High stakes on the highveld for Cian Healy and Leinster

Vastly experienced prop energised by the tough challenge of facing a knockout tie against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld

Leinster senior coach Jacques Nienaber and assistant coach Robin McBryde during the province's squad training session at Afrikaanse Hoer Seunskool, Pretoria. Photograph: Christiaan Kotze/Steve Haag Sports/Inpho

Cian Healy deals in an old school, unreconstructed philosophy about winning rugby matches, one advocating the team that dominates the collisions tends to prevail. That’s a shorthand version.

Sitting in the team hotel in Pretoria in advance of Saturday’s United Rugby Championship (URC) semi-final against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld, the Leinster and Ireland prop first offered a brief travelogue, without the slides, upon request of a journey to South Africa that saw the travelling party split into groups.

Players could view it as an encumbrance or, conversely, let it wash over them, relax in each other’s company, aware that there’s nothing to be gained by getting agitated.

There’s a precedence in dealing with fraught travel arrangements from a Leinster perspective that dates back to December 2022 when the squad suffered a five-hour flight delay, a switch of airports and a two-hour bus journey when playing a Champions Cup match against Racing 92 in Le Havre.


Healy explained: “You see so many things that are stress tests and how we dealt with that [Champions Cup tie] was to have a bit of craic in the airport. It wasn’t us booking the flights [to South Africa], Ronan O’Donnell had a hard time dealing with that sort of stuff, while we were sitting at home after the [Ulster] game.

“We just showed up at the airport, got chaperoned to South Africa. It was handy enough in that regard. We lose one day of a training week, but most of us when we got here went over to the gym and flushed the legs out, got in the pool and stuff. Everyone was running on to the pitch feeling pretty good.”

The return to fitness of Garry Ringrose and Jack Conan means the Irish province are in fine fettle personnel wise in advance of Saturday’s game against a Bulls side that produced a topsy-turvy performance in their quarter-final win over Benetton at a sparsely attended Loftus Versfeld.

Bulls head coach Jake White has implored the locals to turn up in big numbers on Saturday and create a hostile environment. Unsurprisingly that prospect doesn’t faze Healy.

“You feed off the atmosphere, if there’s a big buzz in the stadium and a bit of a show you want to get involved and be part of it. Energy is energy, it’s just what you take from it. We’ll feed off that and enjoy it.”

South African rugby ghost stories designed to scare visiting teams centre on the big, bad, behemoths of the pack but the vastly experienced 36-year-old has enough T-shirts, having been there and done that in the past. He knows what to expect.

“Physical up front, their scrum, maul, and lineout are danger-points in how they enter the game. If we can put a net over that, deal with it and let the backs do their thing and get involved as much as we can, I think that’s how we get into it. Shut out their scrum, shut out their maul and that will let us get on top a bit. They carry straight at you and test your ticker a little bit I suppose, and I think that is a great challenge to get put in front of you.

“You know a team is going to try and beat you up, you have two options there, don’t you? We have the right mindset for that. It’s a great test, any forward should be licking their lips; a proper physical test.

“There’s not going to be many tip-on passes played from them I would imagine; carries are going to go up the guts and it’ll be a bit of ‘me v you’. That’s a great test for us, how we can band together and deal with that. We hit in twos and threes, break them down that way, and that’s a bit of a way where we’ll try and take their legs, constantly shut the door on them when they try and come down the neck.”

Leinster’s scrum excelled in the Champions Cup final against Toulouse and in subsequent URC matches where they forced several penalties. Healy was asked whether it was a change of mindset or the end product of plain hard work.

He said: “There’s a lot of time put into it, there is always a lot of time put into it, but I suppose we’ve gone through the quarters and semis and finals of [the] Champions Cup and, when you’re tested at such a high end, you start to find what really clicks properly for you.

“I think that’s been happening, lads are figuring things out a bit and getting to that comfortable point where you might feel as a loosehead that you’re getting an easier feel of what your tighthead is doing or what he needs. I think it’s time in the saddle under serious pressure where you can produce some goods like that.”

The heartache of losing the Champions Cup final still stings for the players but Leinster are where they want to be this weekend in the URC, playing a semi-final.

“You play professional rugby to be in these weeks where there is high risk and that’s probably where the top players can push on to a high level and play some serious ball and execute the correct thing at the right time. That is where you want to be.”

Highveld, high stakes.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer