Wednesday 22 November 2017

Losing has no place on Heaslip agenda

Hugh Farrelly

THE chariots of fire -- you hear that title and you think of fit, fresh-faced and well-bred young men, running in slow motion along a beach in Brighton with inspirational piano music playing in the background.

You are less inclined to think of fit, fresh-faced, well-bred and naked young men racing to see who can get furthest before a carefully inserted, burning trail of toilet paper catches up with them. But we'll get back to that...

Interviewing professional rugby players can be the verbal equivalent of 'Strictly Come Dancing', a choreographed routine involving phrases such as "under no illusions," "we can only focus on ourselves" and "there's no easy games in the (insert competition here)."

The end results tend to be less Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in 'Top Hat' and more akin to the ballroom scene from 'They Shoot Horses Don't They?'

Interviews with Jamie Heaslip are a little different.

Oh, he can dance the dance, and a natural energy and openness make him one of the most actively sought out players among the media, but rugby is not the be-all and end-all.

graft

This is not a man who Sky-pluses Top 14 and Tri Nations games or moves salt and pepper canisters around dining room tables to illustrate back-row moves. When Heaslip clocks in, it is to put in full shift's graft, but downtime is exactly that.

This summer presented more than the usual quota of downtime after Heaslip was red-carded in the June defeat to the All Blacks and, though that undoubtedly represented a career low and a brain burp he regrets, he served his five-week ban and has moved on. The upside for Leinster and Ireland is that is has left Heaslip particularly fresh and motivated for the 12-month run to a return to New Zealand for next year's World Cup.

"I got five and a bit weeks, the longest break since I've gone pro. This was the first time I came back and was looking forward not just to meeting the lads, but to getting back on the pitch as well. I did a little bit of everything on holiday, Portugal, a bit of time in London and a pilgrimage to Vegas and on to Chicago and Miami.

"You do what you want in Vegas, it's a law unto itself. We went to see an Irish Elvis impersonator in Bally's Hotel, who I mistakenly thought was a drag queen, he rocked it and it kicked off a great night for us. So, I partied there and was obviously at Brian's wedding and I went to Oxegen as well.

"We had a little camper van behind the main stage, so it was pretty cool. I'm from Kildare, but the only time I went back to my folks' house in Naas was for a shower in the morning and to get fed and then back out, so I saw pretty much everyone.

"On the Sunday night, Mumford and Sons came down after they finished up and we partied with them until about four in the morning and then a taxi picked me up at five and I flew to America."

Leinster and Ireland team-mate Cian Healy, who played a set at Oxegen, was one of his fellow revellers, but Heaslip may be less inclined to share Healy's capacity for more high-octane thrills after an experience in Auckland on the summer tour.

"Cian's definitely a free spirit. I did this bungee catapult thing with him and he was saying 'you can't hold on, you can't hold on' but there was no bloody chance I was letting go. I was screaming like a girl, like a little girl, and he was just there laughing.

"But these are the escapes you need. I can let loose with the best of them, go to Coppers (nightclub) after a match or float down to Naas where I'm from. There's two pubs there, Hayden's and Grace's, I go to and usually on to the Court or Time nightclubs."

As one of the leading figures in Irish sport, Heaslip's profile has rocketed, particularly after the successes of 2009, but, while he says interacting with members of the public is no problem, interest from the gossip pages is far less welcome.

"It baffles me sometimes. I don't care what sportspeople write about me, good, bad or indifferent. But when it comes to my personal life and people close to me, be it true or not, and most of the time it's not, it's annoying.

"They can literally say whatever they want and then retract it the next day with a little one-liner when the damage is done. That is the only thing that has annoyed me as things have got better, but, at the same time, if your profile gets you deals with different sponsors you have got to play that whole game as well.

"It's fine meeting people out. The Irish are funny, they stand off and with my new shaved head the summer's been pretty quiet for me, I think I scare people more than anything."

While Brian O'Driscoll remains the figurehead of the Ireland team and Irish rugby followers are praying for the full return to fitness of Paul O'Connell and Keith Earls, Heaslip has been the country's top player for the past two seasons.

After a starring role on the Lions trip to South Africa, he was one of the few British and Irish players not to suffer from a post-tour hangover and his performances last season came with a host of superlatives and man-of-the-match awards attached. It makes him the outstanding candidate to succeed O'Driscoll as Ireland captain when that day comes.

Nay-sayers will point to the red card in the summer, the fact that the off-field pressures that go with captaincy may not suit him and that he has no relevant experience of the role.

However, those arguments are consumed by the overriding knowledge that this is a player who remains firmly grounded amid all the hype and one that others will follow.

"It's something every young kid growing up playing rugby or any sport dreams about," he acknowledges.

leaders

"Did I captain before? That's a good question, maybe in school once or twice, but I have no problem saying a few things in the dressing-room and there are plenty of leaders with Leinster and Ireland who will say something that needs to be said. As long as it's not all talk in the changing room, that's something I don't like.

"But Brian is the guy in charge right now and if ever there was a guy who sets a good example of how to be a good captain, Brian is that man."

The modern game has seen an increasing trend of talented young players moving from the intense environment of schools rugby directly into the professional game with little scope for character development along the way.

Heaslip did it differently, opting to complete his Medical Mechanical Engineering degree at DCU and play his rugby with Trinity before taking up a contract. It is an oft-overlooked aspect to his career, but one he believes was hugely significant.

"I'm a great believer of work hard, play hard. You have to enjoy things in life as well. It's probably the mentality that made me play with Trinity and finish out my degree rather than turn professional earlier.

"Playing with Trinity was some of my most enjoyable times in rugby. It was brilliant. A lot of guys, their mentality is that they want to finish school and go professional and get there really early, but, man, they're missing out on a lot.

"We got promoted to Division 1 and those train journeys back from Cork were some craic, we had unbelievable times," he recalls. "The chariots of fire thing was a bit crazy, though. I had a brother who was in Trinity and he had to do that after the Colours match with my sister watching. Jeez, when you think about it..."

Time for one more twirl. What are Heaslip's goals for the next 12 months?

"Win everything. I don't play to lose."

Cue inspirational piano music.

'Halo: Reach' is being launched exclusively on Xbox 360. Fans have the opportunity to take on Jamie Heaslip and his celebrity squad at the launch event in Dublin next Tuesday, details at: haloreach@edelman.com

HEASLIP ON ...

Ireland at the World Cup

"If I'm going to the World Cup, I'm not going there to play second fiddle. Any one without that mentality shouldn't be there. I don't play to lose and Deccie's record speaks for itself."

Aviva rematch with the All Blacks

"I'm sure no hype is going to be made up about that. I haven't looked at that summer game since the Sunday I got my ban. I don't doubt our ability to beat them. New Zealand are top quality, but we have the potential."

Biggest career disappointment

"Not making the World Cup squad in 2007. Eddie had his reasons, I'm not saying I agreed with them, we had a chat. I left Killiney promptly, texted one or two boys and then headed down to Naas to bury myself in a hole somewhere."

Irish Independent

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