Sunday 22 September 2019

'It doesn't often come to pass that you finish out the perfect season'

The big interview: Cian Healy

Cian Healy. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cian Healy. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Marcus Ó Buachalla

There are not many men that can lay claim to four stars on a jersey and a role in each one. Indeed, the exact number is six. Four have been from Leinster and two, Cedric Heymans and Frederic Michalak, are French internationals with medals picked up at a number of clubs.

One of the Leinster four is Cian Healy, another is Leinster Rugby club captain Isa Nacewa who retires from the game tomorrow 10 years after arriving. Who better then to talk to about that journey to four stars than the 78-times-capped Irish loosehead prop?

Healy and Nacewa first took to the field together in September 2008 for an away assignment against Cardiff Blues. It was an inauspicious start for the one-time Fiji international but in a 16-16 stalemate he still managed to get the only Leinster try of the game.

"Isa just has that extra bit of something about him. It's hard to put into words really. But we saw it that day, opening game of the season and us in a bad spot 10-3 down at half-time and he dragged us by the scruff of the neck up and back into that game.

"His try in the second half and then Felipe (Contepomi) kicked the rest. So really from day one he has been setting the standards for the rest of us to follow and he's going to be an incredibly hard act to follow. In fact, I'd say he can't be followed. As a player, as a man, as a captain, he has been something special."

Nearly 10 years later he will finish up on 185 caps and as it stands he has 47 tries to his name for a total of 706 points.

Cian Healy (centre) arrives to squad training with Tadhg Furlong (left) and Adam Byrne. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Cian Healy (centre) arrives to squad training with Tadhg Furlong (left) and Adam Byrne. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

But tomorrow in the Aviva Stadium is about adding something else to the list. A second PRO14 trophy to add to the one he won in 2013 as he retired for the first time. Nacewa would want the focus elsewhere but everyone knows what's at stake.

"This is a very good team we are coming up against. The defending champions who did a job on us last season in the semi-final in the RDS and then a week later go and do the same to Munster. So the motivation is there because you know how good Scarlets are.

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"But then we haven't won this trophy since 2014 and there have been years where we have finished top of the table or second in the table in the regular season but just haven't been able to see it out. We want to address that.

Cian Healy. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Cian Healy. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

"And no other team in Leinster has done the European and domestic double. We want that trophy for all those reasons and all those reasons will make sure we are in the right space. And then there is the lads and the wider group."

'Brothers' is a word that has been mentioned on more than one occasion this season by Leinster players and coaches and it's the sense you get from talking to Healy that this is a family. Albeit a very big family of 55.

"The lads that have got us here - 55 players in total all season to get us to a final in the Aviva Stadium. That takes a huge amount of effort. Young lads like Josh Murphy making their debuts this season and then to the last game of the season Caelan Doris making his debut against Connacht and now off to captain the Ireland U-20s side. The 23 that takes to the field on Saturday, we have that sense of responsibility to them."

And then the lads.

"Look this is professional sport. People move on. But I suppose this season we have lost or are about to lose some really good men. Obviously Jamie retired a few months ago and that was very tough to take but now you have Isa, Straussy and Jordi as well moving on for different adventures and you genuinely want to give them a massive last high in a Leinster jersey."

While Nacewa and Murphy are likely to see game-time on Saturday, Richardt Strauss has been unlucky with injury in his last season. But his impact on the club - and on Ireland - has been no less profound.

Two Heineken Cups, a Challenge Cup and two PRO12 titles in addition to 17 Ireland caps and appearing in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. No mean feat.

"Straussy has been great for us. He maybe doesn't get the headlines and the plaudits that the other lads get but inside of these four walls we know what he's about.

"You think of key moments and key people coming in and people talk about Leo and Jenno coming back from Leicester, Isa coming, Rocky, Nathan, Brad…Straussy came in under the radar and then exploded onto the scene when he got the chance."

The point is well made. Strauss only made one start in his first season in Leinster in 2009/'10 but as the club went about securing a second Heineken Cup the following season he would play in 30 games all told, starting 29. A phenomenal achievement.

"Absolutely. At the Awards Ball recently we were looking back on the highlights reel for both Isa and Straussy and some of the carries and the hits from him in those games were of the highest order. Such a quality player and a bloke."

Rarely in the media, it is hard to get a sense for the real Richardt Strauss but from talking to Healy, you get the sense there is more to him.

"Absolutely. He is an extremely humble but driven man and he sets the tone in Leinster. He is a key part of the Leinster culture and the psyche and you'd wish him every success in the world."

And yet Strauss, like Nacewa and Murphy, would rather the attention was elsewhere. No fear there.


"Every player this week will take their motivation from somewhere but, like I said earlier, at the top of everyone's list is looking at last season and what Scarlets did to us. They are a really good team and that form from last season has carried into this season in the PRO14 and in Europe.

"It is really hard to put back-to-back seasons together but they have done it brilliantly and deserve huge credit for it.

"Scarlets and ourselves have played out a few good games now over the last few seasons. They know us and we know them and that's another layer into the mix. What can we throw at them that they don't expect and how do we cope with whatever they throw at us?

"It's all building up to one last game of the season. It's what you speak about at the start of every season. Where does it end? Bilbao. The Aviva Stadium. It doesn't often come to pass that you finish out the perfect season so we have to now make sure that we make it count."

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