Tuesday 16 July 2019

Three years after Cian Healy thought his career was over, Leinster prop is stronger than ever in mind and body


Cian Healy developed a leaner machine in the aftermath of his neck saga. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Healy developed a leaner machine in the aftermath of his neck saga. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Mind and body. At the ripe old age of 31, Cian Healy seems to have both sides of the house talking to each other in a language that is clear and easy to understand.

Once upon a time his party piece was to jump off the roof of a particular bus shelter in Clontarf. A buddy of his remembers a day when he launched himself off a great height on a skateboard and twisted his ankle so badly they reckoned he was done with sport there and then.

Cian Healy. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Healy. Photo: Sportsfile

And for adventure nowadays? Along with team-mate Mick Kearney he heads down the Bull Wall in Dollymount to swim in the sea and chat to the hardy annuals who brave the waves in the depths of winter.

"It's not only about getting into the sea," he says. "Down in the shelters, all the oul lads chatting to you and stuff. It's nice. It's a good, positive vibe. So go down there and do that. Swim, stay in the sea for a while, then in for a coffee to Happy Out after. It's a blessing."

He hasn't lost his love of extreme sports, or at the other end of the spectrum, his art. And more recently he has discovered a passion for knives. Having come across the work of Fingal Ferguson in West Cork, a master of his craft, Healy has fallen in love with the sharp side. His shed at the end of the garden is now a little workshop where he develops his own tools. From roller blades as a kid to crafted knives as a man, Cian Healy has always had an edge.

It is hard to credit not just that he is still playing professional rugby but also that currently he looks in his prime. Three and a half years ago he was sitting at a desk looking at the exit forms he had completed, but not filed, and the riches they would bring if he checked out, and closed the door on a career that started as a kid on the rugby fields of Clontarf and Belvedere College.

His neck had become a constant refrain in talk of Ireland's build-up to the World Cup in England. Bulging disc; operation; reduced feeling in his right hand to the point where handwriting and key-turning were challenges. Who wants to continue being a front-row forward in those circumstances? A flicker of hope on holidays on the Amalfi Coast, when the tingle in his right hand was the start of something good, drove him on to a place he never thought possible. He made the World Cup squad.

Cian Healy actively tries to keep the door closed on the past. For example, this afternoon's Champions Cup tie against Wasps in Coventry is the 10th anniversary of his first battle against this opposition, in his Heineken Cup debut. That day in Twickenham he came off the bench for CJ van der Linde as Leinster won a precious bonus point en route to their first European title. It was a huge day for a developing Leinster. No recollection.

"No, I park that stuff," he says. "I don't remember it. Gone. I don't look back. I don't look back to last year, let alone 10 years ago. I've developed a thing of not holding things emotionally like that at all. I'm sure if I looked back over the reports I'd remember it pretty well but not off the top of the head."

But at the same time he keeps a few signposts around the place, prompts that point to tracks that were well off the scenic route.

"I'm definitely mindful of it," he says of a journey that really should be over. "I keep little reminders around (the house) that would trigger me maybe, kind of bring me back down, because it can be very easy to get caught up and run away with this and be back to thinking: 'I'm in a great position, this is unreal!' Keep tipping on, how am I getting better? But with something like that, with how serious it was, I probably need little reminders to keep the feet on the ground a bit and keep the work-rate as steady as it should be."

If he doesn't fancy much the rear-view mirror does he at least acknowledge that he dodged a whole hail of bullets?

"That was the word and that's how it felt but it's a nice spot to be in (now). I suppose there's a lot of dog work to it - and that's probably the part of it that I don't want to forget. I suppose (I want to) park success and learn from buildings and failures and things like that."

He's a leaner animal than the one who forced his way into the Leinster side when it was still fashionable for props to develop in their mid 20s. Healy was in a hurry. Bullish and headstrong he had usually chosen route one, which involved being as big as he could be. That would change. A leaner machine was developed in the aftermath of the neck saga.

"That was part and parcel of it," he says. "I got to my heaviest at that 2015 World Cup, after that injury. I suppose it was trying to compensate for not being as fit. I thought I'd put on the extra timber and the scrum will be solid, won't be an issue. I'll just have to do my job - ruck, hit people and maybe survive without the flashy stuff and the more comfortable I got the following year and a half, the more I could focus on dropping weight, putting a different type of strength on, working more on fitness, because the natural side of it was starting to come back."

To their credit the Leinster and Ireland strength and conditioning staff don't hand down their instructions on tablets of stone. If he wants to try something different off-site then as long as it makes sense he can crack on with that. So he works out with his pal Chris Cadwell from The Edge gym and is much the better for it.

The proof is in the Dexa scans, which measure body composition far more accurately than BMI (Body Mass Index) which by comparison is a crude tool. "I'm judged on them a bit. They'll also tell you if what you're doing is working. This (most recent) is the best one I've ever had, so it's going well."

In which case he is ideally equipped to play the game at the pace Leinster want to set. Currently they are at a point where so many of the moving parts are working so well that they are very hard to live with. It comes not just from having very good players but from training at high intensity.

"We train in chaos a lot of times and put our structure through that and get put under a lot of pressure," Healy says. "A lot of pressure is applied on us by ourselves as well as the coaches. I suppose the more exposed to it you are the more used to it you are and the less that can faze you. But there's always going to be something in a game that fazes you, like the Toulouse game earlier in the season. The pitch fazed us, their ability completely shocked us, how they played, they completely opened us up. We had planned them to be like that but it still got us. They showed up with an extra bit, that was a big learning for us, that we can't really rely on what we see on the video because something else is going to come up and catch you if you're not ready."

This afternoon it's hard to conceive of a situation where Leinster won't be able to cope with what Wasps - winless from five games - can throw at them. The caning Leinster got from them at this point in the competition three years ago feels like it's from another lifetime. Healy, like Leinster, is flying by comparison. And being very careful about what he looks at.

"It was the end of the season when I took my knock and made it by the skin of my teeth to the World Cup. If I stay in it game by game, and process by process - if I go day by day through my week and have everything ticked off then come game day I know where I'm sorted and I'm in the best position I can be, because if I have half an eye out to the other side that can skew you a bit."

Everything in sync then.

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