Healy intends to fully embrace his early chance on the dance floor

 

Magners League: Johnny Wattersontalks to the young Leinster prop, who has had a meteoric rise to front-line action

Comments from a schools rugby

internet site, August 2005 . . .

Marshmallow: Rock have a strong team. Fitzgerald is a pretty good player. Belvo have Cian Healy from last year's team and he's a deadly player.

Gick: I didn't know Cian Healy was only in fifth year. I read an article about him in the Rugby World magazine the other day. Says he has a career in the shot putt or something.

Funkstard: Yep, Cian Healy has a year left. He was benching in the 100s (kgs). He's ridiculous.

Two-and-a-half years on, Cian Healy walks in nervous and skittish. He is both a player who has been a long time coming and one who has arrived sooner than expected. This is his first time to meet the media in the ante-room to the side of the Leinster team gym, where he now benches those 100s every day alongside Ireland and Lions players.

He has the sleepy look of youth, an unkempt, wispy growth, not quite a beard but more than unshaven, and that wide-eyed look of a player who has landed in a place where he would not have expected to be for another two years.

The prop, who turned 20 in October, was plucked for senior Leinster front-line action against Border Reivers at the end of last season and will start against Ospreys today. With injury to Ollie le Roux and with Ronan McCormack and Stephen Knoop both coming back from lay-offs, the "ridiculous" Healy has been offered a chance in this, his first full season as a professional player.

Last week, against Ulster, he scored his second Leinster try. He knows the door has been opened ever so slightly with the added incentive of a Heineken European Cup adventure against Toulouse just a week away.

There is no doubt the former Belvedere College player is still the promise and not yet the product, but his elevation in the prop position at such a young age has caused tongues to wag. It has also left Irish rugby and the club where he spent his formative year, Clontarf, feeling pleased as punch for bringing on a player of his ability in a position for which there is scarcely enough high-grade material to go around.

The plaintive cry of "mammy, I want to be a prop" has too often, over recent years, been met with dissenting voices from the mothers of Ireland. Healy is a much sought after commodity and is currently living the dream.

"Last season I think I started one AIL match for Clontarf and, at the end of the season, to get a few minutes on the bench (for Leinster) I was overwhelmed," he says. "I couldn't believe it. Now this season as well. It's off and it's coming nicely for me. I just have to keep the head down."

Healy is the powerful, mobile type of player and in that part of his game he is gifted and natural. Like the former Ireland number eight Victor Costello, he was a champion thrower at school, in a discipline that demands explosive speed.

The technical aspects of the scrum, the understanding of space and direction on the pitch and the experience of knowing where the right place to be when a match is whirling around the pitch at a high pace are the aspects he has to learn from battle-hardened war horses like le Roux.

He knows that, as does Cheika. But the blooding of him so early is also a mark of how highly he is prized and in what direction Leinster want him to travel.

"I'm happy with some parts of my game, but there are still some parts that I have to improve on," he says. "Just have to get involved more in the game. It's only been my first year with the senior team and I still have to get into the swing of how things work.

"It's brilliant to have Stan (Wright) and Ollie (le Roux) there. Ollie is a very approachable guy. He'll come straight up and tell you. You know, you're doing this wrong . . . maybe if you move your foot a bit more that way that might work better. He's fairly easy-going. I have to listen to them and try to take in the information they give me and learn from things they do and put it into my own game and change it."

His is on a particularly steep learning curve for a frontrow. Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald both came into the senior set-up at similar ages and have prospered, but life in the back line compared to the gouge and grunt face-to-face confrontations of a prop is like comparing the crane driver with the wrecking ball.

Healy has just recently departed from his teen years and as an underage player he fully expected to do what Belvedere boys usually do after their Leaving Certificate - go to college. By then, the Leinster academy had taken him on board, but building a rugby career around talent and hope also required something more functional and certain on which to fall back.

Healy understood that getting on to the academy dance floor was one thing, moving well to the music was more fraught with danger and at another level completely.

