Cian Healy: 'Tuesday nights in Coppers are long gone'

Second coming for Ireland’s loosehead prop as rugby embraces his faster, dynamic style

A throwaway line. But, as a crisp analysis of how Cian Healy has remained relevant to Joe Schmidt and Irish rugby, Monday's thought may be one for the ages.

“The Tuesday nights in Coppers are long gone,” says Healy.

It is the loosehead’s second coming. He knows it and there’s a glow of pleasure in that his body has mended and the game has come around to embrace his suite of faster, mobile, dynamic.

For that reason, he says, schools props are falling off the conveyor belt almost fully functional as provincial players. The enrolment over the last five years of frontline Irish talent has shown it.

That in itself is a standalone phenomenon and throws up the question of just what are they doing at schools level rugby to have some players so closely resemble professional props at 18 years old.

“They’re coming out of school now and they are so professional,” says Healy, more in embracing the quality of the players, his competitors, than in wonder at the accomplishment.

Andrew Porter, now 22, made his Irish debut against the USA in June 2017. Jack McGrath, now 26, faced Samoa five years ago for his first cap while 25-year-old Tadgh Furlong played his debut international against Wales in August 2015.

Noted for his strength, Porter, if the figure doing the rounds is accurate, can squat 350kg (772lb) or, if you like, three Cian Healys. Quite an effective mass of cleaning-out power.

Changes in scrum

Healy doesn’t mind. The nature of the game and the changes in the scrum have come around to meet him on his terms. The quicker, stronger player – or, as he says, the “sharper” prop – is in vogue. Big does not necessarily mean slow, nor small and fast. But big and quick, that will do.

“I came in trying to change the position, so I was happy enough the game stayed fast and got faster,” he says. “It suited me down to the ground. The scrum changing was probably a nice thing, no ‘touch, pause, engage’. The big, heavy lads didn’t have a run at me, that suited the way I played.

“Small, headstrong young prop, that was me . . .”

He doesn’t exactly know what weight he is but it is between 112 and 114kg. “Nice weight,” he says, understanding how it paid off for him last year, when there had been a silent concern that because of the brutal nature of his injuries he might have slipped of his trajectory at the elite end of the game. Clearly not the case.

Body-wise I'm feeling very good now. I'm not going to say I'm 19 years old – I'm pretty good

“I felt good running around and keeping the speed up, which is important. When I got heavy I got slow. So no one wants a slow prop.”

As effective and irreplaceable as John Hayes once was at tighthead prop, Tadgh Furlong also swung into that side of the scrum with a transformative makeover in mind. McGrath and Porter too have become symbolic of slick high-street rugby fashion, the only difference from the backs an XL label.

Modern cuts

In a sense they are all modern cuts of what came before them in Healy, who will be 31 years old next month.

“Body-wise I’m feeling very good now. I’m not going to say I’m 19 years old – I’m pretty good. The older you get the more extras you need to do, the more time and respect you have to give your body, the more you have to do details,” he says.

“It’s more enjoyable. It’s a more talented game now. There’s so much focus on skill and being tactically able to break teams down, and having set plays that can stretch someone to score in four phases’ time. When I started you had a starter play, then bash it up and try to score.”

Healy was 22 years old when he earned his first Irish cap in November 2009 against Australia in Croke Park. That was more than six months after Ireland had won the Grand Slam with Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery and Hayes across the front. Tom Court, who played both sides of the scrum, was on the bench with Rory Best the replacement hooker.

"I don't want to change my swing and go backwards," he says, veering towards the technical and all the things you would love to understand. Tinkering yes, but breaking "the swing" down à la golfer Nick Faldo and reconstructing it won't happen. No need.

Healy is also more chilled, missing his friend Jamie Heaslip, but chilled. A life balance with the Heaslip house for a coffee stop on the way home. It wasn't always that way.

“When I was injured I was more worried about whether I was going to get another knock,” he says. “Then you’re in a brutal head space coming in. [But] I’m not getting knocks, I’m feeling fit.”

Not at all appearing to miss Tuesday nights in Coppers either.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times