Matt Healy spreading his wings for Connacht
Dubliner’s dedication to his craft has paid a healthy dividend under Pat Lam
Such has been winger Matt Healy’s improvement over the last couple of seasons with Connacht that he was recently invited to train with the Ireland squad. Photograph: Billy stickland/Inpho
The Guinness Pro12’s leading try scorer would not where he is today were it not for Lansdowne. And Matt Healy probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for a crucial Division Two game in January 2010.
Lansdowne were to play Trinity at their then home of the RDS. Brian O’Riordan, the ex-UCD and Leinster scrumhalf, was the first-choice nine, and so coaches Willie Clancy and Stephen Rooney persuaded their then back-up scrumhalf to try playing on the wing.
Lansdowne won 17-12 to virtually seal their runaway promotion and Healy scored two tries. His re-invention as a winger was sealed – and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I remember going into the little bar in the RDS which used to be our home bar, and it was a good old night,” Healy recalls with a laugh.
Then 20, Healy went on to have three prolific seasons with Lansdowne, mostly on the wing, as they progressed to the club’s first league title under Mike Ruddock in the 2012-13 season with a team that also featured current Connacht team-mate, Craig Ronaldson.
By then, the one-time Ireland outhalf and Lansdowne stalwart, Mick Quinn, and Gordon D’Arcy, after taking a few sessions with his old club, encouraged Healy to seek a professional career. Through contacts in the club, he was put in touch with the ex-Ireland left-winger turned Irupa CEO and then agent, Niall Woods.
“I was all new to this, but he [Woods] had a good reputation. We discussed the possibility of going to a Championship club in England, but then he got in touch with Eric Elwood who, of course, had played with Lansdowne, and I came down here.”
That was at the start of that 2012-13 season, when injuries contributed to Healy playing mostly in the British & Irish Cup as well as Lansdowne, while making three appearances for Connacht. Three seasons on, and Healy has played another 50 times for Connacht, scoring 21 tries.
It’s been an unlikely route to becoming another of the province’s likely lads. But at 27, the career graph of the late-developing Healy continues on an upward curve. Reared in Ranelagh, and a product of Gonzaga, Healy was released by Leinster from their sub-academy after returning from the 2009 Junior World Cup with the Ireland Under-20s.
Ironically, his Connacht career began with a game against his home province, when he made his debut in the 2012-13 season in one of the Christmas derbies, at the RDS. “I particularly remember the build-up. It was a notoriously massive build-up in terms of time. We spent hours in the hotel. It was probably more intense than I expected. It was very physical. I came out of it with a few knocks, and we lost,” he said of the 17-0 loss.
Three seasons on, meeting Leinster has lost a little of its novelty value: “Now, for me personally, it’s just like any other game. You’ve got to prepare right. Tick the boxes during the week, and hopefully that comes to fruition.”
That Connacht host Leinster as Pro12 table-toppers reflects how Healy’s adopted province have progressed in the last three years under Pat Lam, and also shows how Healy’s timing could hardly have been better.
Connacht are also playing a positive brand of rugby which benefits Healy’s attacking instincts and finishing abilities. The sight of five Connacht players playing simultaneously for Ireland for the first time ever has given the rest of the squad a lift, and Healy is no exception.
“I watched it at home,” he says of the Italy game. “Another big ambition for Pat was that he wanted more [Connacht] players playing for Ireland, and we all perked up. We all want to play for Ireland. So to see that happening was great. We lifted our standards, especially when they came back into training. It’s only a positive for us.”
To further his ambition, along with Quinn Roux, Healy was invited for the first time to Ireland squad training before last weekend’s game against Scotland.
“We got there on the Wednesday night, just got acquainted with some new faces and some old faces that I hadn’t seen in years like Ian Madigan, so I had a good chat with him. Then we had a pitch session on the Thursday morning, and headed home after that.
“Everyone was switched on. Everything was high intensity. There was no hanging around, and everyone was sharp and focused. It was a great experience, and hopefully it’s not my last one.”
He then lists off the queue of Irish-capped wingers ahead of him in the pecking order and it magnifies the task he faces. “I’ve got my work cut out,” he admits with a laugh.
To add to the unlikely nature of Healy’s story, there was no rugby in the family tree and although always sporty as a kid, he only took up the game after following his father John by going to Gonzaga. Soccer had been his game until then, with Leicester Celtic and Bushy Park Rangers.
