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Dublin: 19 °C Thursday 18 July, 2019
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'An absolute monster from day one' - Healy bounces back from the brink

The Ireland loosehead came close to retiring from rugby in 2015.

THEY USED TO worry about Cian Healy on his skateboard or roller blades.

Now it’s the knife-making.

The little nicks on his hands that occasionally show after another day spent in the shed at the back of his garden, signs of the hours the Ireland and Leinster prop has invested in his latest creative hobby.

The 31-year-old has always had outlets from his day job, methods of switching his mind elsewhere. Others might have been studying towards degrees and qualifications but Healy enjoys working with his hands.

Cian Healy Healy is back to his best with Leinster and Ireland. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The painting he excelled at is a former pastime, while the DJing has taken a back seat too and now he spends his downtime crafting knives in his home workshop. 

As such, it would have been truly cruel if it was one of his hands that had prematurely cost Healy his rugby career, but that was very close to being the case in the summer of 2015.

He had undergone disk surgery in his neck but nerve damage meant his right hand simply wasn’t functioning – he couldn’t fully open or clench it, never mind managing something as simple as writing.

The insurance documents that would have sealed his retirement from rugby were completed but not posted back yet, when Healy delayed and jetted out to the Amalfi Coast to make his final decision. 

On that trip, he finally felt the relief of some movement in his hand, the hope that came with a sudden twitch of a nerve in his arm. 

There were still tough times ahead for him and, even when he got back on the pitch, many questioned whether Healy would return to the peak of his powers.

But 2018 was the year in which the Dublin man quashed any lingering doubts as he helped drive Ireland to their stunning successes and Leinster to double trophy glory.

“Having known Cian and played alongside him for a long time, it really wasn’t nice to see how much he was struggling,” says Ireland captain Rory Best of watching Healy in those dark times.

Cian Healy Healy is a proud Clontarf man. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“Probably most players would have retired but he battled through it, and he battled through it for so long and everyone was questioning him.

“Going from being one of, if not the, best looseheads in the world to struggling to get into the squad here, it was tough for him.

“He’s hung on and is reaping the rewards now because he’s in as good a shape as I’ve ever seen him in all the years that I’ve known him and he’s having probably bigger impacts in the game than he’s ever had.”

From his earliest days with Clontarf’s underage teams, those who saw Healy up close were in no doubt that he was destined for big things.

His prowess as a natural athlete stood out from the beginning.

“Just an absolute freak of a man,” says Paul Gorman, a friend of Healy’s who manages Clontarf’s U20 team.

“We were in primary school together and he was just an absolute monster from day one. He was ripped by the time he was in fourth class, a huge kid who wasn’t fat!”

It was a friend, Scott McGreal, who first convinced Healy to come down to Castle Avenue and give rugby a go, the idea being to help him get rid of his abundant extra energy.

Part of a successful team that also included future Leinster and Connacht scrum-half Paul O’Donohoe and Ireland U20 out-half Martin Dufficy, Healy took to the oval ball sport like a duck to water and quickly went about establishing a lifelong love for ‘Tarf.

Tarf Healy [back row, second from left] on the same Clontarf team as Dufficy, McGreal and O'Donohue [front row, first three from the left]. Source: Clontarf FC

His rugby journey continued when he went to Belvedere College for secondary school along with O’Donohue, Dufficy and Eoin O’Malley, another future Leinster team-mate.

“He was the standout player back then, he possibly could have played Juniors as a first year and as a second year, he did,” recalls Andy Kenny, who coached Healy at various stages of his time in Belvedere.

“They were an ambitious year and a few of them would have been aiming to go pro from early on.”

Healy was also keen on athletics during his those days, excelling in the shot putt and discus with his school and the Raheny Shamrocks club. But his progress on the rugby pitch was impossible to ignore.

“When he came up to the Senior team as a fourth year, he’d cause carnage in training,” recalls Kenny, who is now head coach of AIL side Old Belvedere RFC.

“He injured two lads who were trying to tackle him – dislocated one guy’s shoulder and did another guy’s AC joint. They were guys we actually needed!

“He was very dedicated, loved his gym work. He had a 160kg bench press by the time he was in fifth year. He set that as a target for himself and made sure he got it.

The sheer strength was impressive, but Healy was about more than just brawn.

