'Even when my form was fairly brutal I was pissed off I wasn't in' - Cian Healy on his battle with Jack McGrath
CIAN Healy and Jack McGrath are prop idols with one eye on this summer’s Lions tour but for now their Leinster and ireland rivalry is bringing out the best in both men.
And after getting the nod to start at the Stadio Olimpico today, Clontarf man Healy admits that he didn’t deserve to usurp his younger rival, who has started every championship match since Ireland lifted the title in Murrayfield two years ago.
"I've got the jersey for a week,” says the 29-year-old Healy, who missed just two championship games since his 2010 debut against today’s opponents in Dublin.
“It's not 'get the jersey and sit on it'. Even last year when my form was fairly brutal I was still pretty pissed off that I wasn't in.
“It's good to keep that mentality that you should be up there as well as the same work mentality that got you there. A good combination of both has kinda dragged me through.
“It didn't really help at times when I was playing bad because I was backing myself when I wasn't capable of it but that's the way I went about it and I had to stick to it."
Healy wasn’t aware that the 2015 title triumph represented his last RBS 6 Nations start - if it has felt like a long time in his career, it’s because it has been.
“I've missed starting in a lot of games. It's good to get back. It's a nice feeling on the back of a lot of hard training and a good bit of graft.
"Hopefully I’m hitting form. I'm just trying to out as many minutes together as possible and play to patterns rather than go off on my own.
“Be a part of the systems, you need to time to do that and I feel like I'm getting that now. It was a different game back when I started out.
“Defences weren't as well structured and you could beat one and there was a whole open field behind it.
“Everyone's after getting better in terms of defensive structures so you need to play to a system whether it is pods or around the corners or whatever. If you make that line break then it is a chance to do what you can."
Healy has had to adapt and the manner in which his body has taken such a terrific pounding over the years has doubtlessly forced him to.
Healy has emerged from a horrendous run of injuries including a severe hamstring tear and a debilitating nerve issue in his neck, each of which attacked his key areas of strength - powerful carrying and scrummaging.
A players noted for confounding medical opinion, he proved that again in the World Cup two years ago when beating the docs’ timeline after neck surgery to play in the tournament.
Of late, it has seemed that the injuries have taken their toll - his 2013 Lions sortie had also been cut short that way - while indiscipline and generally indifferent form also dogged him last year.
Injury restricted him to just two championship appearances last season and he was even rested from the summer tour to South Africa.
"Yeah, I just wasn't getting enough runs to get fit enough. My skill set wasn't in a good enough place and I suppose confidence took a bit of a knock that I had to put it on the back burner.
“It took the break at the end of last season to get everything right and out in some serious hours of skill work, technical work and rehab stuff to iron everything out."
Now he has primed for the Italian scrum; although he was also primed for the weakening Scottish scrum last week. Unluckily for him there weren’t any following his 46th minute arrival.
“That was strange. I haven't had that one now. I've come on for seven-minute stints and not had scrums but never that long. A strange one, that.
“This week is a great opportunity. The Italian lads have a pretty solid scrum and they had a pretty good day out, in their scrum, last week so it will be a nice challenge for us.
“I said it last week as well but we went hard at each other in training. We always do. We're a tough scrummaging unit in training - we don't go easy on ourselves and we never do.
“That has us well prepared. The lads, in the scrums they did have, did well and they were pretty well armed for what came at them last week. We're in a pretty good place in the scrum this week.
“We still got it in the video review though. The scrums were decent but they weren't all go forward scrums so we've got a little bit of flak.”
Healy expects Ireland to iron out the problems that scuppered them against Scotland on the opening day.
“For the first ten minutes, you have to start quickly. One of those tries was very sneaky and it caught us off-guard. There's no excuses for that. Defensively, we weren't set up correctly for it. “For the first 10 minutes, it's where you set your mark out and you build on that. The tries took the wind out of us but to finish strong is probably more important, especially in the game that it was and after coming back on the score.
“We let ourselves down with defensive slip-ups and discipline issues. We've drilled pretty hard on that. That's not something you flog yourself on the pitch to do.
“That's the mental side of the game, where you've got to sit down and mentally put yourself in a tough position - What would I do? - and run through everything so when it does come to that, you have seen the situation already and you have a calm head coming into it.
“Italy are constantly improving. Conor O'Shea has put in some good structures as well. They are a strong outfit and they are well capable.
“The lads wear a lot of heart on that jersey and they can show up for 60 or 80 but they are just so dangerous, to take your foot off with them, because the lads like Parisse and them can just break lines and score tries, and we can't give that away in the late stages of the game.
“We'll go hard from the start and we'll definitely be looking to finish hard as well.”
Unlike last week, dominating the rucks is key.
“Contact entry is the main thing. If we're hitting a ruck properly, we shouldn't be getting pinned down by somebody. We should be blasting through - shoulder contact - and they'll end up on the ground, or whatever, and we will still be standing. That's the idea.
“They can pin a tackler but ideally we are getting tackled and we bounce back on our feet and go for a barge to bounce back out into the defensive line, whatever.
“Ideally, our work-rate is going to be higher than being sluggish on the ground and allowing them to pin us in.”
Few have managed to ever pin down Healy for long enough to prosper. Today could be the perfect opportunity for the Leinster man to remind Warren Gatland of his Lions credentials.