Kieran Shannon Interview: Jamie Heaslip is proud to be his own man

Ireland legend Jamie Heaslip was never one to take a backward step during an illustrious playing career — and it’s an approach he continues to take as he creates a life outside rugby

Kieran Shannon Interview: Jamie Heaslip is proud to be his own man

Ireland legend Jamie Heaslip was never one to take a backward step during an illustrious playing career — and it’s an approach he continues to take as he creates a life outside rugby

Given someone as exacting as Joe Schmidt has described him as the most professional player with whom he has ever worked, All In works well as a title for Jamie Heaslip’s new book, but had Matt Cooper once again profiled a subject instead of ghosted this one, an even more suitable name for it might have been His Own Man.

The first conversation Heaslip ever had with Schmidt was in the summer of 2010 when his new Leinster coach asked him to come in early for pre-season ahead of some of his Irish teammates. Heaslip refused. He was in an airport in Singapore, on his way back from an Irish tour of New Zealand. He needed a break. He was in this game for the long haul and wasn’t going to go for the squeeze to appease a new coach.

Heaslip got and took his break. You could argue that at that juncture Schmidt’s reputation had yet to precede him but by the autumn of 2013 everyone was familiar with how fearsome it was. And yet upon Schmidt’s first series of games as Irish coach, Heaslip began a practice of slipping away from the team’s base of the Shelbourne Hotel to sleep in his own bed the two nights before any home game, a routine he would maintain until the end of his career.

Heaslip is certain it didn’t go unnoticed by his coach yet Schmidt never challenged it and Heaslip never mentioned it. Fair to say, only someone with a considerable sense of self and confidence would have dared it.

“Well, I’m a believer that at times it’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission,” Heaslip smiles over a glass of a water in a bar, a little while before heading over to Trinity College for the launch of his book.

“It was just that I slept a lot better that way. And I was way more relaxed. It was nothing against Cian [Healy] who I roomed with on tour, but I often found the rooms hot and at the time I was living in Irishtown and Rathmines, both very close to the Shelbourne.

So I would just walk in in the mornings, in good time for the team breakfast. I would still have had all my meals in the hotel. And I wouldn’t have gone home until eight, nine o’clock, whenever you’d have been going up to your room anyway. You wouldn’t have known I was gone. As I write in the book, it wasn’t that I was looking for special treatment, it was just my way of making sure I was best prepared for the game.

Schmidt got that and got Heaslip but not everyone did. In person Heaslip is affable, but he’s aware that would not be the image the public has always had of him, much of it informed by his often prickly relationship with the media during his playing career.

Yet as much as Heaslip accepts there were times he could certainly have been more tactful to draw the kind of love and affection which one of the standout careers and talents in Irish rugby history deserves, he’s not afraid to broach or resurrect stories and opinions that could confirm any biases against him. Heaslip doesn’t seem to mind if they cause some offence or could be held against him. Again, he’s His Own Man.

He volunteers that during that same 2013 autumn international series, two valuable watches he’d received from that year’s Lions tour were stolen from his hotel room. Not only did the hotel threaten him with slander when the Gardaí suggested it be publicised on Crimecall and infer he’d concocted the story but Heaslip lets it be known he felt the IRFU didn’t have his back when requesting for CCTV coverage.

More significantly he writes about how upon his retirement there was a stark contrast in how he was treated by the IRFU and Leinster. Leinster and its CEO Mick Dawson were “unbelievably good, sympathetic and responsive”.

The first he heard back from the IRFU upon informing them of his decision was three weeks later in the form of a P45 and a letter notifying him that: “I had one more month’s wages coming to me and that was it”.

So what if some blazers won’t like to hear that. It’s what he thinks and what happened so he wasn’t going to cheat himself or his reader. What’s most revealing though is how he was steeled for such an eventuality. From the outset of his career, not just at the end of it, he realised how rugby was a business and how disposable a player was.

He’d always promised he was going to be a professional in every sense. He wasn’t just going to max out in his efforts of preparation and performance. He was also unapologetically going to look to max out his wage and commercial value. Well, within reason.

