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From farmer's son in Tipp to the Aviva Stadium - the rise and rise of Ben Healy

Healy has emerged over the last year as a key player in Munster’s squad – but his schoolboy mentors believe there is a lot more to come.

THIS TIME LAST YEAR BEN HEALY had a choice. Follow the money or the dream.

He had Gregor Townsend on the phone promising a Scotland cap and multiples of the salary he was earning at Munster, so everything he had ever wanted, international recognition, life in the pro game, he was getting. But everything he ever wanted, to play for Munster and Ireland, he was losing.

Moments like that say a lot about a person’s character. The player you’ve seen on your TV, with the flame-red hair, the pale skin, the monstrous kick, is only part of who he is.

He started this journey on a farm in north Tipperary and even though rugby has taken him all around the world, part of him remains that farmer’s son with no airs or graces.

You might scoff at that when you discover he was educated privately but you can’t judge someone you don’t know. “Ben’s parents made so many sacrifices to put their children through school,” says Healy’s coach at Glenstal Abbey, Sean Skehan.

That’s why there was such a dilemma when the call came from Scotland, where Healy’s mum is from. When Munster surpassed Glasgow’s initial offer, the Scottish club came back with an even bigger one. “Life changing figures,” says Skehan, who is now more friend than mentor to his former captain and out-half. “Ben, being the good kid he is, just really wanted to give something to his parents. ‘I can pay them back here,’ he was saying.

“So, when Glasgow came back with their third offer, I actually advised him to go,” says Skehan, “because the difference … the difference was huge.”

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Yet he hung around. Had Healy accepted that contract, he would have had around £170,000 more in his bank account. But this inner voice screamed ‘stay’. Was it for days like this, Munster versus Toulouse in the Aviva, when the crowd roars, the stadium fills and the prospect of taking a European giant presents itself? 

“Ben said to me: ‘Sean, my dream is to play for Munster and Ireland. I’m only 21. If I stay around long enough, I can do something. I can make it here’.

ben-healy-arrives-for-training Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

“And I thought that was incredible on a couple of levels, not just that he was backing himself, because I knew he had that inner belief; but also because of the purity of the dream. You can’t argue with that. You can’t put a price on that.”

Actually, you can, but to understand the process Healy went through, we need to go back to that farm in Tipperary.

**

The Munster team coach pulled out of Limerick just before noon yesterday, avoiding the afternoon rush by hitting the road early. Less than a half an hour into the journey it bypassed Nenagh and you wonder what their red-haired out-half thought when he stared out the window at those familiar place names: Kilruane, Cloughjordan. Those branches of his might be reaching toward the sun but his roots are still in north-Tipp.

His dad, Fergal, played for Young Munster and Nenagh Ormond; his brother John was another Nenagh Ormond graduate. John and Ben loved the game, Ben especially. He was four when he first asked to play, seven before he was allowed to. Before then, he’d pulled on a different shirt for a different sport.

Walk around Kilruane, and neighbouring Cloughjordan, and you won’t be long bumping into champions. There’s jockey Charlie Swan, who guided Istrabraq to Champion Hurdle glory. There’s Ciara Gaynor, a Camogie All-Ireland winner; Ciara’s father, Len, was one of the best hurlers of his generation, neighbour Mark O’Leary, man of the match in the 2001 All-Ireland final. Then there are the footballers from 1978 who won a Tipp county title and the hurlers from 1985/86 who won the club All-Ireland.

charlie-swan-and-istrabraq-1231997 Cloughjordan's Swan is from Healy's parish. Source: ©INPHO

Most of all, there’s the local who the club, and its ground, was named after: Thomas MacDonagh, a leader in the 1916 Easter Rising. “Growing up as kids, whenever we were in a big match, asked to dig deep or whatever, we’d be told, ‘look at your crest, lads, look at that name, that’s what sacrifice and commitment looks like’.