Kenny explains that Healy was also extremely coachable, diligently working on whatever his coaches set out for him. His footwork and dynamism were also compelling.

“He was huge into the skateboarding and the rollerblading,” says Gorman. “He used to do mad stuff.

“There’s an old bus shelter around the corner from the school and he used to get up on that and fly off it. He’s huge but he was always athletic and had that agility, really dynamic and not just a huge guy.”

Cian Healy Healy was big into his roller blading. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Belvedere lost in the semi-finals of the Leinster Schools Senior Cup in Healy’s first campaign with the team but they reached the final in 2005, facing a highly-regarded Blackrock team including Luke Fitzgerald in front of a huge crowd at Lansdowne Road.

Healy was instrumental as Belvedere ended their 33-year wait for a title, with the Belvo team also including Ian Keatley and Cathal Pendred.

“There was a key moment in the final,” says Kenny. “Vasily Artemyev, the Russian winger, was one of the stars of that Blackrock side. We had a trick play in the lineout where Cian was in at scrum-half, we split up their lineout, threw to the back and then popped it down to him to go through.

“Cian powered through and just put Vas on his ass. It was one of those defining moments in that Blackrock were the favourites and it happened early enough in the game.

“It just gave the team massive confidence, it was a huge statement.”

Healy, having played most of his schools rugby as a prop, was at hooker in that final but didn’t throw into the lineout. 

Even while he was excelling with Belvo, Healy remained loyal to Clontarf and occasionally turned out for them, sometimes using a different name to get around regulations that stated schools players couldn’t also play club rugby.

With his ball-handling skills being strong, Healy even played in the centre for Clontarf for a couple of years up to U20 level.

“I remember there was a guy called Paul Coffey who was knocking around then as a centre for Terenure and he was huge,” says Gorman. “He was used to bullying everyone at 12 and out came Cian one day and it was a different story, it was the first time he’d seen anyone bigger than him across from him!”

Cian Healy of Belvedere is tackled Healy playing in the 2005 final against Blackrock. Source: ©INPHO

Anyone who has seen Healy just before Leinster and Ireland’s warm-ups in recent times won’t be surprised to hear that he even fired over a few drop-goals in his days as a centre with Tarf.

Leinster weren’t long in making a move to bring Healy into their academy system after he left school and his senior debut came in 2007 at the age of just 19. No surprise to those around him.

“He was always likely to rise through the ranks quickly,” says Kenny.

“I coached Brian O’Driscoll back when he was at U19 level so I was telling my own friends to look out for this guy Brian O’Driscoll. Cian would have been the next one I got as excited about.

“He also had a good family and group of friends around him so he never got distracted or pulled in different directions. That was important.”

Healy was a Heineken Cup champion by his third season with Leinster and made his senior Ireland debut in November 2009, instantly establishing himself as first-choice for his country too.

The success continued to roll seemingly without a break until finally, injuries began to hinder Healy, cutting short his 2013 Lions tour before it even got going with a major ankle issue.

There were other problems – and more glory too – but the hand proved to be the most troubling of all, very nearly ending Healy’s playing days.

He made it back for the 2015 World Cup but wasn’t quite the same player in the year or so that followed, losing his Ireland and Leinster place to Jack McGrath. 

Questions as to whether he could ever return to former heights were widespread, but Healy showed the same determination that has always been a vital part of his makeup.

inpho_00394040 Healy, pictured on his Ireland debut in 2009, has won 82 caps. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Between the end of the 2015 World Cup and 2017/18 season, he dropped 10kg from his frame and “just got rid of the shit weight,” in his own words.

Having stared down retirement, Healy also made a pact with himself to enjoy every single minute he gets in rugby. 

A stunning campaign last season was the result and Healy remains at his athletic best ahead of the start of another Six Nations campaign today as Ireland’s first-choice loosehead prop.

With a World Cup ahead this year, Healy will hope that the very best is still ahead of him as he finds himself in a happy, comfortable place on and off the pitch.

“He’d do anything for anyone, in the drop of a hat,” says Gorman.

“When he comes down the club, he gets mobbed. But he comes down regularly. He’s the most famous of our homegrown lads and he’d spend hours down there taking photos with people.”

“He’s always been brilliant off the field,” Kenny concurs. “If I contact him to come out and help out with teams I’m working with, he’s always done it.

“He’s still the same person.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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