“I’m very lucky that my brother [Graham] played pro rugby [with Connacht] before me so I had a sense very early on about the business of sport,” he explains. “And then Fintan Drury [his first agent] coming from soccer, would have also impressed upon me: Your value is your value. You shouldn’t feel bad for trying to get it, which as Irish people we have a tendency to do.

“Now, there is a caveat. There is your market value and then there is the value you place on certain things. Not all pros and cons are financial so you have to factor them in.”

On the eve of the 2014 Six Nations he was driving out to Carton House with a contract from Toulon on the passenger seat.

“My agent was going into a last meeting with Leinster. I had been very honest with them. ‘This is what the other offer is. I don’t expect you to meet it because I put a certain value on staying in Ireland and not moving my family and being managed centrally. But where you are now isn’t near good enough.’

So in this meeting they were either going to budge or they weren’t and I was gone. Just as I pulled into Carton House, my agent called. ‘Yeah, it’s all sorted. They moved.’ And so I stayed.

He didn’t develop that independent streak by chance. His Own Man was often on his own; he describes himself as “an only child in a way”, his nearest sibling being eight years older. The family home was in Naas – “Everyone seems to think with my accent that I’m from south county Dublin but I’m not” – but much of his childhood was spent living and studying everywhere from Israel to Nicosia and Zagreb.

What would have represented upheaval for another kid represented a heaven for him. “I loved it. It beat the Christian Brothers any day of the week anyway!”

His father, Richard, was a military man, working his way up to being a brigadier general and Irish observer to NATO, and would feed his son with an alternative catechism to what the Christian Brothers were offering. ‘Talent is nothing without discipline.’

‘Train as you want to play.’ Long before Enda McNulty entered his life, Heaslip had heard more than his share of motivational phrases.

They’d seep into him, as much as he would sometimes rebel against his father, studding his tongue. He wouldn’t wear a tracksuit at training because you don’t play a game in a tracksuit. He’d marry talent with relentless discipline. And he’d appreciate that to make a career out of the sport he loved would mean treating it even more as an art than a business.

“Sport demands you to be fully invested. You can be a breakout success for two or three years but to get longevity you have to treat it like a craft. So you have to keep working on your craft, working on your craft. Because you’re never the finished product.”

That mindset would spark and strengthen a collaboration with McNulty. Although Heaslip again gave off the wrong initial impression — Heaslip had his feet up on a chair and his baseball cap on backwards when McNulty first encountered him and the rest of the Leinster squad in a team room — one of the first people up to McNulty afterwards was the same guy with the baseball cap. Soon they were regularly meeting for coffee and Heaslip was using some of his techniques to help with his mental preparation for games.

The day before a game and the morning of it, he had a particular routine, another reason to stay in his own bed than one in the Shelbourne. He’d take a seat in his sitting room and with his earphones and IPod shuttle on, would start writing out in a journal how he wanted to feel and play that weekend.

“There’d be lots of tactile stuff, like how the grass would feel under my feet,” he says. “The sound of the crowd, the wave of blue in the stand, all that. So the first page would be more how I’d want to feel in the build-up to the game, then on the next page would be me executing really clear actions.

"So I’d write for 10 minutes, then close my journal and close my eyes and for another 10 minutes or so see myself playing, [from a point of view] like you would playing Grand Theft Auto, executing some of the actions.

“We’d also have had a game sheet with all our moves on it so I’d whip it out. A certain play might be Value 2.10. So I’d be right, ‘Value 2.10.’ And either I’d close my eyes or I might stand up and half-walk through it, but all the time plainly visualising myself executing it and all the other code calls. The studies show that visualisation activates the same neural pathways that you would use actually doing it, so combining the two [visualisation and practice] was beneficial for me.

“You’d end up doing things in a game automatically because you’d rehearsed them physically and mentally so often.”

In his book and in his person he’s upfront yet generally fair-minded about former coaches.

He never clicked with Eddie O’Sullivan but credits him with providing a consistency and structure that Ireland wouldn’t have had previously, without hiding that he didn’t have any much sympathy for the Youghal man upon his dismissal – beyond his failure to communicate and connect with Heaslip, “he’d been ruthless in dispatching us when necessary, [so] now it was his turn to feel the sharp end of the axe”.

