Saturday 20 April 2019

Lucky man: Grand Slam winner Jamie Heaslip tells Niamh Horan about his blessings

Growing up all over the world as the son of a soldier informed Jamie’s Heaslip’s outlook on life and his winning mindset. In an honest and wide-ranging interview, he talks about his formative years, transitioning from rugby into business, and his thoughts on impending fatherhood

Jamie Heaslip represented Ireland on two Lions tours. Photo: Kip Carroll
Jamie Heaslip represented Ireland on two Lions tours. Photo: Kip Carroll
Jamie Heaslip is an ambassador for CocoFuzion 100. Photo: Kip Carroll
Jamie Heaslip with his wife Sheena
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

It's the early 1990s, and a 10-year-old boy is playing in the sandy haze of a UN base in Cyprus.

Army personnel hurry through the camp following the day's orders, but for the children of soldiers, there's not much to do except make your own fun.

Stretched out before them is a sprawling minefield. All that stands between it and the boy are two towering wire fences.

So a young and listless Jamie Heaslip positions his ball and takes aim.

Jamie Heaslip with his wife Sheena
Jamie Heaslip with his wife Sheena

Fast forward 10 years, and the same kid, now wearing the Irish jersey, is running out, focused and determined, into a packed-out stadium of 50,000 rugby fans.

With no clear pathway as a kid, no sign of the Long Term Player Development programme that the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) have in place today, it's hard to imagine how a restless kid with a love for sport - not a particular obsession for rugby - became one of the most capped and successful players Ireland has ever seen.

Sitting in Dublin's InterContinental Hotel, Jamie still finds it hard to take in when I list the credits to his name.

He is a Grand Slam winner. He represented Ireland on two Lions tours. He has won the Six Nations three times. He has won three Heineken Cups for Leinster. He has won the Triple Crown. He is also one of the most capped players in Irish history; he has won 'Try of the Year' and the 'IRUPA Supporters' Player of the Year' and has several nominations for the World and European 'Player of the Year'.

"If you had laid all that out in front of me when I started playing professionally, let alone telling me when I was back in school that that's what I would do one day, I would have ripped the arm off you for it," he says. By his own admission, it's been "a hell of a trip".

Jamie Heaslip was born in Tiberias, an Israeli city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee; his father, Richard, who would scale the ranks to become a brigadier general in the Irish Army, toured the world with the UN.

Jamie Heaslip is an ambassador for CocoFuzion 100. Photo: Kip Carroll
Jamie Heaslip is an ambassador for CocoFuzion 100. Photo: Kip Carroll

Jamie is the youngest of four children - he has two brothers and an older sister. The family often moved to far-flung locations such as Cyprus and Kosovo to follow their father's work. Far from feeling displaced as a child, Jamie says he loved it.

"I thought it was a great adventure. I mean I got to live in Cyprus. I got to live on an army base. It was pretty cool."

His memory of trying to set off explosions is this: "You could come out of our house, go across the main road and you could kick a ball around. Roughly 10 metres away, there was a massive fence. Another 20-metre fence lay on the other side of that, and then there was a huge minefield. About 150 metres at the end of it, there were guard posts every 300 metres. You could get binoculars and look at them [the guards] and sometimes they would be looking at you. You could see that they were armed and you could lob balls in."

"We would kick balls into the minefield to see if any went off," he recalls. "We were stupid kids, but life was good."

When Jamie and his family returned to Ireland, he settled into school here and kept up his involvement in various sporting pursuits, including rugby.

In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell maps out the factors that shape the best and most successful among us. He discovered that the actions of parents, and the enviroment in which children grow up, made a marked difference in the children's potential for success. Gladwell would have had a field day analysing the role of Jamie's father.

Richard Heaslip was one of the founding officers of the elite Army Ranger Wing (ARW), Ireland's special operations force, famed for its relentless determination and pursuit of excellence. Only the most committed, physically capable and mentally robust survive.

But Jamie recalls how his dad would often tell him, "You don't need to be the toughest, or even the strongest, you just have to have a certain mindset".

It is something Jamie has carried with him through life and rugby. He talks about being quite "goal-orientated" in his 20s. And although the pair seem to have had a stoic relationship, the Brigadier General seems to be a big influence on his son.

Jamie says asking his father about his days as head of the Ranger wing is like "trying to get blood from a stone" but people have told him that his father was a tough taskmaster at times.