“Then I was kinda made to choose by a PE teacher in second year because I was playing both. I think my granddad, Dan Sheridan, played for Bohs actually. My dad rowed in college, but other than that there wasn’t much sport [in his family] and not any rugby.”
His dad, John, worked in computers and then, and along with Healy’s mum, Anne-Marie, opened up an organic food retail company, Absolutely Organic, before she went back to her career as a planner for the city council. Healy has one sister, Eavan.
The nippy, try-scoring scrumhalf Bobby Byrne was a major influence at Gonzaga, where Healy was part of a Vinny Murray Cup-winning senior team. He caught the eye sufficiently to play for Leinster Schools and both Leinster and Ireland Under-18s, 19s and 20s, culminating in the 2009 Junior World Championships in Japan.
Although Ireland finished eighth after losing to New Zealand, Wales and Samoa, Healy describes the competition as the highlight of his under-age career. “To see a place like Tokyo was unbelievable, and playing the Baby Blacks. We lost 17-0, and were only 3-0 down at half-time, which was huge,” he says, laughing.
But after that Under-20 World Cup he was let go by Leinster. “I had no back-up plan. It was an immature approach to it. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be let go. Yeah, it was a shock.”
Fortunately, he was entering his second year studying sports science and health in DCU, and continued playing at All-Ireland League level with Lansdowne.
After that first season with Connacht, Lam arrived in 2013, giving Healy a start in their second league game away to Cardiff. It went well, and Healy played 15 league games that season, scoring five tries.
A turning point came in the summer of 2014 when Lam sought out the sports psychologist Enda McNulty to talk to Healy.
“After my first year under Pat we sat down at the end of the season, and it was more a confidence issue that I wanted to fix. Confidence on the ball and backing myself.
“So he got in touch with Enda, who gave me some time in Dublin, and that started a new approach to training. He highlighted different ways you can approach your training rather just leaving it to the main sessions with the coaches.”
“Let’s say you wanted to work on handling or passing, you might get two or three ‘reps’ in squad training, whereas if you spend 10 minutes on your own you might do 100 reps. That shaped my approach to training.
“I started making little schedules for myself on a weekly basis, and setting goals and objectives. That designated individual practice was massive for me. Over that summer, those skills came on leaps and bounds. I became a different player and that carried into the following season.”
Healy also hails the emphasis on skills of the other coaches at Connacht, Andre Bell and Dave Ellis, his partner for those skill sessions, and Conor McPhillips, video analyst cum backs coach, as well as Lam, of course.
“Back then, I was still a very raw winger. I didn’t understand positional play, or defensive positions. Pat talked me through what he wanted from his wingers.”
Lam recalls that pivotal time in Healy’s development.
“At the end of his first year, I wanted him to do more, and he admitted to me he was afraid to make mistakes. The first thing you need to do is change the mindset. And I organised for him to go and see Enda McNulty. When he came back to me, I said: ‘What did he have to say?’ Matt said: ‘Preparation. If I sit down and prepare right and I practice right . . . ’ It’s not rocket science what we do here.
“I now use Matt as an example to guys. When people ask me about his improvement, I say ‘because he puts the work in.’ The planning and work you do is a reflection of who you are at any given time. And I think he’s gone from strength to strength.”
Lam encouraged Healy to improve his work-rate off the ball, and thereby get onto it more, and have a go. “He’s got a lot of tools in his tool box,” says Lam. “He’s got footwork. He can check. He can step. His fend is strong. It’s just working out which one to use at any given time.”
With a new two-year deal signed last January, Healy is in a good place in every sense. He has moved from Salthill to an apartment, down the road from the Sportsground, and with his girlfriend, Rachel, moving to Galway last summer he regards the City of the Tribes very much as his home.
“In Galway you’re always finding new things to do. The people are unbelievable and the supporters are so positive, even on bad days or rainy days.”
Although 27, Healy is a late developer, especially as a winger. Retaining the ball in contact is a “work-on” but as to whether Healy can he play for Ireland, Lam states emphatically: “Without a doubt. He’s got some things that others don’t have, and that’s what you’ve got to remember, and I know that was a mantra in New Zealand: you work on your ‘work-ons’. But you also don’t forget your strengths, and things that people recognise. And he can beat anyone one-on-one, and that’s a great gift for a wing. It’s just making sure it’s complemented by all the other things that you need as a wing.”
He has wheels too, and knows where the try line is. “He’s a finisher,” agrees Lam. “He’s got gas.”