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Saturday, December 17, 2005

 

Rugby Personalities: Healey enjoys a change of role

By David Hands

The Leicester Lip is ready for life after rugby in the real world

FOR so long, Austin Healey has tried to be the central figure, the main man, the cheeky chappie — for Leicester, for England, for the Lions. Now he is content to be the impact player, the accessory rather than the fashion statement and, believe it or not, the role suits him.

Against the Ospreys last Sunday in the Heineken Cup, Healey appeared after 51 minutes as a replacement on the wing. There was a strength to his game that has not always been there and that was best illustrated not by his try, wrapped up with his forwards, but in a clash with Gavin Henson.

That it should have been Henson was a nice coincidence because he and Healey share certain characteristics, but the Wales centre tried to deal with Healey as he did with Mathew Tait during the Wales v England game last season, by lifting him off his feet in the tackle. Healey, though, kept his legs pumping and drove on through Henson as his supporting colleagues came in and kept the momentum of the attack going.

It was the sign of a player living the moment, retaining the enthusiasm of one younger than his 32 years to place alongside the experience of 51 international caps and 230 appearances for his club. A player, indeed, far more relaxed and settled than he was at the start of the season.

Next year, Healey will start training for life after rugby. “Four months ago I was quite concerned about what I was going to do,” he said. “Would I take the easy way and go into coaching or find employment elsewhere?” His answer was to consult Careers After Sport, the organisation established last year by Jon Sleightholme, the former England wing, and two partners from the world of recruitment, Alan Dickenson and Russell Yeomans, which helps elite sports people — not only from rugby — to make the transition to what Healey calls the “real world”.

The company has identified that top-class sports people represent a vaulable commodity to the business world because they have the drive and motivation to succeed. Healey’s quick wit has landed him in trouble on many occasions over the past ten years, but the intelligence and perception that he has brought to the game may also have a wider application, even if at this stage he chooses to keep his new career under wraps.

His full-time playing career will close at the season’s end and he will then play as a part-timer while he develops his alternative job. “It’s taken a huge weight off my shoulders,” Healey said. “For any international sportsman who has not been involved in a business outside sport for ten years, it’s a huge step and a worrying one.”

For the past two years, Healey has been conscious that his body could not take the strain, in particular the back injury that so affected him in 2003 and that probably cost him a place in England’s World Cup squad.

There has been the knee and the groin, too, but the back is littered with disc trouble and has caused sciatic problems in his right leg; the explosive speed is no longer there, but that has been replaced by the experience that allows him to cut the odd corner.

As it is, Healey cannot bend to talk to his two daughters, Ellie-May and Daisy — he has to kneel — and if there is one element in his life that has changed Healey from “rent-a-quote to a relatively sensible person”, it is his role as a father.

“A major point in my international career was the arrival of our first girl,” he said. “I lost a bit of drive to do stuff, I’d go for the option of taking her for an ice cream.” The birth of Daisy coincided with Healey’s omission from the World Cup squad, as though life was emphasising that there are priorities other than sporting glory.

The Leicester Lip has not been entirely buttoned, it should be said. A legion of players, colleagues and rivals still regard Healey as Mr Gobby, but the serious sportsman who has always lurked within may be due a run. In his autobiography, Healey wrote: “Inside me there is a normal person, prone to the same failings as everyone else. It’s just that I don’t want to be normal. So I don’t let him out.” Maybe normality is the next great step to be taken.

THE GREAT JAPES

Asked what his greatest strength was before his first full appearance for England in 1997, Healey said: "My ability."

Was forced to stand silent in a corner, bound with black tape and an apple stuffed in his mouth by his team-mates on 1997 Lions tour.

On professional sport: "There's no room for self-doubt. So I go out of my way to talk myself up, to bury any feelings of vulnerability. I'm at my best when it's make or break."

Healey and Matt Dawson turned up for England training with the Royal Marines in beach shirts and shorts, having bet each other £50 how long it would take Clive Woodward to protest.

Called Graham Henry, coach of the 2001 Lions, Ming the Merciless.
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