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Dublin: 10°C Wednesday 30 September 2020

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

The 34-year-old confirmed his retirement from the game after a superb career.

ALTHOUGH JAMIE HEASLIP’S biggest impact came on the pitch, his legacy in Irish rugby continues to be felt off it even after his retirement.

Jamie Heaslip Heaslip's consistency on the pitch was unmatched. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It’s been notable that many of the messages of congratulations for the former Ireland number eight have included mention of the Kildare native’s professionalism – perhaps Heaslip’s key attribute in a career that has unfortunately been cut short.

Whether it was sleeping in an altitude tent for the entirety of his pre-seasons, his magic box of tera bands, foam rollers and other myofascial-release tools or a slavish dedication to perfecting his nutrition, Heaslip was so often ahead of the game.

Every professional sportsperson focuses on the 1% gains away from game day, but Heaslip took care of each 0.1%.

Though the ex-Leinster back row once told us that DNA testing informed him he “wasn’t too far off being a neanderthal,” the durability that drove him until this enforced end was largely built on Heaslip’s own attention to detail. His team-mates were and will continue to be inspired by it.

It is jarring that injury is how it finishes for Heaslip, his last game having come in last year’s Six Nations defeat to Wales in Cardiff. Having had so much success with Ireland, it’s a shame too that the back row couldn’t bow out with a win or at least with a chance to bid rugby supporters farewell as he left the field.

Three Heineken Cups, three Pro 12 titles and a Challenge Cup with Leinster. 95 Caps for Ireland, two Triple Crowns, three Six Nations titles and the 2009 Grand Slam. Two Lions tours, including five Test caps.

By any measure, it’s been an astonishingly successful career for Heaslip. And the fact that he contributed so centrally to every single one of those successes means he can hang his boots up with satisfaction.

Ian McGeechan 10/8/2002 DIGITAL Heaslip with Ian McGeechan at a Trinity College training session in 2002. Source: INPHO

Heaslip was a deeply intelligent player and having initially burst onto the scene as a dynamic ball-carrying power, he refined the more subtle skills in his game to become truly complete in his later years.

The master of the unglamorous stuff, Heaslip was often under-appreciated as his role for Leinster and Ireland shifted away from being a linebreaking carrier to a player who so often facilitated others looking good.

From key defensive breakdown interventions to his savvy distraction of opposition defenders with his ruck work and decoys, and perceptive support lines to concise and clear communication, Heaslip was so good at the little things that make a big difference.

His set-piece skills at lineout and maul were, again, unfussily effective and while he may not have beaten as many tackles in the later part of his career, his pre-contact footwork was always excellent.

There were so many memorable moments – a brilliant try against France in the 2009 Grand Slam run, a powerful score in the Heineken Cup final that same year, a sensational scoring pass and block for Johnny Sexton’s try during the 2011 Heineken Cup final comeback, his try-saving tackle on Stuart Hogg in Ireland’s 2015 Six Nations success.

Those were huge plays in huge games, but there were so many more subtle ones that had equally important effects.

The 2016 World Rugby try of the year has a place on Heaslip’s CV too, when his ruck work and then a delightfully clever pre-emptive support line straight up the pitch allowed him to finish a glorious Irish attack against Italy.

Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney celebrate after the game Heaslip enjoyed two Lions tours. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Some might argue that Heaslip doesn’t belong in the same bracket as the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Mike Gibson and Paul O’Connell as a true great of Irish rugby, but then that just sums up how Heaslip’s impact has sometimes been under-appreciated.

He is more than deserving of such a status having achieved what he has for Leinster and Ireland, and having been such an incredibly consistent performer.

When coaches as good as Michael Cheika, Joe Schmidt, Ian McGeechan and Warren Gatland all rate you, there’s some assurance that you’re among the very best.

Heaslip’s relationship with the media was difficult at times but then he owes those who write about, analyse and discuss the game nothing, in truth.

And while some journalists might have had issues with him, his dealings with Leinster and Ireland rugby fans always seemed to be positive.

It will be fascinating to see if Heaslip ventures into rugby media now – he has plenty of other avenues to pursue, of course – because his intellect and understanding of the game would make him a compelling addition to the field.

While other players like James Haskell have made a far greater show of being active in building their professional lives away from rugby, Heaslip has more quietly gone about giving himself plenty of options for life post-rugby.

So while it is a pity that such a durable career has been ended by injury, Heaslip’s professionalism will continue to bring him success elsewhere.

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Jamie Heaslip announces his retirement with immediate effect

‘With the Ireland U18s, I was eight tries in five games, so I’m dropping off now!’

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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