His fondness and respect for Declan Kidney is apparent, and not just because the Corkman won a Grand Slam in his first season as Irish coach and made Heaslip captain in his last. Yet he doesn’t hide that at that very point he was made captain he and the Leinster contingent on the Irish squad were experiencing a “frustration of knowing we were getting better coaching from Joe at club level”.

But did he hide it at the time? Yes.

“I suppose at the time I was given the bandwidth by Declan to make whatever way I wanted with the captaincy. And the way I wanted to be a captain was to lead by example, set the standard, not [talk].

“As players, individually and collectively, it’s very hard to keep saying, ‘Well, we’re doing this in our club.’ You’ve got to be careful in how you approach that. In fairness, different players brought it up and we did try different things, if you look back at some of the games from then.

“I would have a lot of time for Declan. Because what he did was he loosened it up for the players. He gave them a lot of freedom on how to play.”

He also credits Kidney with establishing another legacy: although he never beat the All Blacks, he never shied away from them. He identified that the reason South Africa and Australia could beat New Zealand in World Cups was because they had played them so regularly between World Cups.

Like the Aussie hockey coach Ric Charlesworth used to proclaim, Face Your Foes was his motto. That way you demystify them, maybe eventually beat them.

“I was in New Zealand four times in four years,” Heaslip laughs lightly.

One World Cup and three tours. Because Deccie wanted us to play them as much as we could. I think that’s really stood to us.

He’s out in Japan since Thursday, there to do some media and work with sponsors, but once the plan was to be out there as a player, tackling, not commentating on, the All Blacks.

For a decade hardly anyone in world rugby had been as masterful of the craft of being a pro as Heaslip, allowing him to play more minutes and more games than virtually everyone else in international rugby during that span. In 72 of his 95 caps for Ireland, he lasted the entire 80 minutes.

Then The Man Who Never Got Injured got injured, in the warmup of a home Six Nations game against England, 30 months ago. It’s well-documented now how Heaslip didn’t want it documented what injury was ailing him at the time. But what’s fascinating to discover now is his reticence wasn’t merely because the injury could — and would — finish his career.

“I had decided very early on in my career if I ever got injured, I wasn’t going to disclose [medical information].”

In other words, if a wrist injury kept you out of a PRO12 game six years ago, you’d have looked to have kept it to yourself?

“Yeah.”

“I just felt we were throwing around medical data without considering any of the implications all around. It had never been challenged before. Just because the press could say ‘Well, look, this is what we do and have always done’, doesn’t change that [rugby] is still a workplace and you’ve got to treat your employees the same way you would treat the employees in the office. It just had never been challenged before.”

That no such champion had emerged from other, more established, professional sports doesn’t seem to have registered with Heaslip, just as it wouldn’t daunt him. Again, His Own Man.

He was never going to stay in rugby forever. His dream was to play in this World Cup, then finish up, playing an odd game on the Trinity campus like he used to in his college years. He was never going to stay in the bubble and look for a coaching job, which was why he volunteered to be an intern in Google for a week in 2013 and 2017.

He now works in there, as a senior account manager, having started a year ago just after the birth of his and Sheena’s daughter, Harper. But he won’t lie. Just because he knew there’d be life after the game doesn’t mean that life has always been easy.

“I thought I was really well prepared [for retirement]. And a lot of players would say, ‘Yeah, Jamie was really well prepared.’ But it’s still very tough and it’s still very final. The train just keeps going and you’re just left at the station.”

The media work has helped ease that transition, though, he finds, and so is the realisation that he gave it everything while he played.

“I’ve been very lucky, really. I mean, at first, I didn’t know if there was a book in me. I had a pretty nice childhood. I had no sad story to tell, no tough upbringing or anything. It wasn’t like I grew up on the hard streets of Naas. And I’ve been very lucky with the career I had.

“But when we reflected on how I had that career and how I dedicated myself to that career and prepared, we realised, ‘Yeah, there might be quite a lot in that.’”

And there is, how His Own Man went All In.

All In, by Jamie Heaslip with Matt Cooper, published by Gill, is in all bookstores now.

RWC Podcast: Buying into the confidence in the air around Irish camp

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox