Dempsey leads the tributes as Heaslip bows to the inevitable

Dynamic number eight had a long and outstanding career with Leinster and Ireland

Jamie Heaslip: “His medical file was the thinnest of any player in the game. A standing joke. Then a bolt from the blue. That dark irony escapes nobody.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Jamie Heaslip: “His medical file was the thinnest of any player in the game. A standing joke. Then a bolt from the blue. That dark irony escapes nobody.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

It could be a cautionary tale about professional rugby. Then again Jamie Heaslip follows Luke Fitzgerald and Kevin McLaughlin, two of the more recent players to have their careers prematurely ended.

Heaslip tried to get back playing following a lower back injury, his last appearance coming in Ireland’s 22-9 defeat to Wales in the 2017 Six Nations. He suffered the career-ending injury in the build-up to the final fixture against England.

Each time he was asked about progress in the intervening months – and he was many times – he answered as he had always done. His body and medical details were purely his business alone.

Of course the Irish number eight was right with player data now becoming a serious issue in terms of who owns the information gathered in their GPS devices and who should have access to it. Whichever way that development breaks, the skill set of Heaslip will be missed by Leinster and Ireland.

“From my understanding he got very close,” explained Girvan Dempsey, who both coached and played with Heaslip at Leinster.

“He made really good progress. His rehab was going in the right direction but unfortunately he hit a speed bump and it set him back a good long way.

“You could look down at the gym and see at times, he was getting frustrated. He wanted to move on and get better. I’d imagine the exact details will come out in the next few days.”

Healsip was not a traditional number eight like Victor Costello or even Jack Conan, the primary beneficiary, who will go into a three-way arm wrestle now with Max Deegan and young Caelan Doris.

“Those guys have come through,” says Dempsey. “They’ve taken their opportunities and we’ve invested a lot of time in them. It’s important for them to be up to speed – the nature of pro sport, no matter who it is, the game moves on.”

Tall and athletic, Heaslip was a carrier and an offloader. His style wasn’t crashing into opposition players peeling from the back of a scrum or smashing his way forward. His body thanked him for it.

Very dynamic

“If you look at his functional role as a number eight, he was excellent. But he added so much more,” says Dempsey. “His lineout work was a huge asset, his ball carrying ability but also his offloading skills developed over the years. He wasn’t like traditional number eights. He was so much more like the way New Zealand number eights play the game.

“He was very dynamic. We designed plays around him getting involved because we felt that he was comfortable on the ball and he would give is that extra dimension.”

It was well known that Heaslip juggled a number projects outside of rugby from restaurants and pubs to Irish start-up projects. He and his partner Sheena Ó Buachalla are also expecting a child. His life is full.

As Dempsey sees it, those broad interests added a variety to his day-to-day life and freshness to his play. His head was never always embedded in the game, which enabled him to have the ability to switch off from rugby.

“I think what helped him was, he has other things in his life,” explained the Leinster coach. “A lot of players get very focused on rugby and their mindset ends up becoming purely about rugby.

“But he had this ability to switch from his friends and family in his life to his other interests. And that’s what gave him energy when it came to play and train.

“I think that was a big part of him and a big part of his leadership qualities as well. People forget he captained Leinster and Ireland and he was a very successful captain of both.”

Sometimes underestimated because big ordinance wasn’t his thing, Heaslip came into Leinster around the same time as fullback Rob Kearney under Australian coach Michael Cheika.

“Jamie always had a bit of a cheeky streak to him,” said Dempsey. “But he knew where the line was and he knew when it was time to switch.”

His medical file was the thinnest of any player in the game. A standing joke. Then a bolt from the blue. That dark irony escapes nobody.

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