Sport Leinster Rugby

Sunday 22 September 2019

Comment - Heaslip facing biggest battle of fine career but he has the mental strength to make triumphant return

Jamie Heaslip. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

As Jamie Heaslip faces an ever more uncertain future, his mental strength may prove to be his most durable asset in the battle with physical adversity.

This once most durable of professionals knows he is nearer the end than the beginning and, while not submitting to the inevitability of a conclusion, he is armed with an acceptance of it.

Right now, as he contemplates the hopefully successful outcome of a second surgery on a troublesome back problem, he will appreciate that, if there is another day for him on a rugby field, that will be good day.

If there isn't, he must resign himself to acknowledging that, unlike so many of his peers, he will have eked out much more than anyone might have expected from what has been a marvellous sporting career, one so often under-appreciated by a significant minority of begrudgers.

In his mind, he has already anticipated the beginning of the end. His only desire would have been to greet finality on his own terms, not on the cold, steel slab of a surgeon's table.

The frustration amongst his supporters about the lack of clarity with regard to his injury, its identification and subsequent prognosis, which was further confused this week, is nothing compared to the player's intimate relationship with the unknown.

Peter O'Mahony of Ireland poses for a portrait following a press conference at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Peter O'Mahony of Ireland poses for a portrait following a press conference at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Aside from a cheap shot in the back from Pascal Papé two years ago Heaslip has enjoyed a blissful freedom from the awful physical tolls modern rugby inflicts upon its gladiators.

Deep down, he knew that the dark, cruel fates would perhaps be visited upon him, too.

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Now that they have, the mental strength that has allowed him to separate his professional life from his personal and business being can be a crucial aid in such uncertain times.

It seems almost churlish now to recall, as a career hangs in the balance, that there was such widespread mirth when he withdrew from the Six Nations clash against England last spring during the warm-up.

His absence allowed Peter O'Mahony to come in and make a decisive lineout steal late on during a commanding performance which enabled Ireland to de-rail the English chariot.

We didn't appreciate it then but March 18 was also the day that Heaslip's career was brutally shunted off the tracks and he has remained, mostly immobile, in the sidings ever since. A player nicknamed 'Wolverine' for his often supernatural powers of recovery could never be charged with submitting to such a trivial exercise in duplicity.

It helps that he has, however difficult the process, appreciated the outcome may be repugnant to that once seemingly impervious status as a proud physical specimen.

"I didn't realise how severe it was and how potentially long-term damaging it could have been, and hence when the problem arose we had to act quite quickly," he said as far back as the early summer, as he watched his last potential Lions tour disappear from his grasp.

"We could have passed the point already of doing permanent damage.

"I'm very lucky to do what I do so I don't take it for granted, but you realise that at some stage you're going to finish.

"You could control that to a certain degree and go out on your terms, most of the time that doesn't happen for a rugby player."

Back surgery, complicated by the presence of the sciatic nerve, is not as straightforward as other procedures.

Heaslip's lower-back problem required a microdisectomy, defined as "a relatively reliable surgery for immediate, or nearly immediate, relief of sciatica from a lumbar herniated disc".

The recovery period usually takes about a month and Heaslip returned to pre-season eager to reach peak fitness.

Within a week, he broke down and endured a complicated process of a drawn-out rehabilitation.

Ultimately, Heaslip opted for a second surgery to save his career when all else had failed.

The presence of spinal nerves complicates any procedure, such that one is not necessarily concerned about recovering to enjoy a quality of sporting life, rather merely recuperating sufficiently so that one can enjoy life itself.

Should this latest surgery be a success, Heaslip would be expected to begin some physical rehabilitation within the month.

What happens then is complicated by the very nature of a profession that requires its participants to fling each other into collisions with all the momentum of a small car crash.

It is impossible to quantify the body's preparedness for this aspect of a recovery, even if the percentages - 70-75pc - may be in his favour.

Age and a decade-long career of physical punishment may not. The struggles of Tiger Woods, whose only physical battle is that waged against himself, if not exactly illustrative, are informative.

A return to play, if possible, may not be likely until after the Six Nations.

Heaslip, so fiercely determined, will do his utmost to ensure he is one of those who can prove that a career can be prolonged in these circumstances.

Few would doubt his ability to recover. Crucially, he is prepared for either scenario.

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