Thursday 23 May 2019

'Once there's a glimmer of hope, you have to chase it' - Cian Healy was on the verge of signing retirement letter

Cian Healy is enjoying his return to fitness and is in a rich vein of form for Leinster Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Cian Healy is enjoying his return to fitness and is in a rich vein of form for Leinster Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

As Cian Healy stood on the rolling green hills of the Amalfi coast in 2015, he was the only person not basking in the spectacular view of the languid ocean that stretched as far as the eye could see.

For inside there was only turbulence. He had left Dublin behind and, for all he knew, it the only life he had never known. His future was now as mysterious and as unknown as the deep sea before him.

On his kitchen table lay the medical form that, although signed, had not been sealed and delivered. Had he done so, his retirement from professional rugby would have been complete.

The nerve damage that seemed to inevitably curtail his career, at the precise moment his friends and colleagues were preparing for a World Cup, had not only numbed his body but his senses too.

And then he felt a tingle in his previously stubbornly insensate right hand. Just a twitch. But it was enough. A sign that all was not lost.

"It was still s**t scary," he says now, after his rehabilitation, his second chance at sport, was yet again confirmed by a spectacular display in Exeter. "A dark enough time. I didn't definitely know. It's not like it opened up and I could write again."

He could write his own destiny now, but he would not need to write his professional death warrant.

"You'd be lost," he says. "There was a little chance. I was 27 or 28 and rugby was pretty much everything to me since school. You don't just give up.

"I went to Italy, switched off and chilled out. I got a bit of movement back in my hand and felt a bit of nerve twitching in my arm and from what the neurologist had told me any sensitivity is good sensitivity and it's not fully dead.

"Once there's a glimmer of hope you have to chase it."

Ultimately, he would play in that doomed World Cup. Ireland couldn't find a way back; but he could.

He returned from Italy with renewed hope; he had travelled there with virtually none, just hoping a bundle of positive thoughts could somehow prompt his reluctant body to recuperate from severe neck trouble.

"There was an awful lot of doubt and tough days coming back from it. I'd post-its stuck all over my house, on the fridge, coffee machine, everywhere.

"The simplest, simplest stuff. Do one positive thing today. That's only an example. My mates started laughing when they came into the house. Each to their own.

"Lads figure out their own positive reinforcement and ways to keep themselves motivated when you're in a slog and that was my handy trigger. Little reminders and things to keep you ticking over, to keep your head in the right space.

"That's more of a battle than doing the rehab and stuff. It's a waiting game then. You just keep working the way you know and hope for the best."

Belief sustained him as he awaited the uncertain advance of physiology.

"Yes, it was. It's a reinforcement from the lads. They were so supportive over all of my recovery period, willing to come into the gym or coming over to the house if I'd a few days off.

"A few days off when you're injured are a very lonely few days. The squad were brilliant over that and it makes it a much better feeling at home when you know you have them around you."

The life-changing experience changed him; even his personality seems to have altered somewhat. His personal life is blooming, too.

Physically, he is also different. Yesterday morning, he received his body fat percentage results and they genuinely surprised him; not since he was 21 had it hit 11.8.

Most front-row forwards hit a mark, as he often did, of 18 or 19. He has matured as a leader, too; never prone to oratorical sweeps, instead he chooses to take younger players aside and offer quiet words of encouragement. This is his second shot and he aims to make the most of it.

"It definitely is real. You become more involved in the environment and really learn to appreciate everything, the people and the time spent with them. At the same time, you are there to win cups. That's what you want to do. You have to push on in everything.

"You might have to be a bit of a b******s to people and give them a hard time occasionally. It's all generally going to bring out the better in someone.

Confidence

"It is a confidence thing as well. You feel like you are in good shape but the way I have been looking after myself I don't get home feeling as bashed.

"The whole recovery thing, you don't feel as bad, like. If you're not looking after your body the smaller knocks become bigger knocks. I'm looking after it pretty well now and the small knocks aren't adding up to anything else."

His hunger remains undimmed, though.

"I probably didn't think I ever felt I was at my best when I was younger because I was continuously told I wouldn't peak until I was 27 so I was always looking for the extra bit.

"But I feel now I am playing in and around the same as I was playing back then but again I still feel there is a good bit more to come.

"My fitness is something I am constantly chasing. It is easy slogging around the ruck but if we break 50 metres up the pitch I have to be able to get there to be able to support and they are the kind of things I am starting to push, trying to work on."

His approach to life may have changed, but not rugby.

"I go balls-out every session. You have to. I could blow out my hamstring in training tomorrow. It is what it is. You have to give it everything."

Easy when you were so close to having nothing at all.

Irish Independent

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