Ireland’s maverick number eight fails to score with rugby’s clubbable stuffed shirts

Jamie Heaslip may be unorthodox but he also qualifies as an exceptional backrow forward

Jamie Heaslip: Enjoying a down day on the summer tour to Argentina. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Jamie Heaslip: Enjoying a down day on the summer tour to Argentina. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Mon, Jun 16, 2014, 11:44

Forget Bod and Paulie and Rog. Forget Johnny Sex and Cian – I can draw as well – Healy. Forget about Schmidt. As for Hooky – if only: no the most intriguing character in Irish rugby right now has to be Jamie Heaslip. Anyone who pees off so many rugger types has to be doing something right.

We got treated to headline news from Argentina last week about Jamie being less than thrilled when corralled into a press conference at eight in the morning.

Maybe he’d a head on him from a skinful of Gancia the night before, although it’s doubtful: Heaslip is renowned as a consummate professional. Maybe he’s a lazy ass in the morning, although that’s hardly an easy profile fit either for one of the most decorated players Ireland has produced. Maybe he’d tripped over a chinchilla on the way in. Who knows.

Or maybe, and this is just a wild guess, maybe he wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of spouting platitudes to a roomful of hacks, many of whom it’s safe to assume aren’t exactly warm towards Jamie in the first place.

In fairness to the hackery they don’t appear to be alone in this. Heaslip is viewed warily by rugby types in general. Maybe it’s the Jamie. Al Murray’s landlord famously allows most derivatives of James into his pub, but no Jamies. Except that’s more an Anglo prejudice.

Maybe it’s a more Irish lack of an O. Irish rugby’s holy trinity has long been O’Connell-O’Driscoll-O’Gara: all three reverentially indulged, to the extent that cartoon Cork gets sketched as complicated, Sinatra-length farewells are milked to the mastitic maximum and flogging bread-line electricity becomes a giggle.

 

In contrast, Heaslip, despite being similarly decorated, a former captain of the national team and globally renowned as one of the best number eights on the planet, gets tut-tutted as the regrettable commercial face of modern rugby when he helps flog a few jeeps.

Sure enough the spin from Argentina was that Jamie has no trouble being charming to the media when it suits him. And he said he was looking forward to his holliers so he can “get away from you guys”. The bastard!

Trivial stuff, but it is odd that one of the greatest players Irish rugby has produced appears not yet fully embraced within the game’s manly bosom? I say yet, because you never know. The media horizon is crammed with former star performers who famously scorned a parasitic fourth estate only to subsequently grasp the easy prattle buck and change into cuddly treasures.

Heaslip might yet make the leap also, but it will be a hell of a jump. There’s some real vitriolic stuff out there. Munster fans famously like their “liginds” down to earth and seem to have decided Heaslip is the epitome of Leinster up itself. In fact some of the more extreme social media verdicts suggest Cristiano Ronaldo might be a model of decorous restraint compared to the Ireland number eight.

Heaslip’s mortal sins supposedly include a tongue stud, cultivating a rather rakish Musketeer moustache during “Movember”, appearing for a captain’s flip of the coin wearing ear phones and flip flops, possessing a mutt called Jay-Z and generally giving an impression that rugby might not be his be all and end all.

Now it’s true he might overegg the last one a bit. You don’t get to such a level of performance by clocking off at five. But what the hell. Everyone has a face they choose to present to the world and if Heaslip’s press conference face slipped, it betrayed only a straightforwardness that most of his colleagues manage to conceal behind a more consistent layer of bland PR waffle.

No the real problem rugby-club types have isn’t about what’s in Heaslip’s mouth, on his lip, or the shade of thatch on his head. Bod after all was once forgiven the sort of peroxide mullet that otherwise is only found on hookers tramping the Tallinn docks. No the real problem is that Heaslip gives the impression he doesn’t care what they think about anything, least of all him.

That’s hardly the whole picture, but it’s enough to convince those who want to be swayed that the Ireland number eight might not be a natural fit in the club lounge – not really one of the lads, a bit too full of himself. Basically green-eyed jealously of the guy in the green shirt who has everything they dream of, but isn’t of them.

 Yours truly actually witnessed a touch of this last winter when Heaslip launched the biography of the hugely popular Ireland kit man, Patrick Rala O’Reilly.

There was barely breathing room at Terenure rugby club. And when Heaslip appeared most of it was filled by an almost audible purr from the women present, which in turn provoked some are you looking at my bird type male resentment. This might have been even more obvious had it not been we were all straining to see the one on Heaslip’s arm. The bastard!

None of which really matters at all; except that it would be a shame for this to turn out to be one of those you’ll only appreciate him when he’s gone deals. People who actually know the game tell me that in reality it’s no coincidence Heaslip is the best-paid player in Ireland: he is the best player in Ireland, a rugby phenomenon. He’s also a bit different. Not Frank Zappa different, just different. That may show itself in a too cool for school way sometimes.

But seriously, is Irish rugby so god-awfully uniform that it can’t allow for a little difference sometimes? And really, who cares about occasional exasperation at having to play the bullshit game. Heaslip should be cherished for being exceptional at the game he’s paid to play.

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