Saturday 24 March 2018

Healy facing up to his toughest test

Conor George

Conor George

CIAN HEALY isn't your stereotypical prop. He treads a different path to his peers and his predecessors.

He paints, primarily on canvas, for example. Brian O'Driscoll's portrait is just one of a number of Healy's works that featured in an adidas campaign two years ago. And a couple of his Leinster team-mates have spoken of their delight at having a Healy original hanging in their homes.

He also DJs in his spare time and has played sets at the Oxegen music festival, while his dating of beautiful model Holly Carpenter, a former Miss Ireland, also attracts its share of attention.

All in all, there's plenty of ammunition there for opponents, seeking to upset him by word of mouth, to seize upon.

The reason Healy is a target is because he is so good at his day job. As a prop, his reputation is as one of the hardest and toughest players in Ireland. He is revered by his team-mates and feared by his opponents.

When people talk of loose-head props they do so with respect. As a scrummager there are few better in the northern hemisphere. This Lions tour was expected to be when Healy established his reputation as one of the best in the world.

"He does everything well. He scrummages, he carries, he tackles. Basically he's just a hard player... but clean," explained one opponent.

At just 25 years of age Healy is something of an oddity. Props usually come into their prime in their late 20s. It's when they grow into what forward coaches call 'man-strength'. Healy has been ahead of the curve all his career.

He was barely 20 years of age when he made his debut for Leinster in 2007. After being called up to the Ireland squad during the 2008 Six Nations, he made his debut against Australia in 2009 and has amassed 39 caps since.

Indeed Healy has become such a fixture with both Leinster and Ireland that you sometimes have to remember he is still in the burgeoning stage of his career. It is with a jolt you remember that Tom Court – and not Healy – was on the bench as back-up to Marcus Horan for the Grand Slam decider in 2009.

His breakthrough season was in 2009/10 when he overtook both Horan and Court as Ireland's first-choice loosehead. It was no small feat, especially for a prop in his adolescence. His rapid rise to prominence has made him a target over the years and opposition forwards constantly try to knock him off his game by fair and foul means.

It's to his credit that his reputation is relatively clean – despite a clear need to play on the edge in a sport that is becoming increasingly confrontational. His only indiscretion was during this season's Six Nations when he was suspended for stamping on England's Dan Cole.

The punishment did fit the crime on that occasion in that Healy did raise his leg and he did bring it down on Cole. There was intent. However, what is often overlooked about that incident is that Healy was very measured in the force he brought to bear.

Cole was at Healy's mercy. A cynical or malicious player could have done the English prop serious damage. Healy was tempered in his actions. The incident merited a suspension and the citing commissioner got it absolutely right.

But it would be wrong to forget that Healy wasn't malicious – later acknowledged when his ban was reduced in recognition of his previously exemplary disciplinary record.


It is ironic now to reflect on the fact that Lions coach Graham Rowntree spoke before the match about how a "real" hardman doesn't react to provocation. That he doesn't back down from the battle, yet he doesn't retaliate – he could have been speaking about Healy's approach to life in the front-row.

That is why the allegation of biting seems so out of character. Only Healy and Brett Sheehan know what happened at the bottom of that ruck 17 minutes into the game on Wednesday night.

When Sheehan complained about being bitten, Glen Jackson, the New Zealand referee, stopped the match and consulted television official Glenn Newman. After watching the incident from a number of angles, Newman informed the referee that "there is no evidence of that".

At half-time, Sheehan reiterated his claim he was bitten but that he wasn't sure "if it was an accident or intentional".

After the game, the Force hierarchy showed no interest in pursuing the matter. "It's been left on the field and we don't need to talk about it anymore," said Michael Foley, the head coach.

In light of Foley's, and by association the Force's, desire not to pursue the allegation and the lack of any conclusive video evidence, it did come as a surprise when it was discovered that the citing commissioner, Freek Burger, had sought a statement from Sheehan.

Three hours after receiving that statement, Healy was cited. The player was quick to lodge an appeal against the citing but, as the saying goes, mud sticks and the fact that allegation was made in the first place has the potential to damage his career.

Reputations can take a career to build but can be torn down in seconds. So whatever the outcome of this morning's disciplinary hearing (1.0am Irish time), this has not been a happy chapter in the career of the young prop and it's going to test his maturity as a player in how he handles the furore that has come with it.

Allegations like biting tend to linger in the consciousness and it is why Healy was so quick to defend himself vigorously.

For the Leinster stalwart's sake, all Irish rugby fans hope that he can quickly get back on track – notwithstanding the fact that he also has to scale another mountain in trying to overcome a serious ankle injury which he sustained 17 minutes after his clash with Sheehan.

Irish Independent

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