“People here are low key; understated; level headed. Everyone is so proud when someone from Kilruane goes on to do well. Sure if Ben goes and wins an Irish shirt, well, you couldn’t be prouder of something like that. You’re proud of the village anyway. It’s such a special place.”

That voice is Damian Lawlor’s, the RTÉ journalist, a Kilruane native. He’s been away from the village for decades yet in another sense, has never left it. He’d heard about this kid who could kick off both feet from Gilbert Williams, the local primary school principal, when Healy was seven-years-old. By now Healy had joined Nenagh Ormond, the club that schooled Donncha Ryan, Barry Everitt and Trevor Hogan.

Success was all around him, something he grew up with. In a one-mile stretch from Healy’s farm just outside Kilruane, three friends matured into stars. There was Healy, who announced himself to the rugby world last season by kicking a winning penalty from the half-way line against Scarlets. Then there was Jake Morris, who has played senior hurling for Tipperary over the last two seasons, and finally Barry Coffey – an Ireland Under 19 soccer international, who is on Celtic’s books.

Healy could have joined him in Glasgow but that would have entailed him saying goodbye to his Ireland ambitions and then one day walking into MacDonagh Park, the ground named after an Irish patriot, and having to look his fellow villagers in the eye. No, that Scotland trek was never going to happen. This place has a legacy of making champions. He just wants to be the next one.

**

IT WON’T BE EASY. It never is at Munster. The No10 shirt is weighed down by history. Mick English wore that jersey, so too Barry McGann, Tony Ward, Ralph Keyes and Ronan O’Gara.

Keyes remembers how hard it was to get it. One day, it the 60s, his father, Michael, was working in Dunlop’s when a man in a trilby hat called him to the front office. “You’re needed in Musgrave Park,” Keyes senior was told.

Down he went, stopping off at home to get his boots. English – Jack Kyle’s successor on the Ireland team – had a hamstring injury and with the Springboks in town, an alternative was needed. So Michael Keyes was in. Or so he thought. By the time he got to the ground, English had announced himself fit, Keyes sent back up the road to Dunlop’s, not even allowed stay to watch the game.

“You need a lot of things to wear that shirt,” Ralph, his son, leading scorer at the 1991 World Cup, said. “Luck for a start; patience; confidence. Oh, and I suppose a bit of ability does you no harm.”

Healy certainly has those qualities, stepping up when Joey Carbery was rehabbing from an ankle injury, making 17 appearances last season, benefiting not just from Carbery’s misfortune but his own resilience to injury.

Since he was a boy, raised to work hard on the family farm, he was taught to never show hurt. In as unforgiving a sport as rugby, that’s a useful shield to have.

But it isn’t physical toughness he’s known for. Speak to anyone who has worked with him, anyone, and you’ll hear variations of the same theme. Mentally, this kid is different.

“The one per cent of the one per cent,” says Skehan, “so much so that I think he will beat Johnny Sexton (in terms of achievements) over the course of his career. He has had a few games where he hasn’t been at the level he has to be at but for Munster going forward, I think they have got to play him ten, Joey at 15.”

joey-carbery Skehan feels Carbery would be a great full-back. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

That day in October 2020, when he came off the bench to kick the winning points against Scarlets, came as no surprise to Skehan. He remembered a kick from further out, against St Michael’s, the year Ryan Baird and Harry Byrne were at the school, when Healy sent a last-minute penalty inches wide from his own 10-metre line. “I’ll never make that mistake again,” he told Skehan afterwards.

The next day he spent three hours alone on the training field honing his technique.

“That was common,” says Skehan. “By sixth year, he was like a celebrity in the school and had a group of first years stood behind the goal just to kick the ball back to him for hour after hour, session after session.”

Ken O’Connell quickly became aware of that habit when he coached Healy in Munster’s academy. “I rocked up in Nenagh one Sunday morning, for a match Ben wasn’t even playing in, but guess what? He was practicing his place-kicking on his own. I thought ‘you know something, this boy is something else’ because when you are that self-driven, you’ve got a chance.”

