Monday 20 August 2018

'Heroic Heaslip leaves massive legacy behind'

The Big Interview: Fergus McFadden

Jamie Heaslip in action with Fergus McFadden against Munster at Lansdowne Road during their 2011 PRO12 game. Photo: Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip in action with Fergus McFadden against Munster at Lansdowne Road during their 2011 PRO12 game. Photo: Sportsfile

Marcus Ó Buachalla

For some they remember the debut for Leinster in 2005 in Donnybrook. It was an inauspicious start; a 12-16 loss against the Neath Swansea Ospreys.

Others maybe remember his Irish debut in November 2006 against the Pacific Islands or maybe his Six Nations debut a few years later against Italy. Or maybe it's the moments. The key moments from one of his many highlight reels. In the blue of Leinster, in the green of Ireland or in the red of the Lions.

Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden and Jamie Heaslip following their side’s victory in the Celtic League Grand Final of 2014. Photo: Sportsfile
Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden and Jamie Heaslip following their side’s victory in the Celtic League Grand Final of 2014. Photo: Sportsfile

But for Fergus McFadden he remembers the Jamie Heaslip moments in the black and white of Newbridge College.

"Jamie was older than me and I wouldn't have known him well back then but he was playing on the same team as my cousin so I would have seen him a fair bit because of that.

"Then it was Leinster U-21s or Ireland U-21s again following my cousin really but you couldn't take your eyes off Jamie."

The cousin, Breiffne O'Donnell, was prop and captain of that Newbridge College team, Heaslip their No 8. McFadden remembers him well.

"He was actually massive back then. That's what I remember most! He had skills of course and could play ball, but he was actually I think bigger during those years than he was when he was professional. So in those underage games he really stood out.

"Obviously in 2004 Ireland reached the U-21 World Cup Final and off the back off that Jamie was nominated for the Player of the Year award, the first Irish player to be nominated I think. So he was now starting to get noticed and I don't think there was any doubt in my mind that he would make it to the very top."

So when Heaslip posts on his social media accounts at 9.50am on Monday morning that he is retiring with immediate effect, what were his initial thoughts?

"I was shocked. I found out the same way as most people by what was reported in media and online and I think it just left a massive feeling of disappointment. Disappointment for him that he has had to bow out on these terms but actually massive disappointment that we can't celebrate him as a player anymore.

Glittering

"OK he's 34 and he has had a glittering career with not much left to achieve but you look at where he finished. Last season in the Aviva, he was the starting No 8 for Ireland against England. He still had plenty to give. It would have been brilliant for him to have been celebrated on the pitch and given that send-off rather than in this way."

McFadden waxes lyrical about Heaslip the professional, as many have already done this week. Leo Cullen said he raised the bar for others to follow. Club captain Isa Nacewa said there would never be another Jamie Heaslip.

"He was a huge talker. Good craic, good banter in and around the place and that energy and positivity lifted the place. You can't just create a replacement. You either have that in you or you don't. Jamie has been so lucky with injury over the 13 or 14 years that he played and it's ironic that it is an injury that has brought it all to an end."

McFadden is three years Heaslip's junior but he has shared some unbelievable highs with the Kildare man.

"That Six Nations win against France in 2014. On the field after the game, the memories of that campaign, just a brilliant moment to share with him. Or the Heineken Cup win against Ulster.

"I think in 20 or 30 years' time when we meet up over a pint or a coffee, those memories, we'll enjoy looking back. It's just hard to believe that I am talking in this way about him."

Heaslip would hate to think that his announcement would have had an impact on the Leinster squad this week as they prepare for their game against the Scarlets. He frequently said that he was a firm believer in dismissing "noise" and instead preferred to focus on those elements within his control. So you can be sure he'd want the squad to do the same this week.

Impact

"The immediate impact was definitely one of shock on Monday but to be honest as a squad this week we were able to move on and look to get ourselves into the right frame for a massive game against the Scarlets. Actually I think parking it this week because of how big a week it is, has been relatively easy. This is the biggest game of the Guinness PRO14 season for us so there has been a good edge to training. If we win on Saturday we have control of Conference 'B' and that is a huge carrot for us.

"I think the biggest challenge for us as a squad will be when the dust settles. I think we will hurt as a squad then because it really is a massive void to fill and I don't think we'll really feel that impact for a while yet."

McFadden came off the bench against Wales in last weekend's epic Six Nations match in the Aviva Stadium and will hope to be involved again next weekend when Scotland come to town. And it is that same foe that comes to mind when he thinks of the moment that best sums up Heaslip. It was the last game of the 2015 Six Nations campaign, away to Scotland.

"There was maybe five minutes to go and we were well ahead but Stuart Hogg has the try line at his mercy as he steps two players but then Jamie tackles him forcing a knock-on and ultimately wins us the Championship."

The story is well told. Ireland were 40-10 up but with England playing after them and the Championship ultimately coming down to points difference, a converted Scotland try would have gifted the Six Nations trophy to England by a solitary point.

Instead it stayed in Irish hands.

"Jamie didn't give up. That moment epitomised him maybe best? That heart and that desire to keep going to the very end, to never give up. He was abrasive but he was also a cute guy on and off the pitch, he had the brains and the brawn.

"To have played at the very highest level with virtually no injury profile is freakish. His technique was phenomenal. How he carried, how he tackled, how he just played the game. He had the power but he also had the intellect.

"Whether it's the Try of the Year award and how well he ran that line or it's that try-saving tackle on Hogg when anyone else gives it up maybe thinking we're so far ahead this matters for little…Jamie never thought like that.

"How do you replace that? Maybe you can't. But he leaves a massive legacy behind him and one that he can be very proud of."

Irish Independent

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