Part 2: Next Job?
Parting advice for the pro rugby player:
1. Smell the coffee every once in a while.
2. Prepare for the afterlife.
3. Being successful in this game demands so much that 1. and 2. aren’t really possible!
Joe Schmidt once said that I wasn’t “anchored by rugby.”
That’s true; it never weighed me down but it has dominated my adult life.
I have a degree in Engineering, a masters in Management, I’ve studied at Harvard, dabbled with restaurants and pubs, done a summer internship at Google, invested in the tech industry, tip toed around the media.
I’m ready for the rest of my life and I’m not at all. It’s almost impossible to prepare for retirement aged 34 because a successful rugby career demands an all-consuming existence. Within that there are specific mantras; the next job, stay in the moment, one game at a time.
Take Ireland beating the All Blacks at Soldier Field. It was as special a moment as any Irish rugby player will ever experience, outside of winning a major trophy, yet we only stalled over it for one – albeit very cool – night in Chicago.
”The 'next job' mentality is unhealthy. It's essential, many coaches will argue, and I can say very little to defend myself, but I know it's unhealthy and so do they.
The game spits you out at a moment when most people are marching along a steady path towards financial security. You wake up one morning and a large chunk of your social circle – the changing room – has disappeared. Your wages are sliced in half (if you’re lucky) and you’ll probably be forced into an alien environment, doing a job you barely understand, in civvies, after 14 years in the smoothest routine imaginable that was all geared towards living a boyhood dream.
What follows is shrouded by fear of the unknown.
I’m sure there will be times when I feel lost in the real world. Eventually, I know, I’ll find my way. Sport, at the level I’ve played, and the strenuous environment it creates, arms you with an emotional intelligence that I intend to put to use in future endeavours.
There’s a reason for trudging up the Eddie story in the advice for my younger self. I didn’t see that coming. I presumed I’d make the 2007 World Cup squad and believed I would play myself into the team come the knock-out stages. I was 23rd man for the historic Croke Park games against France and England. I travelled to Rome as the extra forward when we just missed out on winning the Six Nations. Besides Denis Leamy, I was the only Number Eight. I still don’t understand the rationale but it forced me to ask some hard questions:
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What if I don’t make it as an Ireland international?
Do I want to spend the next decade ploughing away for Leinster A or becoming a journeyman in France or wherever I scrape the next one-year deal?
No way. I had to play and tangible team success had to follow or I’d do something else.
I went all in. We all did.
(I nearly got to France. Toulon were interested before my penultimate national contract but my agent, Damien O’Donohoe, and the IRFU eventually agreed upon my value.)
Way back in 2007, I looked into an uncertain future. Thereafter, I barely glanced over my shoulder. Lots of people helped along the way.
Before Mick Kearney became Ireland team manager, he was a successful businessman. I was paired up with Mick by Rugby Players Ireland in their “buddy system.” Mick gave the soundest advice a young athlete can hear, “Jamie, your main asset is your body. Find out what works for you and invest. Fully commit to your craft. The rest will look after itself but, for now, put your resources into your most valuable possession.”
The average pro rugby career used to be six years. I was in my third season.
Until 2008, my attitude was to turn up, train hard, lift my weights and leave rugby behind when I turned the key in the ignition. Mick and others helped me to alter that mindset. I didn’t want an ordinary career. I wanted to push my body to its limit.
Here’s what I learned:
Playing No. 8 is a craft.
You can’t just be a big ball carrier and survive (although it helps). You need a passing, offloading game. You must have skills at the base and be strong enough to shunt the other seven lumps. You must be agile in the lineout. You need to tackle into double figures, ruck your heart out and produce GPS stats comparable to the backs.
You have to be one of the best players on the pitch in every single game.
Others came along to elevate my game. I was a good pro when Brad Thorn turned up at Leinster for a season, just after the 2011 World Cup. Thorn showed me what was required to be a great player. In his youth, he went through some craziness and came out the other side to lift every trophy on offer in Rugby League and Rugby Union (except the Pro 12 final in 2012, which I’d say kills him).
“What are you willing to sacrifice to have a body of work you can be proud of at the end?” that gravelly voice asked me. “Or, keep tipping along and just have a grand old career.“
”I also listened to Joe Schmidt. We all did. Because he makes so much sense.
My diet changed. Tuesday pints were no more. I fed my flywheel; provided continuous energy to the body. I got leaner to cover an extra kilometre in every game and improved my range of passing so my carry threat increased because the defence became unsure of what I would do.
Half the battle is to know the enemy. I became a student of the game, I began to understand the flow of the 80 minutes.
I told the media around this time that I didn’t like watching rugby. I was being flippant. People seemed to take offence. I wasn’t a fan of the game because I was living it. That’s what I meant.
I hated sitting in Leinster, in a hot room, trawling through reviews, so I bought the software to study matches at home. I’d have training put on my hard-drive. I’d pay the masseuse to come over out of my own pocket.
“Find out what works for you and invest.”
a��1000 here, a��500 there but I started seeing results. I started anticipating what an opponent was going to do because of the hours spent pouring over him on the iPad. Tom Brady says he could “watch film all day,” and that he finds it “soothing.” I know what he means. I maximised my value on the field so nobody could question my methods off it.
I invested 10 solid years honing my craft. The rewards came. The Grand Slam (all three Six Nations titles were special), four European medals, two Lions tours, three leagues and some cool individual nominations.