Jamie considers this for a moment: "I suppose you have to be when people's lives are in your hands. They would also say he was tough but fair."

Describing his now 75-year-old father as old-school and quite disciplined, Jamie says he was part of a generation of parents who were "always a little bit different".

"Look, he was tough. But he was fair. He was just very disciplined. He would always say, 'Talent is nothing without discipline' and he would always make sure you had a good work ethic in school and rugby."

Jamie describes how his father used mantras on him as a young boy such as: train as you want to play. "I am guessing it is something they would have used when they were drilling [in the Army]," he says.

On the day of this interview, another sports star, Patrick Reed, is in the news. He has just won the coveted Masters green jacket, and one of the stories circulating is how, on his parents' advice, from the age of 10, he was the only kid playing golf in khaki trousers - the professionals' garb of choice - rather than shorts, like the other kids.

Easily disciplined

He wore the trousers, during tournaments, often in searing heat, because his father told that is what would be expected of him when he turned professional.

Jamie has a similar story. He says: "When I came to rugby, I never wore pants training. I always wore shorts. It didn't matter if it was hail, rain or shine. Because, why train with a pair of pants on, when you will be playing in shorts?

"There was a lot of sense to it," he says.

Jamie recalls being easily disciplined: "All they would say is, 'OK, we are not bringing you training'. That was me done. I would fall into line pretty quickly."

His two older brothers, Graham and Richard, were also a big influence in his chosen career.

"It was like monkey see, monkey do," recalls Jamie. "They were 10 and 12 years older than me and they played in the Curragh when I was a kid, which would have been a very big club back then, and I would always go to watch them play. That's what our Saturdays were about, and I just kind of fell into it."

Although rugby didn't have any special pull, initially. "Like every Irish kid," he says, "I always had a ball.

"When it was summer, I was playing GAA or hurling. When the Tour de France was on TV, we were all out the front on bikes. And during Wimbledon season, we were all trying to be Steffi Graf," he laughs.

Although casually playing rugby as a child, it took him until fifth year in secondary school to focus on the sport: "I don't know if I was ever obsessed with it. I just know I always wanted to go training. Rugby was the one that they could use against me if I was out of line."

He shares a childhood memory of when the sport seems to have taken hold. "I remember being in first or second year down in Colaiste na Rinne [an Irish college in Waterford]. My friend's family would record the Lions games of the 1997 tour in South Africa on one of those old VHS tapes on a Saturday, and on a Sunday we would all sit around the TV to watch it - that's when I really fell in love with the Lions.

"Fast forward to 2007, and I am in South Africa myself on a Lions tour. It was a very surreal moment to know that you are representing a group, but also to know that there is some kid potentially watching you like that."

In secondary school, people started to notice that Jamie was special. He was always able to take on bigger boys. His childhood best friend, Breffini O'Donnell, was the same. "The two of us were both kind of going, 'Oh! This is good! We're not too bad at this'.

"We ended up getting into the Junior Cup Final, and that's when they start putting you into camps, and you start realising that you are all right. I was always quite ambitious then. I was 14, and I would come up against guys who were 15 - a year at that age is huge - and I would feel in my head that 'some of these guys are monsters'. Sometimes, I could hold my own and sometimes I couldn't, and my ego would take a bit of a bashing.

"And then when I went into fifth year, I was 15, and because I didn't do transition year, I started coming up against guys who were 18. Again, I was kind of holding my own. I started realising I could give it a go. But I never realised that I could actually make a full career out of it. The path just wasn't clear. Now they have academies. They didn't have any of that when I was young."

On the plus side, the lack of clear structure into the professional sport allowed him to experience life. He looks at the young boys coming up through the ranks today, and feels there is something amiss.

"I am probably the last generation who played amateur rugby," he says. "I played for four years in Trinity College before going professional. Now guys are going professional at 18, 19 and 20. They are entering academies and they are breaking through to the senior team at around 20, 21, 22. I always feel a little bit sorry for them, because they don't really get to experience college and the messing around there."

His words are timely, given the questions that are being asked around rugby culture in the wake of the Belfast rape trial. Jamie is loath to talk about the case or the culture around it. He says: "There are no winners in this."

On his own experience with the men, he says: "Any time I played with Paddy [Jackson], any time I was around him in a squad, and the same with Stuart [Olding] - lovely fellas. But I haven't been around them in a long time."

I ask him about his own experience of rugby culture. If, as his success grew, he started to notice more attention from girls and the trappings that came with his place on the team.

