Heaslip loving his life tangled up in blue
For the number eight, the joy of playing and winning with Leinster is that he’s amongst friends, writes GERRY THORNLEY
THURSDAY MORNING and a warm sun is bouncing off the water and the pavements at the docklands outside Herb Street café. Jamie Heaslip has bumped into his team-mate Rob Kearney, who is with his father David and his agent Dave McHugh; a fitting scenario to still bask in the warm glow of another Heineken Cup triumph with his mates.
Heaslip and Kearney signed their first professional contracts under Michael Cheika in 2005-06, catching the tail end of the frustrating years before becoming part of the golden years. Heaslip is one of seven players to have started all three finals, scoring a try at Murrayfield in the 2009 win over Leicester.
“Being in the changing room is the beauty. Being in the changing room after a game and before a game. It’s the whole package, it’s when you lose together and you know what it’s like to win together, and I’ve been on the receiving end of some hidings with Leinster and losing some big games, and then you’re there when you win them as well.” He reflects on the most satisfying moment of last Saturday in Twickenham.
“I remember sitting there in the changing room and the trophy was in the middle of the room and just looking going: ‘Man, three in four years. Dude, that is awesome!’ ”
Good-humoured and full of chat, he is still on a little bit of a high, although for sure he’ll have his game head on tomorrow. The hunger for trophies “is like a drug. You win and you just want more. When you set a standard you don’t want to fall short of that even in training. If our standard is down at the end of training we’ll say ‘look lads, that’s not good enough’. Next day we’ve got to step it up and I think that’s what drives us on. As Joe (Schmidt) says ‘you are what you do every day’.”
Last Saturday’s dressingroom celebrations weren’t as mental as last year’s, nor as “berserk” as the breakthrough triumph in ’ 09. That had been emotional. That had been for Girvan Dempsey, Malcolm O’Kelly and the rest of the golden generation who had soldiered through the relatively unfulfilling years, for “those guys who got no return for so long and for everyone who was involved in Leinster. Supporters who maybe got flak over the years for supporting Leinster and finally installing a bit of pride back into it.”
Number two was the best final comeback ever in one of the tournament’s greatest games. Number three was more emphatic, the sense of euphoria creeping in with about 20 minutes to go and re-affirmed by the impact of the bench. “It typified the strength of the group as such. We stayed on our game and stayed hungry to score tries.”
It was also every bit as satisfying. “Yeah, it was still nice to know that there is going to be another (third) star on the jersey next year.”
WANDERLUST AND THE PULL OF HOME
Born in Israel, while his father, retired Brigadier General Richard Heaslip, was there on duty with Unifil and the youngest of four,and who has lived in Croatia, Israel, Cyprus and Belgium, Heaslip seriously contemplated a year in Super Rugby or a year in Japan, where he’s visited a few times as his brother Richard is married to a girl from Osaka.
“But even when it wasn’t working out, because that’s the way negotiations go, I was thinking ‘why would you want to leave an organisation like this?’ We’ve got an unbelievable set up. The strength/conditioning coaches are top of the game, as are all the guys involved with the Academy.”
Furthermore, the David Lloyd Centre in Riverview has been excellent, he stresses, but next season the “organisation” is moving into “an unbelievable facility” in UCD. And one great coach has been replaced by another one. But most significant of all was the pull of playing with his mates and staying in the province where he has played all his life.
And whatever about winning cups with some other team, watching Leinster win from afar? “Ah, it would kill you! It would absolutely kill you, and the competitive git that I am, I would hate it, it would drive me insane.
“It’s all about playing with your buddies. You see us quite a bit at games and it ain’t faked. When one of our buddies goes over for a try we’re over the moon.”
He cites Seán Cronin’s try last week. “We give “Nugget” such abuse but when he scored the try everyone was jumping on top of him, high-fiving the life out of him. Afterwards, he was telling us ‘I’ve never won anything, it’s the first time my Dad has seen me win something’.”
THE PAIN GAIN, THE TURNING POINT AND THE CHEIKA FACTOR
Heaslip’s first Heineken Cup experience, as he calls it, ended with a “spanking” from Munster in the semi-finals. “I never want that again,” was his abiding feeling.
The turning point, he reckons, was “Bloodgate”; the 6-5 quarter-final win away to Harlequins in ’09, and the pounding on their line when reduced to 14 men. “It was knackering. You went to a place that maybe you didn’t have to go to in such a big game before. We knew we got Munster (in the semi-finals) as well and we were so focused. I think lads started realising then you’ve got to be consistently good, you can’t have it just for a one off game.”
He gives much of the credit for this to Michael Cheika. “He shook things up a little bit. He brought a lot of passion to it, but he brought a lot of structure to it.”
