TWENTY FIVE YEARS. That’s how long it’s been by Jamie Heaslip’s reckoning.
Not since he first took part in organised rugby at the age of eight has he been away from the sport for a window this long. A window that will stretch at least to the start of the new season, six months after his last outing.
Many players with knee, shoulder or sometimes even toe trouble have accepted that sort of lay-off with a touch of relief. Had to, having already suffered through longer absences. Some of them are team-mates close to Heaslip. So the 33-year-old knows how lucky he is.
“I always used to laugh at the lads,” Heaslip says as he launches health drink venture CocoFuzion in Lemon and Duke, the Dublin city centre pub he co-owns.
“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. I was never too fazed about it. I think I’m quite optimistic and quite pragmatic about it. When I knew the lay of the land, it was: ‘what do we do?’ My, kind of, engineering brain kicked in: ‘okay what are the steps?’ Bang, bang, bang, bang,” he says, mentally ticking off the bullet points all over again.
Rather than let the frustration of his absence since the dramatic minutes leading up to Ireland’s Six Nations win over England fester – when Peter O’Mahony was named to replace him in the starting line-up just as the match was about to kick-off — the number eight has honed in on the positives. A summer off, weekends free even during the season, a chance to fly off to Boston last night to further his education with a four-day seminar in Harvard which will aid his progress towards a Masters in the business of entertainment, media and sport.
And then of course, there’s the potential benefit to his rugby career. Initially, after his surgery – the details of which he prefers not to disclose – there had been noises that he may be able to play for Leinster this season. Instead, he quickly got his head around the notion of how this stint without punishing impacts could help prolong his time playing at the top level.
“Yeah, that’s part of the silver lining, you’re giving your body a break from collisions for six months and you can get a really good strength and conditioning block in there and all this sort of stuff… I haven’t had that.
Literally every year for the part 12 years has been an 11 or 12-month season with four weeks off, you train for about three or four weeks without the ball and then you’re training and playing and doing pitch sessions. You’re playing seven weeks after.”
It wasn’t entirely easy, but he has accepted the price of missing a Lions summer, and thinks of the men who shone brightest on both the 2005 series and the 2015 World Cup a decade later.
“All going well, I hope it’s the last significant break before the World Cup. In a weird way, when I was stuck, I was looking at people like Richie McCaw who took a break from the game and Dan Carter as well.
“You start putting a positive spin on it. When you’re delivered the news that you’re not going anywhere (such as New Zealand) in a couple of months time, you’re (saying) ‘I think I can, it’s worth the risk to come back early.’ And the the doc was just like ‘No, it’s not happening’. They removed the emotional part of it, that was fine… when he announced the squad, I still had in the back of my mind that ‘maybe, just maybe’.”
The ‘maybes’ faded and Heaslip expects to get back in proper team training during Leinster’s pre-season. Right now, he is going through his daily rehab work alone, a relief in some respects from working at the provincial base in Clonskeagh where there are constant reminders of the peers that are fit and well, advancing their career and eyeing up that number eight jersey.
“In fairness, I need the mental break from Leinster itself… and they probably need a mental break from me! I’m going to Boston, doing a course in Harvard and training in the Harvard facility in there and hopefully worm my way into the Boston Celtics facility and put a session on in there as well. So you know, it’s refreshing to go to different places.”
A change of scenery and a change of outlook — even when it comes to his famous aversion to spending his free time watching rugby matches.
“Obviously when you’re injured you’re not playing, and you start looking at Leinster playing and, for the first couple of weeks I couldn’t leave my house anyway, so I was bored out of mind.
So, watching Leinster at the weekend, (then) I stated watching the odd other game, and it was really good!
“Because I had that distanced from watching loads of actual work footage, it was really nice to become a fan again and I’m really excited actually about the Lions tour coming up, to actually watch it again.”
He has the summer to stay watching games in their feature length 80-minute form. After that, he’ll go back to the snippets he’s required to pore over for his day job.
“I’ve always said I look forward to the day I become a fan again. And I look forward to reading, listening to all your different opinions and shapes and sizes and stuff like that, and becoming a fan and having my own opinion on it.
“When you’re playing, for me, personally, its just too much stuff going on.”
Retirement is still very much in the future tense for Heaslip, but unexpected calls for surgery inevitably leads the brain to considering the myriad of possible outcomes.
An injury that I didn’t realise how severe it was and how potentially long-term damaging it could have been, and hence why when the problem arose we had to act quite quickly.”
“We could have passed the point already of doing permanent damage.
“I’m progressing well. I’m very lucky to do what I do so I don’t take it for granted, but you realise that at some stage you’re going to finish.
“You could control that to a certain degree and go out on your terms, most of the time that doesn’t happen for a rugby player.”
He has defied those odds for over two decades, and is determined to return stronger and fit for a two-year run up to the World Cup.
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