He repeated his geography exams and was accepted into DCU to study PE and Biology. But that was before his life plans began to accelerate away from academia and towards the beloved trenches.

Now he's, well, dancing.

"I was brought straight into the academy. That got me training at a high level just so that I wouldn't drop off," he says. "I kind of envied a lot of people who were going off on J1s (US student work visas) for the summer. But looking back now I'm thankful that I got it. I repeated geography in my Leaving last year and I got what I wanted for the course. Then I got the call from Michael Cheika. So it was which one do I chose.

"I was accepted into DCU on a scholarship, but because of the cross-town travel I haven't been able to make too much of it. They've allowed me time to defer my course and split up semesters so probably next year when I've settled in I'll get back."

What is impressive is that the still-maturing Healy has adapted well to the physical challenge, which should help longevity in an area of the game where attrition rates are savage for players who struggle in the beefcake wars. As props play well into their 30, the north Dublin player, if he can avoid career-threatening injury, has at least a decade ahead of him.

As a member of the Irish Schools, Irish under-19 and most recently the Ireland under-20 Grand Slam-winning team of 2007, he is also used to the variations and nuances in style between the four teams Ireland defeated for the title - England, Italy, Scotland and France. But adapting to the bigger, faster, more punishing game at senior level, he must learn an entirely new repertoire of skills.

"He's one of the quickest props going around. He's quite a powerful lad and I think he's got to learn to use all that in the game," says Cheika. "I sat him down and had a talk with him after last week's game and he said, 'I was puffing'. And he's one of the fittest around. It's just the pace and the intensity and as much as those individual touches count, there is no getting away from the fact that the prop's main place is the set-piece and getting that right and making sure the tight play is excellent. Loose play is a bonus. He's probably a better loose player as a prop than I was as a number eight.

"But we felt that what he's shown is he needs club football or A-team football. Being around these guys and coming into the gym with them . . . every time he gets on the pitch, every five minutes he plays will add to his experience.

"As a player it's those nuances in the 'dark zone' where he really needs to get his experience and get his knowledge up and (Mike) Brewer has been giving him a lot of help as have Ollie and other guys."

The other reality is that Cheika must reach into the academy occasionally to draw on Irish players rather than buy in seasoned professionals. It is part of IRFU policy, one from which Healy is currently benefiting. Blending him into the team with the likes of Wright, le Roux and hooker Bernard Jackman as chaperones is a balancing act for the coach and one that is expected to pay off down the road. Cheika is bound by the limitations.

Promoting success in Leinster rugby without being detrimental to the long-term ambitions of the Irish game requires deft hands and the schooling of a talent like Healy at Magners League level and perhaps even European Cup is a closely managed but a deliberate risk. That the player oozes ability and potential makes Cheika's task easier, while the player himself must adjust to the seismic shifts.

"It has been a pretty big lifestyle change," he says with open enthusiasm. "Now its bed early, up early and out to training. It's pretty much your whole life. It's not just nine to five. Its all day, every day. I must say I do like the change. I do like the challenge that's put in front of me. It suits my nature.

"I didn't really come in with much expectation because I signed in as development player and I kind of thought I'd get a minute or two and then play the rest of the season with Leinster A. But Michael Cheika has brought me in now for more games than I expected and to be honest I'm just taking those opportunities as they come to me.

"Physically, it is a lot tougher. It's a faster game and harder hits as well. It all adds up and takes its toll. But I found myself more prepared for the physical side. I found the harder part of the game was the tactical and the strategical play. So, physically, I've trained myself into that already and it's not too bad."

As Healy leaves, Gordon D'Arcy arrives bearing a cut above his left eye.

"Donkey O'Kelly," he grumbles jokingly. He taps Healy on top of the head and raises his eyes as if asking a question. "Paul Wallace, Paul Wallace?" says D'Arcy.

Looks like him? Plays like him?

Either way the prospect is on the right path, already punching above his weight.