"There has obviously been a lot of talk over the last while [about rugby culture] but what was important to me at the very start was getting on the team. It wasn't any of the trappings. For me, that was never the motivating factor. It was just the purest form of following a passion."

"Some people are motivated by [other] factors," he says, but for me, all of that other stuff was just noise. That's how I always looked at it." He says: "It's not something you pay attention to. I didn't, anyway.

"You've got to remember as well that I started playing in a different time. I went professional in 2005. At that time, we still probably had dial-up [internet]. There was no social media. It was a very different landscape. Even in terms of the coverage that the sport got. The media have played a fantastic role in elevating our sport, especially in Ireland - you even have schools rugby making it on to TV, and it is a very different landscape.

"Guys and girls, whatever the sport is, are thrown into the spotlight; I don't know if it's earlier, but it's definitely a different level than it was at when I started back in 2005. And it's funny, because they are giving guys media training now when they are 18. When we were 18, the most we did was an interview in The Leinster Leader."

Did anyone ever take him aside and give him life advice?

"No, but I had my folks who gave me good guidance, and my older siblings, and I had a really good group of mates from home, as well as 'my rugby family', as I call them."

Does he feel young Irish rugby players now should be given more personal development training to be able to handle the pressures that come with the lifestyle?

"The one thing I would say about rugby right now is that there is a very weird paradox to being a professional player. On one hand, you are expected to go all-in on the sport. You do that because it's a craft, and it's hitting all sorts of different factors in your brain, and creating all sort of great chemicals in your brain because you are getting rewarded - and I'd say your brain lights up, if you looked into the chemistry of it.

"But at the same time, it's a very short career. The average career length is only about six or seven years. You come out the other end and sometimes you forget that there is a big, bad world out there, and you have got to go work, you have to figure out your path, and that's why groups such as Rugby Players Ireland or International Rugby Players have recognised that."

He says young players come out the other end of academies and they have to learn about life outside rugby. He adds: "And it can be a bit of a bubble. I got into different business interests outside of rugby because I forced myself to. I tend to have a very 360 approach to life. I always force myself to look outside of it [rugby] and meet people outside of it."

Gay players

I remark how, when it comes to sex and dating, young rugby players become successful on the pitch, which attracts a lot of attention. It is natural then that they are going to in turn be attracted to the girls.

"Or boys," Jamie pipes up.

Yes, very true, I reply. Although I don't think we have any gay rugby players in the Irish team?

"Ehhh... I don't think…," he thinks for a moment. "I never ask."

If there was a gay player on the team, does he feel it would be difficult for them to come out?

"I don't think there would be any issue whatsoever," he says, but then he adds, "You need to fact-check me on this, but I don't think there has been any openly gay, bisexual - there are so many permutations I don't want to step on any toes - but I don't think there has been anyone who have been open while playing. I know Gareth Thomas came out, but that was 'post playing' [international rugby]."

Statistically speaking, you would think there would be one Irish rugby player who would be gay?

"I would say it is only a matter of time before someone does [come out] and fair play to them," says Jamie.

On to the money, so.

In 2014, it was reported that the IRFU smashed their pay structure to keep Jamie in Ireland, in what was, at the time, described as a landmark deal, believed to be worth more than €1.5m over three years.

"Well as you know what is written in the papers isn't necessarily always true," he laughs, "I know you might be a very good journalist and you might stick to facts, but I would love to know how [that reporter] got that piece of information, considering that the contract with the union is confidential."

Regardless, before and since his retirement, he has been creating nest eggs.

He has opened a pub called The Bridge 1859 in Ballsbridge with former fellow teammates Dave Kearney, Rob Kearney and Sean O'Brien; he is a quiet shareholder in Lovin' Dublin; he is an investor in UrbanVolt lighting service - it supplies LED lights to small businesses - with Dublin businessman Kevin Maughan. He saw it is as a "cracking idea" and a way "to help with an energy problem going forward". He has also invested in Pointy, an Irish search platform that helps users find goods and services in their local area; and CocoFuzion 100, a coconut-water sports drinks business.

The last one is a project that is close to Jamie's heart because he says he sees "obesity rates and trends are not encouraging going forward, especially in younger adults".

He says he sees growing waistlines in children's rugby camps that he has visited, and that there needs to be an alternative to the sugary drinks that have become a staple in their diet.