Heaslip cites the improved strength and conditioning, the GPS fitness measuring system, Cheika’s faith in young players such as himself, setting the ball rolling on the move to the RDS and a purpose-built facility. All part of Leinster’s identity, and then Cheika bringing in excellent coaches, right down to timing his departure and having a hand in identifying Joe Schmidt.
SCHMIDT IN HIS HEAD
“The good thing about him is that he’s honest. He’s so honest and maybe brutally at times,” says Heaslip of Schmidt. “The flipside is if you do something good, he’ll tell you. He reinforces positives.”
Heaslip has chided his coach that he gets inside his head too much, even when he makes a mistake during a game. He picks out a moment from the league semi-final when the Glasgow prop Graeme Morrison tackled him from behind and knocked the ball from his hand. Heaslip told Schmidt subsequently: “as I was falling to the ground, all I could hear was Joe in my head going ‘ball focus, ball focus. What are you doing? Good players don’t drop the ball’. And I was saying to him ‘Joe, I don’t want to be thinking of you in a game! I want to be thinking about the game’. And he was laughing at himself.”
It says everything about Heaslip’s huge work-rate and stamina, and his importance to Leinster that he is Schmidt’s default captain when Cullen isn’t there. But Heaslip says there are so many leaders it’s a doddle. Of the others even his good buddy Cian Healy isn’t shy about saying a few words, and then there’s Jonny Sexton.
Ah, Sexton. Heaslip smiles. “He’s got a lot of passion, a lot of intensity and I like that in a nine and a ten. It’s not my style, though, I’m quite relaxed, and try and lead by example. But who wouldn’t want to lead the boys out on to the pitch? It’s bloody awesome, leading them out and you just hear the crowd.”
TRANSFERRING ALL THIS TO IRELAND
In a green jersey, and flanked by Seán O’Brien and Stephen Ferris, Heaslip has had to assume a fairly selfless team role. But so be it.
“I do what I feel has to be done to win. I don’t care otherwise. If I have to carry I have to carry. If I have to tackle, I have to tackle. If I’ve to ruck I’ve to ruck. I’d love if I could just carry all day, but you look at the carriers we have now, so I think the workload is just shared out.”
“I would like more carries, but I’m quite happy with how the season has gone for me. I found it a little bit frustrating during the World Cup at times, I felt like I was just getting a lot of rucks. But then I came back to Leinster and I think I got one or two man of the matches and everything is alright again! I’m kind of liking the way the season has gone for me. Other people seem to see otherwise.”
Which leads us neatly into the hot topic of transferring provincial form into the international arena. “My thoughts are pretty simple. You’ve got to put it on the players, and also I think people are being very black and white.”
The pace of Heineken Cup games can be even quicker, but the big difference is skill levels, so that in the Heineken Cup you might get eight chances to score points and convert four or more of them, in Test rugby you might get only four, and do well to score two of them. Similarly, your mistakes are more likely to be punished.
By the time of the third Test, June 23rd, it will be five days under a year, June 24rd 2011, when he went into pre-season. “You’ve got to be professional about it. You’ve got the chance of going down there and doing something no Irish team has done. Don’t you want to be involved in that?” he says rhetorically.
This season, Heaslip has also added to his Medical Engineering degree with a Masters in Management. Now 28, he’s developing an interest in business, witness his recently opened restaurant in South William Street called Bear.
“It’s a grillhouse; different cuts of meat and chicken and pork and lamb, loads of salads and stuff like that,” he says, although he admits: “I do very little, if anything, in the place bar eat my own profits.”
It will be a while yet before he becomes a full-time businessman. He looks at Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, not to mention Brad Thorn and others as examples, and reckons he’s in better shape now than ever.
He socialises less compared to when he started out, or “when I was single”, primarily because in your late 20s you have to. “I’ll always say celebrate the wins, and take the losses on the chin, but you do have to look after yourself and make some choices, so I’ll probably only go out once every four to six weeks.”
ONE LAST BOX TO TICK
Heaslip attended a promotional event for Puma on Wednesday where he told Tommy Bowe that the memory of Bowe scoring for the Ospreys in the final at the RDS two seasons ago was still vivid.
“And they beat us at home this year. They beat us away. they beat us at home two years ago in the final. These guys are a bloody good team, they’ve got bloody good finishers, they’ve got gas on the edge.”
He also remembers the away dressingroom after last year’s final defeat in Thomond Park and saying to himself: ‘Just remember this now, just remember this.’ “It’s never nice losing to Munster but they served us up that day. They deserved to win, and they were better than us.”
It’s another useful memory stored away for this week, because it’s losing with your buddies that also makes winning with your mates all the more rewarding.