Jamie Heaslip distinctly remembers sitting in Cian Healy’s old kitchen in Clontarf, before it was renovated, back in the summer of 2015 and the two buddies having a few cans of beer.
“He was talking about ‘The Fish’, and The Fish was his hand, because it was like a dead fish,” said Heaslip, in reference to Healy’s right hand, which had lost all feeling after an operation on a disc in his neck. Healy was 27, had 51 caps, and was facing what seemed like a fairly inevitable retirement.
“He’d been told at that time that he was done. He said: ‘Do you know what, I’m going to give it a go. I’m young enough.’ Basically, he had nothing to lose. And such is the character of the guy. I don’t know what people actually think of him but he’s a very focused and determined person. Once he puts his mind to something, it’s pretty remarkable what he can achieve.”
Healy today joins Heaslip as only the eighth Irish player, and the 66th in rugby history, to reach a century of Tests. This is the first time since Heaslip last played in March 2017 when he’s thought: ‘Oh man, what I’d give to be there with him.’
They usually stood beside each other for the national anthem, and they usually roomed together as well. Heaslip is delighted for Healy’s parents, Don and Caroline, who are “his biggest fans in the world”, his sister Adrienne and his childhood sweetheart and wife Laura, who is expecting their first child.
“It’s a tough time because like the rest of them he’s in a bubble. He hasn’t been in the house with his pregnant wife for the last two weeks and this is a huge moment for his family, and he’s such a family type of guy.”
The Healys are from Clontarf and Healy has never moved from his parish. Andy Kenny was Healy’s coach when he came into Belvedere College at the age of 13, and again in Healy’s three years on the school’s senior cup team.
“He was an SCT player in fourth year and he was one of the best on the team even then. He was outstanding, a wrecking ball.”
The following season, 2004-05, Healy was again a stand-out when Belvedere won the senior cup for the first time since Ollie Campbell’s 1972 team. Paul O’Donohoe and Ian Keatley were the halfbacks and Eoin O’Malley was in midfield as they surprised Blackrock 16-10 in the final.
Healy played hooker that season primarily as a means of getting their best players on the pitch, and one moment early on in that 2005 final stands out for Kenny.
“We had a move which launched Cian and he went through Vasily Artemyev. He just ran over him and it set the tone. The boys all got a lift from that.
“He was incredible in the gym as well. We didn’t have S&C coaches in those days but he was lifting more than most pro players as a schools player.”
Healy, O’Donohoe and Keatley all played a big part in the 2007 Irish Under-20 Grand Slam team alongside the likes of Sean O’Brien, Tommy O’Donnell, Darren Cave, Keith Earls and Felix Jones.
Michael Cheika gave Healy his Leinster debut as a replacement against the Border Reivers in May 2007, when he was 19. Within two years, Healy became Leinster’s first-choice loosehead at just 21 on the run-in to their first Heineken Champions Cup win in 2009.
“You always knew that he was going to be the man, it was pretty obvious from a fair way out. It was more about timing his run, and he timed it just right actually,” reflected Cheika yesterday from Sydney, where he is helping Mario Ledesma prepare the Pumas for the Rugby Championship.
“Players like Cian brought a different dimension and character to the team, and of course he was a different model of rugby player than maybe we’d seen; speed, footwork, big, strong, and playing frontrow!”
“Because he’s so powerful, to endure for 100 Tests along with all those games of provincial rugby (222) is absolutely amazing.
“He’s overcome lots of injuries. He’s stayed relevant, as the game has changed and different coaches have demanded things from him, and he just got down to business. You never heard a lot from him but he’s kept himself at the forefront of the game for all these years.”
Healy had only just turned 22 when Declan Kidney gave him his Test debut in the 20-20 draw with Australia at Croke Park in November 2009. Brian O’Driscoll marked his 100th Test by scoring a try off the game’s final scrum – Healy played the full 80 minutes– to secure the draw.
Cheika recalls being a witness to the first meeting between Healy and Kidney that season in the Leinster offices.
“Declan said something to him like: ‘Do you go to ‘Uni’ or do you have any interests outside rugby?’ Cian said: ‘Yeah, I like painting’. Declan thought he meant painting and decorating. Of course Cian meant art, painting on a canvas. It was hilarious. I had to explain to Declan: ‘No mate, he’s talking about art works. Creativity.’ At the time it was really funny.”