"I used it [CocoFuzion 100] myself for hydration when I was playing - it was better than water. It was a great fit. It's low in sugar and doesn't come under the sugar tax, so it ticks all the boxes. I used to give it out to the other lads in the club and you couldn't keep it in the dressing room - they all wanted it."

Long before getting involved in various businesses, however, he had a lot of money coming in at a young age as a professional rugby player. How did he handle it?

"I knew I was my own worst enemy. Like anyone at the very start, when you come out of college and you start making money, everyone is usually living pay cheque to pay cheque, because you're giddy. It's the first time you've got money in your back pocket, and at the very start you are still in the same boat as everyone else in that regard, because you are just not used to it.

"But you realise quickly from talking to your mates that you're getting a little bit more than them and you are doing well, but then you realise that it's not going to last forever."

So he was smart: "From pay-cheque one, I set up my pension. I saved a lot. I knew what worked for me. If it was out of sight, it was out of mind - so you set up standing orders, you put money in saving accounts and you just made a degree of separation. I put a lot of it aside. I was able to buy myself an apartment in 2006 [at the age of 22]. It was over in Cork Street. I loved it."

Two years later, in 2008, he then upgraded to a house in Irishtown. But within weeks the economy had fallen off a cliff: "I don't remember the exact timeline of events, but it was very quick. A lot of people didn't see it coming. But look, I was lucky, I was getting paid very well, so I was able to ride the wave.

"When I bought my house I was 24. It was 2008, and we won the Grand Slam in 2009, and we realised at the time how tough it was for a lot of people."

It was Irish rugby coach Declan Kidney who gathered the troops in the dressing room and told them what a victory would mean for a nation on its knees.

"I remember Deccy saying to us: 'This means a lot for a lot of people'. It was a distraction for the country. Winning the Grand Slam and winning those games brought positivity to people at a time when things weren't exactly great."

At the same time, as a team, he says, "We were in a good position. We were very grateful. There was a lot of our generation who left the country. But, on the other hand, you were still a bit jealous because they got to see the world. We travelled a lot playing in other countries, but you never really got to see the places."

For his 13-year playing career, he says, "My holidays were dictated to me. I could never book a holiday. OK, it's not a massive issue, but I could never say, 'I'm going off to Australia for a year or two'."

He says while playing on the Irish team: "I tried to [leave] twice with my contract. I always explored the marketplace and wanted to see if I could go to Japan or Australia, and then make my way back to Europe, but it didn't work out.

"I wanted to experience new things. But look, when you go deep down into your passion, everyone makes sacrifices. I was asked to be groomsmen for some of my best mates and I couldn't go to the weddings because of games. You take the rough with the smooth."

Retired from the professional sport at the age of 34, he has since been bitten by the travel bug.

Off to Ethiopia two days after our interview, he is trying to pack in as much as possible for another reason - he and his wife Sheena (pictured left) are expecting a baby.

The pair tied the knot in August 2016, after he realised very early on that she was 'the one'.

"When someone is a good partner, they keep you in check and they are honest with you. They are not caught up in any [of the hype]. They are just concerned about you as a person," he says.

The pair met when Jamie was doing the rounds asking people to sponsor him for the charity drive Movember. "We just clicked and away we went," he says. "She is not really into rugby. She would only go to a game if I asked her. She's busy and she has got her own life as well, so she is very independent.

On his impending fatherhood, he says: "I am very excited. I mean, when you think about it, you're responsible for a little human."

Like himself, he is adamant about letting the child follow his dreams: "Whatever they want to do, I would say just go for it. If it's a boy, and he wants to play rugby, that's fine. If he wants to do something like GAA, music, art, he can do whatever he wants. He can knock himself out."

Does he ever stop to take stock? A phenomenal career behind him, new business ventures up and running, a beautiful wife and a baby on the way?

"Oh yeah, I was only talking to Sheena about this the other day. I am very grateful for where we are right now. You do have to give thanks and, for me, gratitude is a big thing. Every evening I write a little note of gratitude in a journal. I give thanks and I let it out into the ether and just let it be. I deal with life as it comes, but right now I feel a very lucky man."

Jamie Heaslip is an ambassador for CocoFuzion 100, the 100pc natural flavoured coconut water with natural electrolytes and no added sugar, making it a great alternative to fizzy drinks for an everyday natural rehydration break. Available to purchase in Tesco and SuperValu nationwide

Photography by Kip Carroll

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