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'He got very close, but unfortunately he hit a speedbump': Dempsey hails lasting Heaslip influence on Leinster

“I got to play with him for four or five seasons, I never remember him missing a session,” says the eastern province’s backs coach.

Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Updated at 0845

LEINSTER BACKS COACH Girvan Dempsey says that Jamie Heaslip was ‘very close’ to a return to playing rugby at one point this season, but a setback in his recovery forced him towards retirement.

The province consistently opted to rate Heaslip’s injury status as ‘week-to-week’ through most of the 50 weeks between his last appearance and yesterday’s retirement, owing to the complicated nature of lower back injuries.

There was a hope, according to a report in Evening Herald, as late as a fortnight ago that Heaslip would be back playing for Leinster by April. However, Dempsey lamented a final setback that tore up those plans.

“He got very close. He made really good progress, his rehab was going in the right direction, but unfortunately he hit a speedbump and it set him back a good long way. Then he’s trying to build himself back up from that.”

With so many of the Leinster squad away with Ireland last week, there has not yet been a grand farewell bash for the the multiple medal-winner. Dempsey says he simply spoke with management and a handful of senior players before the announcement was made to the squad and to the public.

“It’s not Jamie, he’s not fond of a big farewell, or a big party, he’s quite humble.”

Heaslip’s resilience will continue to lead the plaudits for his 100-Test career. However, Dempsey watched the number eight progress at close quarters both as a player and a coach. He remembers a back row brimming with enthusiasm bouncing into the Leinster system under Michael Cheika.

“The first time I got to play with him would have been 2005. I just remember him training with us; he was this young, exuberant, bouncy forward who was laughing and joking with a smile on his face coming out on the training field.

Jamie Heaslip, Rocky Elsom and Shane Jennings Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Even when he got stuck in the hard graft for the forward battle up front, he still came out with a smile on his face. He just loved the game,” said Dempsey.

“He was just such a good player. He was different to back rows we had in the past. He was very dynamic, he carried extremely hard but he also had excellent footwork and he always retained the ball.

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

Heaslip often played down his relationship with rugby when undertaking media duties and chose not to devote his down-time to watching matches from far-flung fields.

Yet there was no questioning his commitment to the task at hand when he was at work. And he applied himself fully to his duties whether it was on the pitch, doing analysis on the laptop or in the warm-up area of the gym where he would put his body through meticulous maintenance to maximise his attendance.

“The biggest thing about him was, he was just always there,” adds Dempsey.

“I got to play with him for four or five seasons, I never remember him missing a session or missing a match.

Jamie Heaslip who was a late withdrawl from the game Heaslip watches on as Ireland beat England last year. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“He was just always so robust. He was always available to train and play, and he loved it. The thing about him was, he had this freshness and when he came into train, he was excited about because that was what he loved doing.

“I think what helped him was, he has other things in his life. 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, into this. And that’s what gave him energy when it came to play and train.”

That robustness makes it even more of a shame that Heaslip’s career was ultimately ended by a warm-up. His last match will forever remain the loss to Wales in Cardiff last year, but he was named to start against England eight days later, only to pull out late on and replaced by Peter O’Mahony who ended up a Test Lions captain. Sliding doors.

Jamie Heaslip with Tomas O'Leary, Alan Quinlan, Rory Best and Girvan Dempsey Last man standing: Rory Best trains with the now retired Jamie Heaslip, Tomas O'Leary, Alan Quinlan and Girvan Dempsey in 2008 Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Since suffering the injury, a rare experience for Heaslip, his off-field impact was not diminished, according to Dempsey. From pitching in with advice in team reviews or giving his successors in the Leinster back row a helpful steer, he continued showing the ability to be fully engaged when he was doing the day job.

“Jamie was a big part of helping them develop, he was quite unselfish in that he’d do the video work with Max (Deegan) and Jack (Conan) and worked with some of the younger players… it’s important for them to be up to speed and ready – the nature of pro sport, no matter who it is, the game moves on.”

Jamie Heaslip and Jack Conan Heaslip in training with Conan in pre-season last summer. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“Being on that long road to rehab, naturally for anyone, that’d be frustrating. We’ve all felt that frustration, but he made those steps, those strides and he could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“He would be in here every morning, very early, before any of the other players, working away on off-days, weekends, coming in and working away on physio, doing everything he could to get himself back.

“He would always pop up to the office, have a chat with Leo, the coaches, he’d have a bit of a joke and a laugh. You could look down at the gym though, and see at times he was getting frustrated. He wanted to move on and get better, but it wasn’t as quick (as he wanted).”

Ultimately, Heaslip is testament to the resilience that is achievable. But also that, in rugby, serious injury is impossible to avoid forever.

“I think like any sport you play in,” contends Dempsey, “he was an exceptional pro in the way he minded himself, the way he minded his body. It’s just one of those things, no matter sport you’ve involved in. And we’re involved in a contact sport, things happen.

“It’s just very unfortunate, because I would have loved to have seen him back on the field one last time.

“I think it just came to a stage where it wasn’t going in the right direction.”

Heaslip was often under-appreciated but his professionalism set new standards

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Sean Farrell

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