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He wasn't loved as much as some, but Heaslip deserves place among the greats


Prize guy: Jamie Heaslip lifts the Heineken Cup in 2009
Prize guy: Jamie Heaslip lifts the Heineken Cup in 2009

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

It was a cold, wet January night in 2000 when I first came across Jamie Heaslip. Although 'was run over by' is probably more accurate.

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The wise men running Newbridge RFC and Newbridge College decided that a few combined training sessions would sharpen the edges ahead of our respective cup runs. So, we eyed each other beneath the gloomy floodlights at Rosetown, before getting stuck into a 15-on-15 game of attack versus defence in one half of the field.

We were accustomed to coming across big men. When Newbridge College handed the ball to their tall, blonde No.8, it was different. He was a brick outhouse on wheels and it didn't take long to realise that he was best avoided.

It wasn't long before Jamie Heaslip was a household name.

18 years on, injury has forced him to hang up his boots, bringing Ireland's most illustrious rugby career to a sad conclusion. Until last March, the Naas native went almost 11 seasons of professional rugby without missing a beat.

Aside from the World Cup, he collected every medal available to him for club and country, setting on-pitch standards for those around him while evolving his game as he went on.

He had his detractors from time to time but, after Eddie O'Sullivan left him out of the 2007 World Cup squad, he was one of the first names on the team-sheet for Declan Kidney, Joe Schmidt, Ian McGeechan, Warren Gatland, Michael Cheika, Matt O'Connor and Leo Cullen.

Gatland did drop him, along with Brian O'Driscoll, for the decisive Test of the 2013 Lions series, but had he been fit last summer there seems little doubt that a player of his calibre and experience would have been taken to New Zealand.

The fact that the furore that greeted O'Driscoll's dropping never really encapsulated his Leinster and Ireland team-mate sums up how the forward was never as warmly regarded as some of his counterparts.

His achievements merit similar respect to O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, but the sense is that he is not as warmly regarded in the public sphere.

Heaslip deserves his place in the pantheon alongside the greats of the modern game and, perhaps in time he will be considered one of the all-time greats of the Irish game.

Yesterday, his retirement was greeted with an outpouring of tributes, with team-mates and coaches lauding his professionalism above all else. That fed into performances that rarely dipped below the very good; he was a ball-carrying menace in his early days but developed into a clever defender, a breakdown threat and a carrier.

Although the red card he received while playing against the All Blacks in 2010 goes down as a black mark, he was one of the players who set the tone from a discipline perspective and his team-mates often spoke of his qualities as a defensive leader and communicator.

And he produced big moments at crucial times, turning up for the biggest games and rising to the occasion.

The World Cup evaded him, but he ticked every other box. He was a starter in four of Ireland's five games in the 2009 Grand Slam win, coming off the bench in Murrayfield to score a try in the game he didn't start.

Later that season, he was part of the Leinster side that wrested the balance of power their way and won the Heineken Cup for the first time, before touring South Africa with the Lions and starting all three Tests of a series that resulted in defeat but restored pride.

He would add two more Heineken Cups and a couple of PRO12s, two Six Nations titles under Schmidt and played in two of the three Tests as the Lions beat the Wallabies in 2013.

When he failed to appear for the kick-off of Ireland's final Six Nations clash with England last year, it was so unusual that conspiracy theories abounded.

He would never play rugby again.

To retire with a statement on a Monday morning was a sad way for a brilliant career to end, but Heaslip can't have too many complaints about his innings.

His body of work will stand the test of time.

Belfast Telegraph


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