Gifted Heaslip perhaps the greatest Ireland number eight

Durable athlete was Mr Indestructible and scaled so many heights during a glorious career

Leinster coach Leo Cullen pays tribute to Jamie Heaslip after news of his retirement through injury. Video: Leinster Rugby

 

When it comes to analysing Jamie Heaslip’s stellar career, he undoubtedly ranks as one of the great number eights, perhaps even the greatest ever in the history of Irish rugby, and that really is saying something.

How else to rank such a high-achieving player? No other Irish number eight has accumulated as many caps, 95, nor such a roll of honour. For example, no other Irish number eight can lay claim to a Grand Slam and two other Six Nations title successes, in addition to three Heineken Cups, two Pro12 triumphs and a European Challenge Cup with Leinster, as well as being the starting number eight for successive Lions Test series. And he truly was an integral part of all those achievements.

There is a cruel irony in Heaslip’s career coming to a premature end through injury, for this teak-tough, durable athlete was Mr Indestructible for so much of his incredible 12 years at the very top of the game. He was the 80-minute man. He was invariably ever-present. He was almost never injured.

For 11 seasons from 2005-06 to 2015-16, Heaslip averaged almost 29 games a season for Leinster, Ireland and, including those two tours with the Lions. As recently as that 2015-16 season, Heaslip not only played 14 Tests in a row for Ireland, but played in all but 20 minutes of one game, finishing the other 13.

He was on course to maintain his average again last season until pulling up in the warm-up before Ireland’s win over England in the finale to the Six Nations in Lansdowne Road, with what seemed an innocuous injury which morphed into a disc problem in his back.

For a year he apparently did everything in his power to return to the game, even undergoing a second operation, before finally giving up the fight. He had one burning ambition above all else, to not only go to a third World Cup in Japan in 2019, but to win it.

By the end, word has it, he wanted to make it back for one last game with Trinity in College Park. That is where it all started, where he cut his teeth in the All-Ireland League, where he played for their Under-20s and then for three seasons on their firsts.

On the final day of the 2003-04 campaign, when at home to Sunday’s Well, word came through that promotion rivals Old Belvedere were getting beaten away to UL Bohemians. Leading 10-0 at half-time, three more tries would secure a bonus point win and with it the Division 2 title and promotion. Within 15 minutes of the restart, Heaslip had scored a quick-fire hat-trick. 

Jamie Heaslip scores a try against Leicester in the 2009 Heineken Cup Final. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Jamie Heaslip scores a try against Leicester in the 2009 Heineken Cup Final. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

He didn’t really break into the Leinster team until he was 21. That said, he had seemed destined for greatness. Born in Tiberias, Israel, while his father, retired Brigadier General Richard Heaslip, was there on duty with Unifil, Heaslip was the youngest of four children, and one of his two older brothers, Graham, played for Connacht.

He went to Newbridge College, and starred in the 2004 Under-21 World Cup when Ireland reached the final against New Zealand, after which he was nominated for the IRB Under-21 World Player of the Year award. From the outset, as well as being a phenomenal athlete, he had real pace.

Meticulous attention

In the early days too, he was infamously laid-back. Sleep was always a big part of his daily routine, and he never had trouble taking a nap, even on the team coach on the way to a game, or in the dressing-room. Ironically for a player who has achieved an array of landmarks, he is anything but a rugby student. Early on, he could rarely tell a coach who their next opponents were. But he became a true pro, with meticulous attention to detail.

He must have been a coach’s dream too, and for Michael Cheika, Declan Kidney and Joe Schmidt was always one of the first names on their team sheets. He almost never made a mistake. When he dropped two high balls for Ireland one day in Lansdowne Road, it was almost a shock to behold, for this was more than he usually made in a season.

The galloping runs into open spaces of his earlier days increasingly became less commonplace, as they did for most players, but he remained a very effective and willing carrier. He was rarely turned over in possession, never missed a clear-out, never missed a tackle and invariably chose the right option. He was an intelligent player too, witness that off-the-ball run up the centre of the pitch to finish off the World Rugby Try of the Year against Italy two seasons ago.

