Jamie Heaslip: scrums, swears and war zones

As Ireland prepare for their big clash with England at Twickenham, Heaslip reflects on his upbringing with his army dad, his love of rugby and his role as a ‘brand ambassador’



Most-played tunes :
Don’t Matter by Kings of Leon
Tuscan Leather by Drake
Rock City by Kings of Leon
Beautiful War by Kings of Leon
Alive by Chase and Status

Biggest is, I suppose, getting red-carded against New Zealand in June 2010.

Biggest fear? I’m not a big fan of reptiles, snakes – generally things that are really poisonous.

Most embarrassing moment: I was pretty fat in my last year of school, and at my debs we were getting the big photo of everyone. There were loads of people and I was standing up on a kind of platform with the lads at the back. We were kind of standing off it and, yeah, the pants split – right up the ass, in the debs, with all the girls seeing. A lot of photos went around of that.

Dream dinner party guests: Muhammad Ali would be great; Steve Jobs’s views and thoughts would be good; Elon Musk and Marissa Meyer.

Death row meal : The sausage stuffing you get in Superquinn (now SuperValu); that, and my mum’s mashed potato.

* * * * *

Before it became a luxury hotel, Carton House sat on more than 1,000 acres of magnificent Georgian parkland. Today much of that is gone; the little flags dotted across the Co Kildare demesne now mark out the territory of the golfing classes who moved in during the 2000s.

But the grounds of one of Ireland’s finest stately homes isn’t all manicured fairways and pristine greens. And it’s here, in a patch of woodland shadowed by the grand house, that Irish rugby international Jamie Heaslip will spend much of a well-earned day off, sitting behind the wheel of a large 4x4, driving journalists around a mud track.

At one time big companies simply endorsed elite athletes. These days they appoint “brand ambassadors”. Heaslip was drafted into the Land Rover diplomatic corps some time ago, and today he gets a new posting: a Range Rover Sport, if you’re asking. The quid pro quo? Display his off-road chops by driving around the demanding and muddy course.

Like any good diplomat, the Irish and Leinster number eight, fresh from a clinical gutting of the Welsh a few days earlier, conducts his official duties with charm and aplomb. He does have one concern, however. “Cut out my curses, right?” he requests half-jokingly as I follow him into the vehicle. “I might curse the odd time.”

Profanities aside, he’s in good humour and full of chat. With Ireland’s success so far in the Six Nations, why wouldn’t he be?

“It’s great, it’s really exciting,” he says of this year’s tournament. Since the impressive, if heartbreaking, display against the All-Blacks last November, a sense of anticipation has crept up around this Ireland team. Having already beaten the reigning champs, they’re swaggering about like real contenders this year.

“There’s a distinct difference from times gone past when lads were . . . not deflated, but maybe a little bit weary and not full of energy coming into the camp,” Heaslip says, steering to avoid a tree. “The Irish are sports mad and, when Ireland are actually playing something, they go up another level. The players feed off that. It’s very hard to ignore it.”

Heaslip was born the youngest of four children by eight years (“I always say I’m the one that got past the keeper”), in Tiberias, Israel,where his father, Richard Heaslip, a retired brigadier general, was serving with the UN. He grew up in Naas, Co Kildare, for the most part, and that’s where, at the age of eight, he first picked up a rugby ball. His dad had played with Shannon, and his brothers played too, so it was “kind of a case of monkey see, monkey do”.

The junior and senior teams at Newbridge College beckoned, as, eventually, did Leinster and Ireland, who last year he captained through a disappointing Six Nations campaign (winning just one game and conceding a first loss to erstwhile minnows Italy). This season, new coach Joe Schmidt appointed Munster’s Paul O’Connell as skipper, with Heaslip taking up the vice-captaincy. Heaslip admits last year’s tournament “from a personal point of view” was “not great”, but stresses that a lot of young players gained good experience.

They’ll need it this weekend when they take on England in Twickenham, because all that newfound swagger will count for little if Ireland fail to make amends for the pasting they received from the English in Dublin last year.

Heaslip acknowledges there’s always something that bit different about an England game. “It’s an old Irish thing,” he says. “It just goes back years, man, y’know? There’s just that rivalry that’s there naturally, but it’s in a positive way. There’s a lot of banter off the field between all the different supporters and I think it just goes up another level, that banter, the coverage, the hype – all that feeds into it. I think England games are that little bit special.”

As the vehicle lurches around the track, talk turns to sponsorship and the extra work it entails. To Heaslip it’s “part and parcel of the professional game, to the benefit of everyone, I suppose”. He’s not the only Irish player with lucrative brand endorsements. Rob Kearney has a thing going with Audi, Cian Healy drives a Land Rover Defender so big – a “monstrosity”, apparently – that it doesn’t even fit into the car park of the Shelbourne Hotel.

