Ben Healy is cantering around the pitch loose limbed, flicking out his legs this way and that. Low tempo as the sun beats down on the Scotland training session, he picks up a stray ball, has a look behind and fires it to Pierre Schoeman. The Scottish loose head prop catches it, glances up and skews his drop kick attempt away to the left of the posts.
The two players are similar but different visually, Healy light skinned with a full strawberry blond moustache, which makes him appear older than his 24 years and Schoeman, with a deeply tanned face and licks of curly hair tangled in sweat across his forehead.
Fellow travellers, Schoeman, who qualified for Scotland on residency grounds from South Africa, and Tipperary-born Healy, who qualified through his mother’s side of the family, slowly jog as loud music booms around the ground at Stade des Arboras on the outskirts of Nice, just four days before the former Munster outhalf plays in his first World Cup match against Romania.
“They’re very proud to have a son playing international rugby,” says Healy about his parents. “They’re happy for me because I’m happy. They’re probably more excited than I am for Saturday. Can’t wait for it.”
It has been a hasty ascent for Healy, who realised that his ambition of making the Rugby World Cup in France would not be met if he stayed in Ireland. Jack Crowley was at Munster, Ross Byrne in Leinster and Johnny Sexton unyielding despite his advancing years.
The bold decision to leave Munster for Edinburgh on a two-year contract came after Scotland had made the approach in 2020, offering a place with Glasgow. Healy will play with Edinburgh after the World Cup and has already been rewarded with three caps. Romania is an opportunity to establish himself as the regular understudy to the 31-year-old Finn Russell.
“Ben has settled in unbelievably well, when he came in during the Six Nations,” says Scotland team analyst Gavin Vaughan. “I remember meeting him and his dad in November with Gregor [Townsend, coach]. They came over to us for Scotland and New Zealand and then we obviously brought him in.
“He has taken to the way we play like a duck to water. I think he’s really enjoyed coming in and having a few more opportunities to express his skills, different to the way his club were playing at the time and then he went back to Munster at the end of the year, got a couple of starts and they had a really successful end to their season.
“So, he’s a confident player, a great skill set. He kicks off both feet and I don’t know if you’ve seen some of his spiral kicks. Sometimes at training I’m just giving him a clap. I’ve not seen many people that have a tight spiral like him. He’s definitely a good addition for us.”
It’s a reasonable bet that Healy is the first Scottish international rugby player to have attended Limerick’s Glenstal Abbey, a school with 230 pupils and an average class size of 18. It was there he directed his teen infatuations towards perfecting the kicking of a rugby ball.
The spiral kicks that caught the eye of Vaughan are a product of hours on the training ground kicking, punting, spiralling, gathering. One of the stars and captain of the team that won the Munster Schools Cup for the first time, his path was sketched out long before he left the stone parapets and battlements of the Benedictine Monastery.
Healy’s natural ability combined with his dedication to the game has moulded him into a player of poise and confidence.
Around the practice ground as the players break into smaller groups, his insouciance is apparent, confidently throwing a dummy pass and gliding through a gap. There’s the expressionless “just part of the day job” vibe as he touches down the ball.
Munster, he says, was kind to him. The players and the club brought him on. More thankful than frustrated, he says moving out of Ireland was the right decision.
“It kind of all happened in a whirlwind,” he says. “The last five or six games for Munster just seemed to roll into one and by the end we’d won [the URC] and it was done. A few weeks off and then you’re into a really intense World Cup camp, which is probably one of the toughest preseasons you will ever do.”
And if Munster had blockages, what about Russell, as much an immovable presence in Scotland as Sexton is in Ireland.
“I’ve learned a huge amount. He’s been in the jersey for the last number of years. It’s important for a 10 coming up to have guys to learn off,” says Healy. “I’ve been very fortunate through coaches and players, I’ve learned off some brilliant outside-halves. I had Stephen [Larkham] for years at Munster, then came here and I’ve had Gregor [Townsend]. I’ve taken a bit from multiple sources. Finn’s been great.”
“He’s really open, very honest – a great leader within the group. I wouldn’t say there’s a pressure [in replacing him]. It’s more excitement just to get out there and lead this team for Saturday. That’s my job and I’m excited about doing it.”
The Scottish players use different words to describe Healy around camp: idiosyncratic, left-field, outré, individual, distinctive. They all come back to quirky. The reality is Healy wouldn’t be playing in a World Cup if he was a retiring home bird, although it was previously reported that when he left his family farm in Tipperary to attend school in Limerick, it was a traumatic experience and the adjustment to life as a boarder was initially painfully difficult.
“He is a character on the field. He is confident to tell forwards what they should be doing, what we’re doing next in our attack, which is great,” says Townsend. “That is what you want in a 10. In meetings he will contribute as much as Finn [Russell] when we ask the floor what questions they have on our attack. But he is also someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously off the field. I know the players and him have a lot of fun, he is one of the squad. He has fit in really well with the group.”
There is significant Irish goodwill for Healy, an understanding of his ambition and ability. But next week in Stade de France, if he is on the bench, beautiful spiral kicks or not, Munster’s former outhalf will be undeniably Scottish.