Great memories mixed with awful defeats. Done by all the space we gave up on the edge against the All Blacks in 2013 and Argentina in 2015. I don’t care how many players we lost to injury at the last World Cup and SeA?nie’s bullshit suspension, after how we finished against France, I felt like we were good to go. Dad’s mentality drilled to the surface – five injuries, so what? They are gone, who’s up next? Hendo, Mads, Jordi. Fine by me. Give me the game plan, right, let’s get to work. Follow me. But we got caught against Argentina. Training on a narrow pitch all week didn’t help. The up and out defensive system, pushing them to the side-line didn’t work. We clawed our way back into it. Mads missed a kick. They went the length and scored.
I wanted to keep the captaincy but Joe Schmidt disagreed. Joe knows me pretty well by now. When telling me Paul O’Connell would be captain he just ripped the plaster off – casually informed me walking out of the team room. I learned a hell of a lot as Paulie’s vice captain, he was a superb leader, gave it everything, and was playing serious rugby right up to the cruelest ending.
When Joe went with Rory Best before the 2016 Six Nations I was gutted. I needed to know if he saw me going to Japan in 2019. It became a contractual discussion as well. Why make me vice-captain then? I was unhappy. The decision, I told him, was going to impact on my thinking. The Ireland captaincy felt like the natural next step in my career.
In the end, playing for Ireland mattered more than being passed over. I wanted to beat the All Blacks, I wanted to win another Slam, I wanted to tour New Zealand with the Lions…
”That's what is so unhealthy; you keep wanting, needing, until it all stops.
Injuries in my career; syndesmosis (ankle injury) in December 2010 against Clermont. Played a week later without being able to turn. Felt my way through the game. We won. Concussed three times. Shattered left eye socket, aged 17, playing for Trinity. Broke a finger. Strapped it. Cracked three vertebrae. Recovered in a month.
80 minutes was what I did in every game. I was always good to go.
Until March 18th 2017.
I’ll tell you what happened in the warm-up before England but before I do let me tell you why I kept my medical information private.
It’s about data protection. When details of my injury were released to the public, after the Pape incident in 2015, I found out what my rights were. I spoke to our players union and put some parameters in place that protects the player, not our employers. The surgeon only has to inform me about my body. Nobody else.
It happened during the warm-up. My ego temporarily took over (angel and devil on either shoulder).
Tell the physio.
Don’t, you’re grand. Jamie Heaslip 101 caps. Nice ring to it.
The fact that I’m having a conversation with myself proves that I’m not in the frame of mind to tackle Billy Vunipola in about seven minutes.
Get back to the changing room. Get through the anthems. The adrenaline will kick in. It will be grand.
Jesus, what am I doing!
Mr Indestructible. The 80 minute man. Get the cap. Four more and the Irish centurion club becomes Hayes, O’Driscoll, O’Gara, O’Connell… and Heaslip.
I tell the physio. Nobody notices because the team leaves the field at the same time. The medics are concerned. Joe comes over as I’m failing the fitness test. My look tells him.
Dan Leavy is in Joe’s eye line as he turns from me; “Dan you’re on the bench. Pete, you’re six, CJ switch to eight.”
That’s how quickly the game moves on. It has to be that ruthless. Joe has to be ruthless.
What happened next really pissed me off. The messaging from the changing room up to the media got screwed up. Literally Chinese whispers. One uninformed journalist spread a conspiracy theory on national radio. Eddie Jones stirred the pot as well. This hardened my desire to protect my medical information. We are entitled to that.
It turned out to be serious. It took me two weeks to process just how serious. I was thinking, “I’ll be back for the Champions Cup quarter-final. I’m GOING on the Lions tour.” Reality tends to visit athletes in a doctor’s surgery. “Season over, Jamie.”
The end, when it comes, is rarely quick. It’s slow and painful. You linger in the unknown.
It means my last scene as a rugby player was packing down for a Welsh scrum in Cardiff. The game was lost but we steal their ball so I pick and carry into Toby Faletau. We go wide. Turnover. Gasping for air. Back in the line. Talent is nothing without discipline. Wales are hunting a bonus point try. George North sprints past. Keep going. Back in the line. Headband mats to my skull. Jersey dark green on my back. First up for the last tackle. I wrap around Sam Davies’ ankles as the whistle of Wayne Barnes interrupts the dream.
Knock on. Game over. Wake up.
It took a few seconds to drag my carcass off the turf. Spent, but at the peak of my physical powers. The greatest moments came on that pitch. The Grand Slam, the miracle final against Northampton and, now, this.
The game keeps motoring down the tracks. A year disappears. Pete, CJ and Dan were stillA�shovelingA�coal into the furnace at Twickenham.
I loved watching my friends complete another Grand Slam – In my first Ireland game I went to as a retired player.
I was in the Aviva for the Welsh match. Up in the corporate boxes for a Q&A. Thought my pass got me pitch side, so I went down the lift to see the boys finish their warm-up. Looked at the pass. “Corporate and General Admission only.” Didn’t want to be blagging, so when the doors opened I turned right, not left. Hood up, scooted into Marian College car park. Key in ignition… off to the gym.
Some things change, others stay the same.
The end is really the beginning, if you are ready.
I’ve been a rugby player since I was eight-years-old but now we’re about to be responsible for another human being! Thank God for Sheena.
I keep hearing, “Aw, Jamie will be grand. He’s got this and that…” Here’s the truth – I only know what I don’t want to do. I’m not a coach like Johnny Sexton could be (if he wants). I have decent rugby IQ. I could coach.
Talking to Stuart Lancaster about how the opposition will attempt to stop Leinster’s way of attacking is enjoyable but coaching day in, day out, isn’t for me.
I am interested in the business of sport. I like this platform. The Sports Chronicle has the potential to change the way Irish athletes communicate. I grew up in the public eye so a media persona formed that has nothing to do with who I really am, the 30-something man, the father I will become.
How the media and pro athletes interact in Ireland leaves many of us a little cold. This gives the player, the individual, a clear voice.
Are you ready for that?