Murrayfield isn’t exactly flavour of the month in the Irish camp this week but Cian Healy wouldn’t be remiss if he were to reach back into a repository of happier memories from the Edinburgh ground ahead of this afternoon’s date at the Stadio Olimpico.
It’s almost two years since the Leinster loosehead last made the starting XV for a Six Nations game. It came at the home of Scottish rugby on the day that Ireland clinched the championship on points difference and celebrated in their suits and in the enveloping gloom with thousands of visiting supporters.
A peak interspersed with far too many troughs.
Six of Healy’s last seven championship appearances have come off the bench in place of Jack McGrath. It’s a stat that stands in stark contrast to life in green up to that when every one of his first 19Six Nations caps were earned as the undisputed Irish number one.
McGrath’s emergence, and a run of form that has him in the running for a Lions berth, has played its part in the curtailment of Healy’s minutes but it is injury that has really reined in a player who was for so long deemed indispensable to the national selection. It’s been an awful four years in that sense and it all started with the Lions.
Ankle ligament damage ended his tour to Australia in 2013 and the litany of issues since has been near endless.
He underwent ankle surgery the following season, tore a hamstring off the bone in September of 2014 and suffered neck and nerve damage that had him fearing for his career in April the following year. This then, today, must feel good.
“I’ve got the jersey for a week,” he cautioned. “It’s not ‘get the jersey and sit on it’. Even last year when my form was fairly brutal I was still pretty pissed off I wasn’t in. It’s good to keep the mentality you should be up there, as well as the same work mentality that got you there. A good combination of both those things has dragged me through. It didn’t really help at times when I was playing bad because I was backing myself when I wasn’t capable of it but that’s the way I went about it and I had to stick to it.”
Returning to his peak was a chicken and egg conundrum. He needed minutes to get there but most coaches want to see some evidence of form before they hand out starts. The only recourse for any player in that situation is to do all they can in training. Extra fitness sessions were succumbed to, handling drills organised.
“I just wasn’t getting enough runs to get fit enough. My skill set wasn’t in a good enough place and I suppose the confidence took a bit of a knock. I had to put it on the back burner, ignore that and try to build it up as much as possible. It took the break at the end of last season to get everything right and put in some serious hours of skill work, technical work and rehab stuff to iron things out.”
It paid off. A corner has been turned. Healy has already played as many times for Leinster this season as in any of the previous three. The neck is, if anything, stronger than ever and the nerves in his hand that caused such concern up to and during the last World Cup are no longer an issue. All that has been reflected in his form.
Healy’s signature card when he was younger was his destructive ball carrying but the passing years, a growing maturity and the more structured nature of the modern game have given him reason to tailor his roaming tendencies and slot into the collective.
“It was a different game back when I started out,” the 28-year old said, 10 years on from his provincial debut against a border Reivers side that is long since extinct. “Defences weren’t as well structured and you could beat one and there was a whole open field behind it. Everyone’s after getting better in terms of defensive structures so you need to play to a system whether it is pods or around the corners or whatever. If you make that line break then it is a chance to do what you can.”
Old habits die hard. If he sees open plains today, watch him go.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved