From brink of retirement: Cian Healy taking his second chance

Leinster prop gives the game his all after surviving a career-defining scare in 2015

 Cian Healy takes on Matt Kvesic of Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park. “I still feel there is a good bit more to come.” Photograph:  Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Cian Healy takes on Matt Kvesic of Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park. “I still feel there is a good bit more to come.” Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

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Cian Healy wasn’t to know it. But a short break on the Italian coast prior to the 2015 Rugby World Cup was to become his Hallelujah moment.

Such things happen once in a life time if they ever occur at all. The Lions and Ireland loosehead prop had hit a wall and had signed papers to formally resign from rugby.

The nerve in Healy’s arm wasn’t responding to treatment. He couldn’t play, had no power. He saw nothing ahead except the end of a career.

But he left the signed medical papers where they were. Instead he took the advice of Ireland coach Joe Schmidt and quit Ireland for a short break.

He went to Italy to try and reach some kind of equilibrium with where it was his life was about to take him outside of rugby. He was there to start the process of dealing with the end of his career.

Healy can’t remember the name of the town he was in. It was somewhere on the Amalfi coast and it was there that something entirely unforeseen occurred. Nerves in his dead arm came to life. They began to twitch.

“The papers were signed to retire before that World Cup (2015),” he says. “It is a medical sign-off, yeah. You’d be lost. There was a little chance. I was 27-28 and rugby was pretty much everything to me since school.

“Joe [Schmidt] gave me a few days off in the middle of the warm-up Tests and I went away to Italy and just switched off and chilled out.

“I got a bit of movement back in my hand and felt a bit of nerve twitching in my arm. From what the neurologist had told me any sensitivity is good sensitivity and it’s not fully dead. Once there is a glimmer of hope you have to chase it.

“I dunno the particular town. It was still shit scary, a dark enough time. I didn’t definitely know. It’s not like it [hand] opened up and I could write again. It was just a small little glimmer and you chase it.”

He chased. Healy had ballooned to 125 kilos and knocked that down to 120 kilos. That wasn’t enough. He is now a svelte and mobile 115 kilos and has the lowest percentage body fat he has ever had in his career.

Tough days

That metric of fitness had ballooned to 19 per cent. But again he was able to dramatically lower it to 11.8 per cent as the strength and feeling returned to his arm. It was a journey back and full of misgivings.

The looseshead prop put his faith in blind belief, that the truth of the process would out and that overthinking or overstepping would fail him.

“There was an awful lot of doubt and tough days coming back,” he says. “I’d posters stuck all over my house as little reminders, the fridge, the coffee machine, things to keep you ticking over, to keep your head in the right space.

“That’s more of a battle than doing the rehab. It’s a waiting game then. You just keep working the way you know and hope for the best.

“The simplest, simplest stuff . . . do one positive thing today. That’s only an example. My mates started laughing when they came into the house. Lads figure out their own positive reinforcement and ways to keep themselves motivated.”

Scrum coach at Leinster John Fogarty didn’t get a reprieve, when concussions and headaches made playing the game a potentially lethal career choice.

An international hooker, Fogarty signed the papers Healy had signed and retired from playing with Leinster. He has now watched his prop edge back from the brink. He believes it has made him stronger.

“It probably has,” says Fogarty. “For him that was the end of a whole way of life. I was forced to sign. It’s a very hard thing to accept that you’re not good enough or your body is not good enough.

“When you’re brought to that place, and when you get to come back, you can probably have a bigger edge and you fight hard to stay there.

“The feeling with him when he was a young kid . . . you’re kind of going, ‘Jesus, this kid is going to blow them all out of the water.’

“Right now, the way he’s talking and the way he walks around the place, he’s in that frame of mind again.”

Healy says he could blow a hamstring tomorrow. He says he still gives everything in the gym, that he never holds back.

But far from placing votives at the feet of the gods, he is bristling with confidence, enjoying the challenge of his renaissance and the way Leinster are rolling.

“My fitness is something I am constantly chasing, doing a couple of extra things, teach the body how to reach speed when under fatigue,” he says.

“It is easy slogging around the ruck but if we break 50 metres up the pitch I have to be able to get there and they are the kinda things I am starting to push.”

That’s where he is now. Slimmed down. Speeded up. Never giving up the chase. At 30-years-old looking for the peak that coaches had told him he would hit at 27.

“I still feel there is a good bit more to come,” he says.

And he’s still chasing it.

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