Friday 6 December 2019

'I'm a stubborn git - I refuse to do what I'm told at times' - Jamie Heaslip

Jamie Heaslip understands what is important and what is not

Maxi-Nutrition ambassador Jamie Heaslip is on his marks for South Africa Photo: INPHO/James Crombie
Maxi-Nutrition ambassador Jamie Heaslip is on his marks for South Africa Photo: INPHO/James Crombie
David Kelly

David Kelly

That Jamie Heaslip is one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated Irish sports stars of his generation may say more about those who mis-understand him and under-appreciate him.

Often, anger deviates into abuse; diffidence can veer violently into distaste.

Heaslip, we are told, doesn't help himself by occasional surly behaviour with the press or his former propensity for donning the garb of a stoned loafer on Killiney beach, flip-flops and giant headphones, to international coin tosses.

His professional colleagues will paint a different picture of Heaslip; and, away from the often claustrophobic Leinster and Ireland environments, he can be liberating.

For one example, and considering he is doesn't have children, he can demonstrate a remarkable measure of empathy when appearing at charitable photo calls alongside them.

This is the other side of the often grumpy caricature presented to the media. I met him last year but unfortunately never got the opportunity to reveal his thoughts then; much was overtaken by events; but so much else wasn't and, I believe, is worthy of sharing.


We began by speaking about the sacrifices a professional makes.

"I've such ingrained habits from rugby at this stage that ensure you're not always wanting to blow out," says the 32-year-old ambassador for Maxi-Nutrition.

"When I was younger, the minute the season was finished, I'd drink what I want, eat what I want, do as little training as possible. But then the pre-season would be hellish. So you get older and wiser.

"This kind of lifestyle is innate now, it's built in me. I don't look at things like sacrifices. I'm preferring to choose something else. I'm making my decision based on what I want to achieve, rather than feeling I have to sacrifice something. It's just a different way I like to think."

Heaslip doesn't suffer martyrdom for its own sake; his is a life choice.

"Yeah, I'm making the choice to be a good professional rather than sacrificing, or giving something up," he explains. "I've had to decide to go to a wedding where I'm a groomsman or else go to training. These are the type of hard choices you have to make.

"It all falls back on who you want to be and what values you want to live by. So that means that the hard decisions aren't hard decisions, they're just decisions made by your values.

"It's a bit of a switch from the mainstream way of thinking. I've had to do it. I couldn't go to a best mate's wedding, there have been numerous others."

But why not take that one day to go to the wedding? Just one day, right? "My thinking would be different," he demurs. "I wouldn't be comfortable with who I am.

"When you're a kid, you think you're going to do everything, and be everything to everyone, take things for granted. But that's what being young is all about, messing up and making those decisions."

So Heaslip has become all about how he chooses to live now - he knows it is not necessarily how he will live forever.

"I really like what sports websites are doing at the moment but only in an abstract way, I can't check them out regularly. I can't let outside opinion - good, bad or indifferent - affect my mind-set," he says.

"I know how I operate, and doing all that wouldn't be good for me."

That's why he takes a complete break from rugby one day each week. "When I'm at work, I'm at work and really busy," he says. "But I need to be proactive in reinforcing those guards that you put up around yourself."

He has often used Tom Brady's phrase, the "white noise". If he let everything into his head, it would drown.

"Even if you're avoiding the noise, you might just see a comment. There's always a negativity bias - there might be ten good things, but you see the one bad thing," he says.

"And people are more negative on social media than positive. At times it's a challenge."

That's the kernel of his personality - at least that much of it as he can allow himself to reveal beyond the inner sanctum of his rugby family and, of course, his real family.

His father Richard was a decent rugby player and brigadier general in the Irish Army who embroiled himself in a few stickier situations than your average rugby ruck.

"He was a strict man," says the son, of whom amateur analysis explains the teenage rebellion - pierced tongue etc - against authority. It's not that simple a picture. Nor is it too complex.

"He says he probably lost control when I was 14 or 15 but he did a bloody good job of keeping that hidden. Anyone I spoke to in the army said he was strict too.

"He demanded a lot. There is a hierarchy. When he gives an order, it has to be followed. I asked him what if an order is wrong, or have you had to issue a court martial?

"He told me he has had to question decisions before. But in the army, you have to be very confident to do that. Because there's a system there. And the system is there for a reason, because in war you just do.

"Until he told me that, I always presumed he was of the 'follow what you're told' type of thing. And I had always rebelled against that.


"I'm a stubborn git, still am, I refuse to be told what to do at times. But then when he gave me that little nugget, it made me realise it's not such a bad thing to go with the flow once you believe what it's about and what the values are.

"And yet don't be afraid to question things, just do it nicely. I've had to soften over the years. Instead of worrying about yourself, you worry about the collective. Because you ain't going nowhere without the team."

Heaslip's preferred defence against worrying about it all is basically not to worry about it at all. "I'm laissez-faire," he says simply of the moment when "bad stuff" threatens to intervene. "But I do control everything up to that point. After that, there's not much you can do. Que sera sera."

Not a bad message to bring into a formidable South African tour. Your only responsibility is to guarantee that you can prepare the best to be the best. And then just wait for the referee to blow his whistle.

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