A single tackle in the late stages of a 30-point win has probably never meant as much, but it’s one of the first memories that sprung to mind when Jamie Heaslip announced his retirement from rugby this morning.
In their tributes to the legendary number 8, Joe Schmidt said he was “Utterly professional, driven to succeed and a leader”, while his Leinster coach Leo Cullen described how the 95-time Irish International “always delivered big moments”.
There are many “big moments” to pick out in a career which saw him with three Six Nations titles (one of which was a Grand Slam), three Heineken Cup titles, a Challenge Cup and three domestic titles, but a try-saving tackle at Murrayfield might just be the highlight for most.
40-10 in front, with nothing but garbage time left to play, it looked for certain like Stuart Hogg had touched down for a consolation Scottish score, before a trip to the TMO revealed a late Heaslip intervention had punched the ball free.
It maintained the 30-point margin of victory, and a few hours later, would ultimately prove to be the difference between Ireland winning and losing the Six Nations title. England beat France by 20 points in a chaotic game at Twickenham, but they needed to win by 26. Had Jamie Heaslip tried a little bit less to track Stuart Hogg, the Scot would have touched down, and a conversion would have given England seven points less to chase.
It epitomised his work ethic, and his professionalism, and his desire to give every last percent. Of his 95 Irish caps, 72 of them were full 80-minute performances. His ability to clock up the miles without losing performance made him one of the first names on a teamsheet for both province and country. Ultimately, it’s a sad irony that injury has ended the career of someone who seemed indestructible. Prior to his injury 12 months ago he had just signed a new three-year deal at the age of 33. Up until then, little had suggested he wouldn’t finish that contract in an Irish jersey.
“Unseen work” is a phrase thrown around a lot when it comes to Heaslip, especially in the latter stages of his career. Often times, he sacrificed carries and frontline tackles for doing the dirty jobs that get less credit, but even the most passive rugby fan can pick out standout moments.
Who can forget his weaving run for the tryline against France on the opening day of the 2009 Six Nations, a win which was the foundation of a Grand Slam? A few months later, he bulldozed over the line at Murrayfield, as Leinster won their first ever Heineken Cup. In the 2016 win against New Zealand, his presence as a ball carrier was enough to draw two All Blacks out of position, creating space on the inside for Robbie Henshaw to seal the win. Earlier that season he finished off the World Rugby Try of the Year, his game intelligence finding himself on the end of one of the great Irish team moves.
It’s no surprise that any of the big Irish and Leinster rugby moments of the last 10 years have seen him front and centre. His medal haul, and 95 caps have to put him down as one of Ireland’s all-time greats. In the announcement of his retirement, he said he hoped to have left “left all three jerseys in a better place”.
Of that, there’s little doubt.
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