As his many career highlights illustrate, he was also a Test match animal and a big-game player. Heaslip never quite made it to 100 caps for Ireland, although he did play exactly 100 Tests when one includes his five for the Lions, so he is a centurion. He also has the honour of being the 1,000th player to represent his country.

Jamie Heaslip celebrating a try against Scotland in 2009. No other Irish number eight can lay claim to a Grand Slam and two other Six Nations title successes. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Jamie Heaslip celebrating a try against Scotland in 2009. No other Irish number eight can lay claim to a Grand Slam and two other Six Nations title successes. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

He didn’t curry popularity with the media, with whom he could be moody, but, sharply intelligent as he was, he could also give convivial, revealing and interesting one-on-one interviews.

He seems well set for life after rugby as well. He married his long-time partner Sheena O’Buachalla in August 2016, and they are expecting their first child.

Other than remaining a fan, it will be surprisingly if Heaslip has any other interests in the game. Certainly coaching would not seem for him. He has already started several business interests outside the game and owns The Bridge pub in Ballsbridge, with Leinster team-mates Rob Kearney, David Kearney and Seán O’Brien, and another bar called Lemon and Duke in the heart of Dublin with a few of his fellow team-mates.

Considering he made his debut for Ireland as far back as November 2006 against the Pacific Islands, in the last game to be played at the old Lansdowne Road, he can be satisfied with his career. Considering also that Stephen Ferris and Luke Fitzgerald made their Irish debuts the same day, and were forced to retire at 28, overall rugby has been good to Heaslip too.

Some player. Some career.

Career Highlights

November 26th, 2006: Makes his Irish debut in 61-17 win over the Pacific Islands, the last game to be played at the old Lansdowne Road before its redevelopment.

March 21st, 2009: Heaslip is part of the Irish team that completes a Grand Slam with a 17-15 win over Wales in the Millennium Stadium. The number eight scored tries at home to France and away to Scotland.

May 23rd, 2009: Plays a major role as Leinster secure the first of three Heineken Cups with a 19-16 win over Leicester. An ever-present throughout their campaign, Heaslip scores a match-levelling try in the second-half at Murrayfield.

July 4th, 2009: The Lions may have lost the series in South Africa but Heaslip plays in their 28-9 third Test consolation win over the Springboks.

May 21st, 2011: Leinster claim their second Heineken Cup with a famous 33-22 comeback win over Northampton in the Millennium Stadium, with Heaslip playing in all bar their final two pool games.

May 19th, 2012: Heaslip is again an ever-present in Leinster’s third Heineken Cup triumph, as they retain the title with a 42-14 win over Ulster in the final at Twickenham.

November 13th, 2012: Heaslip captains Ireland for the first time in a 16-12 defeat at home to South Africa, and remains captain for the rest of the season. He captained Ireland for the 13th and last time in their 63-10 win over Italy in Rome in February 2017.

May 25th, 2013: Leinster complete a European Challenge Cup and Pro12 double with a 24-18 win over Ulster in the final of the latter at the RDS.

June 22nd, 2013: A member of the Lions team that beats Australia 23-21 in the first Test in Brisbane, and also in the second Test defeat, but along with Brian O’Driscoll is dropped for the series- clinching win in Sydney.

March 15th, 2014: Helps Ireland clinch the Six Nations title as Joe Schmidt’s side defeat France 22-20 at the Stade de France. Heaslip played every minute of all five games.

May 31st, 2014: Heaslip is part of the Leinster team that retain their Pro12 title with a 34-12 win over Glasgow in the final.

March 21st, 2015: Another Six Nations title is secured with Ireland’s 40-10 win over Scotland in Murrayfield, when his 76th minute tackle on Stuart Hogg forces a fumble as he goes over the line. After recourse to the TMO, Hogg’s try is disallowed, and Ireland go on to win the title by dint of a six-point superior points’ differential over England.

November 5th, 2016: Heaslip is part of the Irish team that beats the All Blacks for the first time ever, 40-27 in Chicago for the first time ever by 40-27 in Chicago.

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