“It’s very different, now I’m comfortable with it.”
It’s been a little over 18 months since a recently retired Jame Heaslip went to watch Ireland play Wales at the Aviva Stadium in the Six Nations. Invited by a friend who had a box that day, the former no.8 thought he could watch the crucial game relatively discreetly and with little fuss. But before the game even kicked off, he had left the stadium and walked home.
That game fell just weeks after officially announcing his retirement from rugby. At 34, injury had forced the Leinster man to end his playing career in what was very much “not on my terms”.
“That Wales game was the final nail in the coffin,” says Heaslip. “I had retired but there was now no going back and that’s what it signalled. I hadn’t actually played for about a year but I’d been talking to the guys in the week and now I wasn’t there on the pitch.”
Ireland would go on to win a Grand Slam, something that Heaslip achieved as a player in 2009, to go along with two other Six Nations titles, as well as a ton of trophies with Leinster and two Lions tours. In 2009 and 2016 he was nominated for the World Player of the Year Award, and if he had been on the pitch for that Six Nations campaign that he couldn’t handle watching, he’d have clocked up 100 Ireland caps exactly.
Eddie could be an awkward person during the camps when it came to normal conversation and interaction.
Giving up such grandeur isn’t easy, but nearly two years down the track, he’s in a far better place. “I’m very much a fan again,” Heaslip says. “I’ve been to Ireland and Leinster games and really enjoyed it. I still have friends playing for those teams and want them to do well. The same thing that made it difficult to start with, makes it enjoyable now.”
The pitch has now been been swapped for the studio, with Heaslip currently on punditry duty during the World Cup alongside former international teammate Stephen Ferris and the man who gave him his Ireland debut, Eddie O’Sullivan.
In the past, Heaslip has been highly critical of O’Sullivan. When asked if their relationship has improved recently, the question is given short shrift: “No.”
O’Sullivan called Heaslip immature when he first joined the squad. In his recently released autobiography, All In, Heaslip writes about O’Sullivan not learning his name, and his poor man-management when first making the Ireland team: “No sooner had Eddie picked me than he told me – at the captain’s run, the day before my first full Irish game – that I’d never play an international wearing white boots. There are ways and means of delivering messages to players, and that’s not a message you deliver to a player on the eve of the biggest day of his career so far. He didn’t explain why, which was also typical of his attitude at the time.”
“Eddie could be an awkward person during the camps when it came to normal conversation and interaction. It was a standing joke that he pretended to be talking on the phone if he saw you coming towards him in the corridor, and then he’d get caught out by the phone ringing. I asked him why, accepting my fate [of not being selected for the 2007 World Cup squad] but also wanting to know where I’d gone wrong. He said, ‘You’re too small.’ Well, that wasn’t useful feedback.”
Heaslip didn’t wear white boots that day, but wore them for the entirety of his career beyond that, firstly because he liked them, but also just to make a point; if he played well, the colour of his boots meant nothing. The 2007 World Cup campaign that he missed out on also proved to be a disaster for the side and cost O’Sullivan his job.
So was there an element of schadenfreude when Ireland failed to make it out their pool 12 years ago? Heaslip says: “One side of your brain thinks ‘I wish I was there’, but the other side is saying ‘Thank God I’m not a part of this’. Ultimately you want your team to do well regardless, but Eddie thought too much about individuals, rather than the collective.”
It’s all in stark contrast to how Heaslip talks about Joe Schmidt, Ireland’s head coach for the last six years whose tenure has just ended. A famously intense and demanding individual, the Kiwi has been Ireland’s most successful coach, and worked with Heaslip at club level with Leinster before taking over the national job.
Heaslip speaks glowingly of Schmidt, understandably so given their combined success, but surely, given his personality, there are players who feel about Schmidt what Heaslip thought about O’Sullivan? Personalities clash, after all.
“Some guys who haven’t been picked or got dropped by Joe might say similar about him, that’s a natural thing that happens to a lot of players throughout their career,” says Heaslip. “But Joe is very, very fair. If you know your role, you deliver it, put the work in and be a good pro, he’ll be good to you. If you fall short though then you could get in to some very muddy waters.”
Essentially, what it boils down, and Heaslip is open about this, is the desire that opinions formed of him be fair. The comments made about immaturity (and the white boots, to some extent) questioned his professionalism, something he found utterly unjustified.
“You learn as you go. I constantly wanted to better myself, I like to question stuff and there were extra things that I was doing years ago that people consider normal now, there wasn’t too many guys applying that thinking at the time.”
Back then, they were the ones who set the standard and I absorbed stuff off them by osmosis.
Heaslip was nothing but professional, people thinking otherwise simply wasn’t on. Similarly, a perceived rivalry between Munster and Leinster players when meeting up for Ireland duty wasn’t, as far as Heaslip is concerned, wasn’t accurate. If anything, they helped each other get better.
“When I broke into the Ireland team, most of the pack were Munster guys and I got on really well with them, and they were always really good to me, too. Donncha (O’Callaghan), Paulie (O’Connell), John Hayes, Wally (Paul Wallace). Back then, they were the ones who set the standard and I absorbed stuff off them by osmosis.
“When we (Leinster) were winning, they wanted to know what we were doing, looking at the detail. There is a lot of respect there.”
After all that winning, an incredible 13-year rugby career was ended simply with the words: “You’re done”. Spoken by a doctor who worked on getting Heaslip fit again for the best part of a year.
“By the time you’re having those conversations you know deep down yourself. I couldn’t do what I wanted on a rugby field,” Heaslip explains. “I couldn’t even do some of the things that I wanted to do off a rugby field. You’re hoping he doesn’t say that, but you know it’s coming. It doesn’t make it any easier.
“You’re very lucky if you get to retire on your terms. You think of probably the two most iconic players in Irish rugby, Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll. Brian got to do a bit of a farewell tour I suppose, while Paul didn’t. He got an injury just before half time in a game, no one really noticed it and he didn’t think it was bad at the time. He never played again. Two very different endings. You’d love to be able to write your own ending, but it rarely happens.”
He may not have been able to write his ending, but has written about the life that came before that, a process that he enjoyed eventually because he was forced to look back, something he “very rarely did”.
There was an initial wariness, however: “I thought that because I had a really comfortable upbringing and amazing family I was a bit worried that I had no sad stories to tell, no real difference, but as you talk to people realise the changing game that I went through. In terms of coverage, the success that Irish rugby had, and how being a professional changed, eventually you see there are some cool threads to pull out.”
And now they’ve been pulled? “I’m ready to press pause and have a break.”
A well deserved one at that.
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