“And I suppose that’s Cian. He brought a new dynamic, being a DJ and so into his music,” says Cheika. “He ran to the beat of his own drum, without a doubt, in a sport that often tries to change you around.”
Healy has a passion for knife-making, and for dogs. He has a German shepherd, Hank, and a pug, Ted. Healy is also a keen chef, particularly over his barbecue, and enjoys his gardening.
“Food, start to finish, essentially, although I don’t think he’s gone full Peter O’Mahony on it,” says Heaslip. “But he’s big into his health and fitness. He’s a freak. I’d say his body fat is 11/12 per cent, weighing at 116kilos or so. At home, at the back of his house, he’s built a sauna, a gym and an ice bath, so he didn’t miss a beat during lockdown, and he swims in the sea.”
However, another low point in Healy’s career was the first game of the 2013 British & Irish Lions tour in Australia, when he ripped a hamstring off the bone.
“He spent the whole night in the team room trying to ice his leg hoping that it wasn’t as bad as what they were probably going to tell him,” Heaslip remembers.
There was a spell too, in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, when Healy became the understudy to Jack McGrath at both Leinster and Ireland.
“But he was never down about that,” says Heaslip. “He was very determined to get back to number one, but you’ve got to remember he probably shouldn’t have gone to the 2015 World Cup with ‘The Fish’ as we called it. That was a long journey. But he stayed focused and was very positive about it. The cream always rises to the top.”
As Heaslip says, Healy redefined the role of a prop, not least being quite quick. “Quite quick?” Heaslip shrieks incredulously. “He’s faster than half the backs over 10 metres! His problem is actually endurance, and he knows that and he works hard at it. But he’s a power athlete.”
Heaslip recounts a weights session on that Lions tour before Healy’s injury and the prop looking on silently as a satisfied Heaslip lifted 120kg.
“He said: ‘Are you done?’ I was like: ‘Yeah, yeah.’ Manu Tuilagi was watching as well. He saw ‘Church’ hop on and warm up on the 120kg. And then I saw him and Tuilagi repping I don’t know what. There were no plates left to put on the bloody bar! He could do that, but he could also leave me for dead over 10 metres.”
“He doesn’t lift as heavy as he used to because you hit a point of diminishing returns with that stuff, and he’s very mindful of that. But put it this way, I never saw anyone, in all my time, either squat more or bench more than him and I’ve been around some mountainous men.”
Stuart Lancaster admits: “He was a player we always earmarked as a danger because of his sheer physical power, scrummaging power, but also his capacity in the loose to carry. So when I came it was fascinating to coach him. And actually, since I’ve been at Leinster, I can count on one hand the number of training sessions he’s ever missed – never mind games. So his durability, his ability to look after himself and get the best out of his body so to speak, and play at the highest level, is amazing.”
As for the nickname ‘Church’?
“I don’t know the story that he tells, but the story that we tell is pretty simple yet embarrassing. There was a video by ‘50 Cent’ and the song was P.I.M.P., and the music video, back when videos were a thing, featured all these guys as old school pimps. At the end they’re all holding these goblets with diamonds, and all saying: ‘Church’. And he starts going around the whole time saying it, in training and in meetings. So we all started calling him Church, and it stuck.
“Bar his parents, everyone calls him Church. Even my daughter, Harper, who is his god-daughter, she’s two-and-a-half and she calls him Church.”
Heaslip also describes Healy as “definitely one of the best humans I know. He’s a soft soul. He’s different”.
“He’s a fantastic guy; the most generous guy you could ever meet,” said Paul O’Connell this week.
“I remember one day we were in camp and he had a new pair of recovery tights. I admired them and said, ‘Oh I didn’t know they were on sale’. I came into camp the next day, and he had bought me a pair. They were sitting on my bed. He’d give you the shirt off his back. Apart from being, I think, Ireland’s greatest ever loosehead prop, he’s just an incredibly nice person as well.”
No less than the four debutants last week, for whom the notion of 100 caps must seem like a fantasy, the pity is there won’t be a crowd with Healy’s family among them in Paris tonight.
But they’ll all be tuned in at their homes in back in Clontarf. ‘Church’ has done himself, his family and his parish proud.