The retirement due to a knee injury of 23-year-old back row Jack Condy only emphasised the good fortune that Heaslip, at 34, was almost simultaneously expressing about the longevity he, as Leinster, Ireland and Lions No 8, had enjoyed during an illustrious career at the coalface of European and Test rugby and his ability to call it quits on something very close to his own terms.
Condy, like so many who enter the professional game with high hopes and boundless ambition, had no such fortune and will this morning wake up to the rest of his life as a former athlete, his promising career cut short after just 19 appearances for Scarlets, whom he had captained during the recent Anglo-Welsh Cup campaign.
As the young Welshman spoke of his great sadness, Heaslip was rightly and deservedly giving thanks for the amazing durability that, until a lower back injury suffered during last season’s Six Nations, allowed his talents to shine in the biggest of games at the most important of moments and on both sides of the ball in 95 Ireland Tests and 229 games for his native province.
“A lot of players, unfortunately, don’t get the opportunity to bow out on their own terms, but thankfully, having taken my time and after medical advice and consultation with my wife and close family, I have taken this decision with my future well-being in mind,” said Heaslip.
Joe Schmidt, who as Leinster and then Ireland head coach benefited greatly from Heaslip’s presence in his back-row selections, neatly encapsulated the brightest of rugby careers.
“Jamie was an intelligent and incredibly robust player. The string of trophies he contributed to is lengthy, including three European Cups, three Six Nations, including the 2009 Grand Slam and a couple of PRO12 trophies thrown in for good measure,” said Schmidt yesterday.
“There are so many moments that spring to mind, whether it be his superb second half against Northampton in the 2011 Heineken Cup final or his clever line and tireless work ethic that combined to see him score the International Try of the Year two years ago, or his crucial try-saving tackle on Stuart Hogg on ‘Super Sunday’, to help tip the balance in retaining the Six Nations trophy. Utterly professional, driven to succeed and a leader with the actions he delivered.”
That 2016 try of the year, scored against Italy in Dublin during that year’s Six Nations, typifies everything Heaslip was about. It was a wonderful, flowing move from the Irish 22 with the ball passing effortlessly through nine pairs of hands until the No 8 touches down in the left corner. It had a little bit of everything, a Johnny Sexton wraparound, a Simon Zebo offload, a killer Jared Payne pass at top speed, but when the first ball is distributed by Conor Murray from a ruck, Heaslip is on the deck having cleaned out an Italian centre.
Just 18 seconds later, it is Heaslip, 70 metres upfield, powering through the last man and touching down for five points. That is the sort of drive both Leinster and Ireland will dearly miss, so too the covering tackles and breakdown nous that made him a British & Irish Lions tourist in 2009 and 2013, earning five Test caps.
He walks away with a collection of medals, caps and achievements few could match, as a series-winning Lion, who helped Ireland achieved notable milestones, from that first Grand Slam in 61 years to a maiden Test win in South Africa and that historic victory in Chicago five months later against the All Blacks.
It is a career Heaslip is right to cherish and Irish supporters should feel privileged to have witnessed.