JAMIE HEASLIP has just two photos of his sporting career at home. Any more and he fears he’d turn into a rugby version of Alan Partridge. So the self-obsession can wait for another day. For this one, the picture of him sitting in the Lions dressing-room, with his head bowed and his hands clenched, reminds you of a Catholic after Communion. Yet it is the fear of South Africa not God that is in Heaslip’s head as he contemplates the 80 minutes he is about to play. “If I could choose any moment to sum up my attitude to rugby, it’s that one,” he says. “I didn’t even know Dan Sheridan was taking the picture because I was so absorbed in my routine, thinking ‘focus, focus, focus’, thinking ‘right, what do I have to do? I’ve got to get my game-head on. It’s about to happen’.”
What was happening inside Heaslip’s mind in those precious seconds before the first test of the 2009 South African tour was a transformation from the happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care Heaslip into the ferocious competitor who, at times, has been close enough to the best No 8 in world rugby.
It’s this contradiction in his personality which has alienated him from some sportswriters in Ireland, yet he doesn’t care about the perception his detractors have of him because within his own mind, he has it all: the close family, the circle of friends, the nice girlfriend, the flashy car, the pad in town and let’s not forget, the medals. Two Heineken Cups, one Grand Slam and two Magners Leagues.
“It’s not bad but it’s not enough,” he says of that collection.
And so on Sunday, he will begin a journey to add to it, not believing ‘in entering the Six Nations with a view of coming second,’ nor in viewing Wales, Ireland’s first opponents in this year’s competition, as a team that needs manners put on them after what went on between the pair in New Zealand.
“This idea of getting revenge just because they beat us the last time out, doesn’t do it for me,” says Heaslip. “Anyway, while everyone’s analysis of that [World Cup quarter-final] result was of them winning because they were a young team and us an ageing one, my view is that we weren’t beaten. We lost the game. We didn’t take our opportunities and they took theirs. The margins in test rugby are so small that this can happen.
“So why dwell on it? Why not deal with the defeat as you would a victory by having a couple of beers and then moving on to the next one. Why stay stuck in the moment? There’s more to life than that.”
That there is more to Heaslip’s life goes back to his childhood. His father, a brigadier general in the Irish Army, moved with his profession from one war-zone to another: Israel to Croatia to Cyprus, intent on teaching his son about the privileged life he was born into and the difficulties and traumas those with less good fortune had to endure.
Those experiences appealed to Heaslip’s sense of wonder and partially explain why last summer he, and Bob Casey, spent their holiday time working for GOAL in Calcutta. “When else would I be able to do things like that? I like a thrill chase and India gave me that. Those days, playing cricket in 30 degree heat by the side of a rubbish dump, were as enjoyable as any I’ve known. People asked if it changed my life but it didn’t. As a kid, I saw plenty of things from countries being at war that gave me my sense of perspective.
“I always knew I was a lucky person. But I never got the sense that I had to give out hell to myself for being a child of a certain class. You are born into what you are born into, so get on with it. Life, and especially rugby, is all about gaining a sense of perspective.
“Now don’t get me wrong, I love my rugby. It’s a hobby and if I wasn’t playing with Leinster or Ireland, I’d be lining out with my mates on a Saturday afternoon. But it’s still only a bloody game. It’s not life or death and pundits and fans blow it up out of all proportion.
“I just don’t see the point of that. Yes, I’m a competitive ****** and I want to win. And yes, I’d be selfish about wanting more and more medals. But when the game is over – and it is a win or a loss – I deal with each situation the same, by taking the outcome on the chin and moving on.”
And so we come to the second portrait. Only a pair of shorts protect his modesty in this one, as Heaslip stares in wonder at the Six Nations trophy, lost in his own little world.
Like the earlier picture, the intense privacy of his character comes into focus: “I like my own space. I’d think nothing of spending two or three hours walking around town on my own.
“To me, those two are the pictures that sum up my attitude to sport.
“Yet while I’m on my own in these pictures, for me, the best moments of my career, take place in a dressing room just before or after a big match. That sense of companionship you get with your teammates cannot be explained. It’s just there. There’s a pride in yourself and your colleagues which won’t ever leave you.
“That’s when rugby’s more than just a game to me. That’s when I think about what my job is, think about how much work I – and everyone around me, players, medics, coaches, backroom staff – put in. That’s when the sacrifices pay off.
“Yet, I keep harking back to the word perspective, but you have to have it.
“Given what I’ve seen, in Croatia, Cyprus, it’d be a disgrace if I didn’t have a perspective about rugby.
“I’ve friends who are slaves to their nine-to-five jobs. And I play a sport for a living. How could I get obsessed 24/7 by that when people around me have more things going on to deal with? How, after being in Calcutta, and seeing how content people are – even though they have no worldly possessions and spend each day going through rubbish dumps searching for a meal – can I indulge in nothing else but my rugby career?
“I’m lucky to have it and appreciate it. But there’s a life beyond it.”
Yet before the sporting afterlife, there is a tournament to get on with. Ireland start with the Welsh and start second favourites for the Slam. Can they do it again?
“We’re in it to win it,” says Heaslip. “I don’t aim for being second. I aim for first. Yet games like this always bring us back to what Alan Gaffney had to say about the opening day of a Six Nations – how you can’t win the tournament first day out but you can lose it. It’s up to us to get past Wales and worry about everyone else the day after.”