Tom Hayes knows where O’Connell is coming from. The former Exeter Chiefs captain was Skehan’s assistant in Glenstal during Healy’s time there. “Any time you went down to the pitch, Ben was there before you. It was never an accident. You hear a lot that the ones that make it are the ones who work the hardest, well, that’s the case.

“Not many are born with the ability to kick off either foot and as a teenager he invested in his future in a way because you can get away with being one-sided as an under 16 but as a professional, that option (of having a strong left foot) can get you out of trouble. Even back in school, he was constantly watching footage to make himself better.”

So the kick against Scarlets, and the subsequent praise for Healy, left him pleased and bemused. Pleased because he liked the kid, bemused because of how it was framed, with words ‘overnight sensation’ attached to Healy’s name. “In some ways that was almost a disservice to Ben’s diligence to his craft over a huge number of years,” says Hayes. “Yes, things have gone very well for him but he has done the work to put himself in a position to avail of the opportunity.”

And he’s taken it. That’s the difference. If anything, there has been greater hype surrounding another emerging out-half, Jack Crowley, but Healy is the one named on the bench to face Toulouse today. It’s also worth remembering that Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan, who each played Champions Cup semi-final rugby under Johann van Graan, were allowed leave, the coach realising his home-grown alternatives were better long-term options.  

“Ben is a unique character,” says Jack O’Donoghue, the Munster vice-captain, “really confident in his ability. The work he has done with Stephen (Larkham) has been incredible and he has grown into a mature player. Put it this way, when you are a forward and you are coming out of a maul or scrum and you see a ball spiralling its way into the opposition 22, it’s a good feeling.”

jack-odonoghue-and-ben-healy-after-the-game O'Donoghue (No6) rates Healy highly. Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

This is Hayes again: “You need that bit of assurance as a ten. You have to have a bit of swagger about you. Ben had it when he was still in school; it is not something you want to coach out of him, either.

“And look, things have not been seamless for him. There has been the odd error here or there but by clocking up a good few minutes when Joey was away (37 appearances in the last two seasons), he has turned it around to the extent that the (selection) conversation does not automatically go, ‘right Joey Carbery is starting; we’ll see who is on the bench after that’.”

Interestingly, from separate conversations with Skehan, Hayes, O’Donoghue, Lawlor and O’Connell, the following words and phrases were used to describe Healy’s personality: confident, composed, authoritative, humble, mannerly, alpha-male, a young man who knows what he wants.

Hayes reckons the self-assurance comes from his prep work, knowing he has hours of training banked away. Plus, he remembers a summer, when Healy was 16, and he used Skehan’s contacts book to get out to Grenoble, where Bernard Jackman was head coach.

“By the end of that summer, I think Bernard had said to Sean that if Munster didn’t put Ben on a contract in a couple of years that they’d have him. That was the impression he made over there.”

The person who worked closest with him that summer in Grenoble became Munster’s new attack coach on Wednesday. There’s a reason Mike Prendergast is coming back next season and it’s not just because Limerick is home. Munster, he senses, are going places. The question is can Healy steer them there?

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**

SKEHAN CERTAINLY thinks so. Then again, Skehan is a Glenstal man, who remembers the hardship Healy went through as a 12-year-old in his first term at the school, homesickness biting hard. “He cried every day for three months,” says Skehan. It was another coach, Andy McNulty, now with the Irish 7s team, who then brought Healy down to the field for kicking practice.

Things turned. By his junior cup year, he was nursing a broken arm and pleading for permission to have the cast cut off so he could play in that year’s competition. By his fifth year, he was steering Glenstal to just their second ever final, addressing the team after their defeat to Pres. “Next year, we’ll win it.”

