Wednesday 12 December 2018

Luke Fitzgerald: People who didn't think Jamie Heaslip was a brilliant player didn't understand rugby at all

21 March 2015; Ireland's Jamie Heaslip with the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship trophy, but now he is enjoying Ireland's success as a spectator. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
21 March 2015; Ireland's Jamie Heaslip with the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship trophy, but now he is enjoying Ireland's success as a spectator. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Luke Fitzgerald and Jamie Heaslip celebrate at the final whistle of their 2009 victory against Scotland en route to winning the Grand Slam. Photo: Pat Murphy/Sportsfile

Luke Fitzgerald

It's the morning after we had beaten Leicester to win the Heineken Cup and I'm panicking that we might miss our first Lions meeting.

The night before, I had promised Jamie that I would pick him up from his house and bring him to the airport so we could fly to London and meet up with rest of the Lions squad to get all of the logistical stuff out of the way.

"Make sure you wake me up."

"I will, I'm not boozing, I'm heading home to get a few hours' kip and I'll be over for you," I assure him.

I'm outside Jamie's house banging on the door for 20 minutes - today of all days! Eventually he answers smiling and off we go laughing about the whole thing.

It's one of the biggest regrets that I have from my career that I didn't enjoy the special moments enough but Jamie knew how to, and it's a side to him that most people will never have seen.


The guy was extremely serious about his rugby but he knew how to enjoy himself as well and I always admired that about him.

It's one of the many things that I hugely respected him for. Coming into Leinster straight from school was a daunting enough prospect, but the way Jamie went out of his way to help me settle into the environment was something I will always appreciate.

In Jamie's mind, it might only have been a small thing but I know that all the young guys valued it. I couldn't say that about every guy in the squad, yet you always remember the ones who go out of their way to make you feel welcome.

He always seemed to have an ideal mix of intensity and being able to be laid-back. You could smash Jamie in training, even with a dirty shot, and he would always laugh it off.

I guess it helps when you're the younger brother of your crew and you've had your fair share of scraps out the back garden.

Nothing ever fazed him. Jamie would get stuck in and be really competitive but he would never lose the head.

That really stood to him because it meant that he was unbelievably accurate all the time. You hear everyone talking about him being a clever player and it's for reasons like that.

For as long as I can remember, Jamie has been big on the smaller details. That's why Joe Schmidt - and every other coach he worked under - was such a huge fan.

Coaches and players knew that Jamie would never let you down and that he would always deliver for you.

Lots of players can do all the work behind the scenes but delivering on the day is an entirely different matter. You never had to worry about that when it came to him.

That's what makes him such a great player, and for me he is one of the all-time greats. He's right up there in our top 10, if not top five, players ever.

I don't often disagree with Drico, but I noticed yesterday that he said that you had to play with Jamie to really appreciate him, but I just always thought that people who didn't think Jamie Heaslip was a brilliant player didn't understand rugby at all.

It's as simple as that. He was an outstanding rugby player. That should never have been up for debate. He consistently showed up for the big moments.

I think back to his last-ditch tackle on Stuart Hogg at Murrayfield in 2015. That summed Jamie up. Everyone else is thinking, 'Okay, it doesn't really matter, we're going to win here anyway.'

But Jamie saves the day and we win the Six Nations. I don't think that tackle ever got enough credit. It was an absolutely brilliant moment and it was exactly why people loved playing with Jamie.

It's all about the fine margins at the top level of professional sport, and he epitomised the finer details.

You could see him doing that extra little bit at training and then when he went home, you just knew he was doing even more - whether that was watching analysis videos or sleeping in an oxygen tent. His wife Sheena is probably the happiest person in Ireland now that he has retired!

Constantly He was constantly working when no one is watching and for me, that is a great sign of a special bloke.

I can never remember him ever having a bad training session. Everyone has an off day, myself included, but not Jamie.

Everything he does, he does to the best of his ability. And that applies to everything in his life, not just rugby.

I know what it's like to have your career cut short, it's a sad way to go out, but Jamie couldn't be more prepared for what comes next and there is no doubt in my mind that whatever he turns his focus to, he will be just as successful as he was on the rugby pitch.

His boots are bloody big ones to fill. There are loads of guys who have a lot of talent, maybe as much as Jamie, but can they consistently deliver at the highest level?

Jamie has set the standard for No 8s in Irish rugby. It's up to everybody else to follow his lead. That's not a bad legacy to leave.

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