Saturday 21 April 2018

Comment: Heaslip has earned place in pantheon of Irish greats

No 8 retires as one of Ireland's finest in modern era after a glittering career at top of the game

Jamie Heaslip celebrates his third European Cup after the 2012 victory over Ulster. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip celebrates his third European Cup after the 2012 victory over Ulster. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It was a cold, wet January night in 2000 when I first came across Jamie Heaslip. Although 'was run over by' is probably the more accurate way of putting it.

The wise men running Newbridge RFC and Newbridge College decided that a few combined training sessions would sharpen the edges ahead of our respective cup runs. So, we eyed each other suspiciously beneath the gloomy floodlights on the back pitch at Rosetown, before getting stuck into a 15-on-15 game of attack versus defence in one half of the field.

We were accustomed to coming across big men on the killing fields of the North Midlands League where opponents like Athy, Port Laoise and Portarlington routinely fielded some enormous type with a nickname like 'Bam-Bam' or 'Sausage'.

When Newbridge College handed the ball to their tall, blond No 8, it was different. He was a brick outhouse on wheels and it didn't take long to realise that he was best avoided and the rest of the session was spent inspecting rucks and avoiding contact.

'Who's yer man?'

'That's Heaslip'.

Jamie Heaslip scores a try against Leicester in the 2009 final. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip scores a try against Leicester in the 2009 final. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

It wasn't long before Jamie Heaslip was a household name.

Eighteen years on, injury has forced Jamie Heaslip to hang up his white boots, bringing Ireland's most illustrious rugby career to a sad conclusion.

Until last March, the Naas native went almost 11 seasons of professional rugby without missing a beat.

Aside from the World Cup, he collected every medal available to him for club and country, setting on-pitch standards for those around him while evolving his game as he went on.

He had his detractors from time to time, but after Eddie O'Sullivan left him out of the 2007 World Cup squad, he was one of the first names on the team-sheet for Declan Kidney, Joe Schmidt, Ian McGeechan, Warren Gatland, Michael Cheika, Matt O'Connor and Leo Cullen.

Decisive Gatland did drop him, along with Brian O'Driscoll, for the decisive Test of the 2013 Lions series but had he been fit last summer there seems little doubt that a player of his calibre and experience would have been taken to New Zealand to battle it out once more with Taulupe Faletau for the No 8 shirt.

The fact that the furore that greeted O'Driscoll's dropping never really encapsulated his Leinster and Ireland team-mate almost neatly sums up how the forward was never as warmly regarded as some of his counterparts.

His achievements merit similar respect to O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, but the sense is that he is not as warmly regarded in the public sphere.

Perhaps some of that is a product of his desire to separate himself from his chosen career, to be seen as a man apart from the game. Perhaps it stems from a sometimes difficult relationship with the media. It doesn't matter. Heaslip deserves his place in the pantheon alongside the greats of the modern game and, perhaps, in time he will be considered one of the all-time greats of the Irish game.

Jamie Heaslip rampages against Northampton in their 2011 comebacks. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip rampages against Northampton in their 2011 comebacks. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Yesterday, his retirement was greeted with an outpouring of tributes on social media, with team-mates and coaches lauding his professionalism above all else. That fed into performances that rarely dipped below the very good; he was a ball-carrying menace in his early days but developed into a clever defender, a breakdown threat and a carrier who would rarely make big busts but always produced clean, quick ball.

Although the red card he received while playing against New Zealand in 2010 goes down as a black mark on his record, he was one of the players who set the tone from a discipline perspective and his team-mates often spoke of his qualities as a defensive leader and communicator.

And he produced big moments at crucial times, turning up for the biggest games and rising to the occasion.

He was a leader, but his stints as captain for club and country didn't go well.

The son of an army brigadier general, his personality seemed to grate with the responsibilities that comes with the captaincy but, while his time leading Ireland coincided with one of the least successful seasons of his career, it should not detract from his overall legacy.

His second-last day as Ireland captain happened to be one of the lowest points of his career - the loss to Argentina in the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-final.

And yet the abiding image of Heaslip that day is of a man refusing to see the writing on the wall, of a player who stubbornly refused to follow the script who carried the fight back to the tearaway Pumas as Ireland exited the tournament. Amid the rubble, the captain's reputation remained intact. He had given his all to a lost cause and when he signed on for two more seasons a year ago, the 2019 World Cup was firmly on his mind.

"There is one thing I haven't won that I would like to win," he said in the weeks after penning his deal. "I would like to add a couple of more things to what Leinster have won as well. I like winning. I think any professional player that has ambition (does)."

The World Cup evaded him, but he ticked every other box. He was a starter in four of Ireland's five games in the 2009 Grand Slam win, coming off the bench in Murrayfield to score a try in the one game he didn't start.

Later that season, was part of the Leinster side that finally wrested the balance of power their way and won the Heineken Cup for the first time before touring South Africa with the Lions and started all three Tests of an epic series that resulted in defeat but restored pride. He was brilliant on that tour, one of the leading lights in a team that slugged it out with the world champions in a series of brutally physical encounters.

Impressive

He would add two more Heineken Cups and a couple of Pro12s, two Six Nations titles under Schmidt and played in two of the three Tests as the Lions beat Australia in 2013.

As a body of work, it is mightily impressive and stands alone.

He had chances to leave Ireland and came close in 2014 when Toulon offered him huge money and a house on the Cote d'Azur, but he opted to remain at home and was rewarded by the IRFU who made him their best-paid player on the back of his unbelievable ability to perform week in, week out and, crucially, avoid injury.

Until last March's Six Nations decider, that had held true. Until then, the knee he took in the back from Pascal Pape in 2015 was his only spell on the sidelines and when he failed to appear for the kick-off of Ireland's final Six Nations clash with England, it was so unusual that conspiracy theories abounded.

He would never play rugby again and almost a year on he has confirmed what has long been suspected. A decade of turning up on a weekly business eventually took its toll.

To retire with a statement on a Monday morning was a sad way for a brilliant career to end, but Heaslip has had plenty of time to process the reality, has plenty of options for life after rugby and can't have too many complaints about his innings.

His body of work will stand the test of time.

Irish Independent

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