This time four years ago, Cian Healy probably wouldn’t have envisaged that he would be on the cusp of playing in his third World Cup as Ireland’s first-choice loosehead prop.
In the summer of 2015, Healy underwent surgery on his neck and nerve damage left him without the use of his right hand.
The paperwork confirming his retirement was all but complete but thankfully, he took some time off and movement returned to his hand as he set his sights on continuing his playing career.
As he recalls during that difficult time, there were much bigger and scarier thoughts racing through his mind.
“That was a weird time where you’re more worrying about your health than your future in rugby and whether you can write your name and that sort of thing,” Healy said.
“That was a very different level of stress. But then, as I continued to get fitter and started getting more benefits and started feeling more and more like myself. I started to think along the lines of ‘how much more can I play? I feel like I’m getting better, surely I’ve got more time.’ Everyone always says the age thing but it’s how you feel and how you perform so I’ve always kind of held myself to that.”
Serious injuries are by no means unfamiliar territory for Healy. The powerful loosehead tore his hamstring off the bone at the beginning of the 2014/15 season. Neck surgery soon followed but Healy agrees that it was the danger of having the sport he holds so dear almost taken away from him which has driven him on to new heights in the intervening years.
Since then, Healy has become leaner, meaner and more effective around the park and his form over the last two years has seen him recently rewarded with a new contract from the IRFU. The Clontarf clubman is proud that the work he has put in since 2015 hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“It’s nice to have things like that out of the way and be able to get the head down and get working. I think everyone is aware of that, the union have become pretty good at doing contracts early before they’re at crunch time and it lets players do what they’re supposed to do.
“Yeah, definitely. I take a massive amount of pride in every day I get to do it. Getting a bit of faith shown in me like that by everyone above is nice and a good boost. It’s put back onto me to perform to the level they expect.”
Healy will turn 32 later this year when Ireland are in the midst of their 2019 Rugby World Cup expedition but in the Leinster man’s case, age is just a number.
He’s in the form of his life but a lot of that is attributed to his relentless obsession to keep his body in the best possible condition as he persistently searches for new methods and ideas.
“I’m a one-percenter. I enjoy searching for everything for the little thing that will help and that’s where I suppose the sea swimming and things like that come in. I’m constantly looking at things that might help me to bring me that little bit further, whether it’s helping you to recover or anything.”
With Healy now deep in preseason activities with Ireland, he admits that sometimes there is no substitute for going to the “dark place” of unforgiving fitness sessions as he aims to be in the best possible shape come September.
“But at the same time, you can’t really replace going to the dark place and just doing miserable fitness sessions. That’s probably the one thing that will get people with age, not being fit enough so I figure if I kill myself with fitness in my off time, I’ll stay fit and have a longer career.”
Fitness permitting, Healy will be in Joe Schmidt’s 31-man World Cup squad and he will likely be lining out at the International Stadium Yokohama for Ireland’s opener against Scotland with the number one printed on his back.
However, four warm-up games will take place before that clash on September 22. History tells us that there will likely be a player or players in the current 45-man training squad who will pick up a tournament ending injury during those games.
Is there a temptation to not go full-throttle in an attempt to limit the risk of injury? Not one bit as Healy explains:
“It’s a pretty easy one when you think about it. There is that ‘not get injured’ thing and there’s also that ‘perform and get picked’. But if you’re looking after yourself, you’re probably going to get injured. That’s the sort of way it is. If you’re going half-effort into something, it’s the most likely you are to hurt yourself and then the easier thing is, it’s an opportunity to play for your country.
“Do you want to ever look back on one of the games you’ve played to represent Ireland and it not being a maximum effort and everything you can give to it? One of these warm-up games could be someone’s last game in the jersey and they don’t want to say that they were looking after themselves. They want to say, ‘I gave that whack, I gave that everything I had.'”
Healy describes the prospect of potentially going to his third World Cup as “incredible” and we know it wasn’t on his radar back in the summer of 2015 but that difficult time has given the 31-year-old a new lease of life which has seen him reach new heights.
“It definitely gives you an insight into work rate and taking things for granted like that and what extra work you need to do to take that opportunity and do the best with it.
“I suppose, eventually when you do go out, be able to look back and go ‘I gave that everything’.
“That won’t be for a while.”
You wouldn’t bet against him.
Bring the best of American BBQ to your backyard this summer with Bull’s-Eye’s range of authentic American BBQ sauces and glazes