Skehan and Hayes found him a unique character, noting his rugby IQ. “Straight away, within hours of me arriving at the school, he was looking for a meeting because he wanted to drill me for information on Exeter’s attack,” says Hayes, “because he knew their shape was different to the 1-3-3-1 or the 2-4-2 patterns that others used.”

sean-skehan Skehan believes Healy can reach the top. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

A big part of his desire to learn stemmed from his physical limitations. “He didn’t fall out of the athletic tree,” says Skehan. “His biggest problem is he is not a real run threat. Defensively, he was poor but he has overcome that issue now. What he had was a work rate that was better than anything I’ve ever seen and a mindset that is unique.”

In what way?

“Okay, how long have you got? Right, he was always the alpha of his year group from the time he was 12; there was just an aura about him. Now bear in mind his year group (of just 38 pupils) had four Ireland schoolboy internationals in it. He would refuse to accept inferiority to anybody. One year, when he was injured, we lost 25-3 to Pres and it was celebrated as a good result. Ben was like ‘this is absolute bullshit, we should be winning this’.

“He had this kind of bizarre self-confidence, a kind of Tom Brady-type belief, whereby he just never felt inferior to anyone. I remember once saying to Healy that St Michael’s Seconds had offered us a game. He replied, ‘if you think we are playing their Seconds you may as well as quit’.”

Another day, another display of defiance. Nottingham Academy, unbeaten in 12 games that season, were an Under 20s side, Glenstal’s crew a year younger. Just before kick-off, Noel McNamara, the then Ireland youths coach, asked for Healy to play just 60 minutes because they had an important training session the following day. Healy was duly subbed – against his wishes – on the hour mark, Glenstal leading 18-8. They lost by a point. “He didn’t talk to me for a week,” says Skehan.

Then there was Kirkham Grammar, Kieran Marmion’s old school. “They wondered if we were good enough to take them on,” recalls Skehan. Glenstal won 45-10, Healy scoring 27 points.

“He was like Superman,” says Skehan. “There was this incident and it was like a scene  from the film, Friday Night Lights where we were losing to Crescent, who were considered the best schools team Munster had had a decade. Healy had a groin injury and the physio had said, ‘20 minutes tops, that’s all he can do’.

“So, anyway, we’re losing 15-9 and it looked like we were going to lose a three-year unbeaten home record. Healy’s just eyeballing me right through the second-half. ‘Put me on, put me on,’ he kept saying. We eventually did. We won 29-18. After the game, he and another player, wanted to meet for a video review there and then. Ah, he was incredible.”

Yet this level of dedication is kind of what you expect from anyone who makes it in the pro ranks. Of course, they will be more committed and talented than their peers in school. The harder task is doing it against your fellow pros, especially the cream of the crop, the ones he’ll face today if, and when, he’s introduced against Toulouse.

Still, Hayes, O’Donoghue and Skehan are hopeful. Here’s Hayes’ thoughts on the prospect. “What’s helping him now is the fact that as a kid, it wasn’t about the Ben Healy show. He wanted to up his rugby IQ because he wasn’t that athletic freak that could just run rings around everyone and score tries left, right and centre. He had to think his way around problems. That’s standing to him now.”

O’Donoghue has also noted that slavish devotion to his trade. “The step-up he has made from last year to this, his game control, his game management, his communication, it just oozes ability. I think he is going to develop into an incredible fly-half.”

Skehan goes even further with his vision of the future. “Munster have not yet seen the guy he will be. I am very biased but if he is given a proper run, where he is the main guy, he’ll drive that club incredibly far. At the moment you sense they see there is a ceiling with Joey that is higher than Ben.

“Now I think Joey is brilliant. Injuries have hurt him; he is not as sparky as he was but if they could have Joey at 15, give Ben a shot at 10 and stick with him, I think he’ll be the Irish 10 over the course of time, because he has a mindset that I have never seen before.

“And if he gets enough exposure, enough time, he can be that type of Tom Brady freak, who revels in the pressure of a big-game situation. Johnny (Sexton), remember, wasn’t the guy at the start of his career whereas now, you could say Johnny is probably the best rugby player in Irish rugby history. And I think Ben could have a career like that because he’s driven, determined, mentally strong.”

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Garry Doyle

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