So do the players have to fabricate nicey-nicey public personas to keep corporations happy? “Most of the time, you get what you see with me,” Heaslip says. “Sometimes you probably have to be a bit aware when you curse and stuff, but my dad gives out to me an awful lot for cursing too much. He goes, ‘You’ve a mouth like a soldier sometimes,’ but that’s the officer in my dad speaking.”

From the start of his professional career, Heaslip made a decision not to discuss his private life. “Family and friends and all that I keep separate where I can.” That said, he can’t help talking about his father, who has obviously been a big influence.

As a result of his role in the Defence Forces, the young Jamie enjoyed stints in Cyprus, Kosovo and Belgium. With a war history buff for a father, Heaslip remembers road trips to Dubrovnik via Sarajevo and a pan-European journey from Cyprus to the French coast with his parents and, beside him in the back seat, a perhaps not entirely enthusiastic teenage sister.

“Dad bought a car like a lot of the guys in Cyprus did,” he recalls. “We drove back through Europe but Dad brought us through Auschwitz and then into Normandy and all that kind of stuff, because he’s into that. But,” he pauses briefly and shakes his head with a smile, “God love my sister. I would have been eight. She would have been like 17, and she had to sit in a car, with her younger brother and her two parents, the summer she just did her Leaving Cert, and go through Normandy and Auschwitz. I’d say she was so annoyed.”

[CROSSHEAD]Life war zones
[/CROSSHEAD]Living close to war zones gave Heaslip a better sense the world, he says. More recently he’s been to Kolkata with Goal, and this year he plans to go to Sierra Leone or South Sudan with the aid organisation. “You get to go into those conflict zones and you get to realise what’s going on. I think it helps having a better sense of things.”

If charity is one side project, there are plenty of others. He was 20 years old when he signed his first professional rugby contract (last month he agreed another deal, which will see him remain in Dublin after much speculation about a move to French side Toulon). At that age, rugby occupied him entirely – “everything else just kind of falls to the wayside” – but now, at 31, he knows it won’t last forever, so he’s lining up some outside interests.

Last year he teamed up with Dublin’s dark prince of hipster cuisine, Joe Macken, to open a restaurant in what this newspaper described at the time as “one of the unlikeliest pairings in Irish food”. Heaslip used to go to Macken’s Jo’Burger in the city centre a lot (“I still do”) because it meant he didn’t have to cook. The two of them hit it off and eventually opened Bear, with a couple of other partners, on South William Street.

“It’s been a learning curve, a steep one,” Heaslip says. “When people ask how the restaurant’s doing, I say, ‘It’s still open and that’s a good sign, especially in the restaurant trade, after a year’. He also invested in a sports science tech start-up called Kitman Labs, and has come on as a sort of – how does he put it? – “consultant” for Lovin' Dublin, a food and culture website. Part of the reason he rejected the Toulon offer was this love for his adopted city.

“My mates give me awful abuse because they call me a towny now, and I’m only from Naas,” he says. “I’ve been living in Dublin since I was 17, so it’s 13 years now. I love the vibe, the energy that’s in Dublin right now. In the city there’s a lot of things happening. In the tech world, the restaurants, the cafes, there’s a lot of stuff bubbling up.”

With all these other considerations, has rugby started to take a back-seat in his life? “Oh hell, no! No,” he replies, convincingly. “Rugby first and foremost is what I’m all about.” At this point, the 4x4 is idling as we wait for the photographer to position himself in front of a large puddle. “You just park your time,” Heaslip adds. “You divide your time up. You kind of know sometimes when you’re going to have a week off or there’s going to be a little less training. You just divide your time around that, but first and foremost it’s all about rugby. All that stuff gets taken care of before I even look at anything else.”

Heaslip is distracted. His determination is well regarded in rugby, and now, as he pilots his vehicle along the mud track, he directs it towards the puddle the waiting photographer is standing next to. “He’s going to get soaked,” Heaslip chirps as he speeds past, creating a tall, muddy wave that engulfs the photographer.

Later the subject turns to media commitments, and whether it can all get a bit tiresome. “I’ve been a professional since I was 21, it’s just been part of it . . . We’d say Rob Kearney does the most, but he’s probably trying to chase girls.”

You would imagine these lads wouldn’t necessarily have to “chase” girls. “I don’t see any attention,” Heaslip laughs, before turning into a schmaltzy teenager. “I’m unbelievably so happily smitten with my partner, Sheena [Ó Buachalla, head of marketing for Leinster], so everything else falls by the wayside. We have this thing in rugby called the Baha, so, a bloke that’s batting above his average, so like, I’m batting above my average.”

At the end of the interview, we do a quick-fire Q&A (see panel, above) and the third question – “what’s your biggest fear?” – seems to catch him off guard.

“Oh, f***,” he blurts out, and then immediately claps a hand to his mouth and grimaces. The answer turns out to be reptiles – after today you’d almost think it was cursing.

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