like it was gone," Healy said in an interview for Virgin Media to be aired this evening. "I suppose you're going in at half-time that amount down. But you don't feel you're under a crazy amount of pressure. And you know something is in line to click and once you get everything right it will".

And it did. You don't have a career like Healy's - he will play for the 206th time for Leinster today - without living through setbacks to form the comebacks. There was the sight of him covering his head under a towel when he was substituted after half an hour in Leinster's semi-final defeat away to Toulouse in 2010.

"They are hauling you off and saying, 'This fella's better than you and he will do a better job'. They are not even letting you figure it out," Healy recalled about that day on the Irish Independent's Left Wing podcast last November. "I was in a red mist after that one."

Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge Healy had to overcome was the one when he a postbox away from his rugby career coming to an end four years ago. Following surgery on a disc in his neck in 2015, nerve damage left him without the use of his right hand.

Not only did it look like his World Cup was over but his career was veering that way too. He had the insurance documents signed but he held off on sending them off. It was on a holiday in the Amalfi coast that he began to feel a bit of movement back in his hand again.

"It was still s**t scary, a dark enough time. I didn't definitely know. It's not like (the hand) opened up and I could write again. It was just a small little glimmer and you chase it," Healy said in an interview last year. He went on to play in the World Cup.

If Healy ever wondered if he would win a European medal after their last success in 2012, there were also times when he wondered if he would ever be the player he once was.

"It was more ,'Was I ever going to get back?' There was a time in between that where I was playing bad and low and not really believing in myself. So to me, it was to get back in the squad and try and be part of something that will go on to further things," Healy added.

Last season Healy propped up Ireland and Leinster in the greatest season in the history of Irish rugby. He's been Leinster's top turnover merchant in Europe this season. The fact that a Lion like Jack McGrath has decided to leave Leinster and join Ulster next season in order to get more game-time also shows how much he believes Healy still has left in him.

Arm-wrestle. Comeback. Peak. Grind. Leinster have come through finals any which way. With Healy locking it down at the top, the bottom line in those finals has always been the same.

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