Healy in a hurry
Ireland’s tyro prop eager to erase pain of missing Grand Slam glory by playing full part in repeat performance by men in green
Front-row forwards are supposed to be like the finest Châteauneuf-du-Pape. They mature with age. Assume incorrectly that they have reached the fullest of maturity, let the cork out too soon, and one's appreciation may pall.
Cian Healy has bucked the trend. At just 22, Healy has become a rock upon which much of Leinster's Heineken Cup-winning resilience has been built.
Now he is charged with buttressing a Grand Slam-winning scrum facing daily inquiries as to its health. But Healy does not fret.
He's a man in a hurry. The former Belvedere boy used to run for Raheny Athletics club. A few years back at Clontarf, he dabbled with the idea of becoming another Brian O'Driscoll: his rampaging, marauding style betrays those initial dreams.
Now he puts the laughter into manslaughter in terms of the physical destruction he wreaks. The last time Italy visited these shores, Healy was barely mapped. Few rugby supporters would would have given him a second look if he trundled past them in his distinctive pick-up truck.
Expensive imports were the Leinster way in the front-row; patience was not an option.
But when CJ Van Der Linde's damaged toe became the most expensive digit in Leinster's recent history, the door swung open for the man-boy, whose predilection for art, whose desire to create on a blank canvas is so at odds with the rugby player who seeks to destroy every time he enters the sports amphitheatre.
He snaffled the opportunity with both hands. His progress had been sign-posted for some time. At school, he spent two years on the Junior Cup team at hooker, reaching a quarter-final and a semi-final, and then three years on the SCT team, alternating between hooking and propping duties.
He made a bigger splash in athletics, winning the All-Ireland shot putt and discus titles in successive years, having previously been the intermediate All-Ireland javelin champion. The power skills developed by Phil Conway would prove hugely beneficial.
Capped at schools, U-19 and U-20 grades, he won a Grand Slam with the last of those underage sides in 2007; his presence in Declan Kidney's extended national squads hinted at an accelerated full international debut.
As Leinster embarked upon their Heineken Cup-winning run with Healy as their fulcrum, he spoke boldly of how he wanted to supplant Marcus Horan in the national jersey; as with his province, fate granted him an opportunity when the Munster No 1 was ruled out of the November Tests.
The vaunted Italian scrum will provide a test even more daunting than the one he confronted on debut against Australia last autumn. Ireland suffered torridly in that draw, but Healy's rampaging early run -- his stepping is a trademark -- highlighted the nonchalance with which he greeted the challenge.
"He got stuck in," remembers Jerry Flannery. "He's not a shy fellah; he didn't seem to be fazed. He was sitting beside me in the dressing-room with his music on, bouncing around. It's good to see that. Some fellahs you see going white; there was no fear in him."
Healy's international baptism may have been the stuff of dreams, but he didn't dwell on the fantasy that the script was completely without flaw; Ireland's difficulties in the scrum were inescapable, albeit things improved slightly against South Africa.
"There were things I wasn't happy with, there were things I'd like to be much better at," was his full-time report. "The quality of the opposition in both games meant I was under pressure trying to do things. There were parts that were good and parts that I'd like to improve."
Despite his fast-tracking to the international ranks, many retired pros have alerted supporters to the fact that Healy still has significant strides to make in developmental terms.
Despite his headline-grabbing attempts this week to deflect attention from the weaknesses in the Irish scrum, he has acknowledged that he is not the finished article.
"It's always a learning process," he said. "I'm not really a seasoned prop. Every game for me is learning, and training as well. Maybe I'm in the senior Irish team for a game or two, but it's still not saying 'you're there'. There's a lot still to work on."
Even more pertinently, after the November series he admitted: "Maybe if we had a bit more time together as a scrum we would have functioned better, but that will come in the future with more training camps and all that. Hopefully, that'll pick up and we'll have a good all-round scrum."
All of which makes his comments this week a tad surprising. But then, he has earned the right to brag. For a guy able to bench-press his own considerable weight -- 115kg -- and then some, bearing the burden of Irish forward expectations may not be an issue.
"It is brilliant," he says of being involved from day one of the Grand Slam defence. "I can't sit on that. I can't say 'I'm here now' because one slip-up and the jersey will go to someone else. It's not something I want to let go of. It's an opportunity I want to hold on to and I'll keep trying my best to improve and play well.
"I don't feel a burden of responsibility. I've been given another opportunity, it's a different season. What happened last season was great, a serious achievement, and I'm raging I wasn't involved.
"But now I'm getting an opportunity, I'm going to do my best and give the best for the team to try and do it again. They didn't get it by sitting back and watching. It came from hard work and you can see that by the lads in training, in the gym and in video work. There is a lot that goes into it.
"I was in the squad last year and I saw the hard work. I have an understanding of what it takes and hopefully I can be a part of that. It's not any easier just because I already have caps.
"It's playing for your country. It's a different opportunity, different opposition and it's another challenge. I'm just as psyched for this game as I was for my first cap, even more so because this is in the Six Nations, a great competition.
"Nerves wouldn't be a bad thing with me. I look forward to kick-off and want it to be sooner and sooner. I'll just relax now."
If he can relax, maybe the rest of us should too.