Kate Rowan: Jamie Heaslip fit to lead the charge of Ireland’s Generation Next
"TRANSITION", "next generation" – these are the buzzwords bouncing around the Irish camp ahead of Saturday’s clash with Argentina.
Ulster wing Craig Gilroy’s inclusion in the starting fifteen after his dazzling display against Fiji is another signifier of a shift in the status quo.
The young guns of Generation Next may be occupying many thoughts and column inches but just as crucial is the man who will lead this new breed on field.
In the absence of injured Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Rory Best who have captained Ireland in the past year, Jamie Heaslip is the new man at the helm.
The Naas man may not have made the most auspicious of starts being sent to the sin bin against the Springboks. However, his honesty and self-criticism in the aftermath was impressive as was how he led the young team at Thomond Park.
Another refreshing aspect to Heaslip is his openness about how rugby does not completely possess him.
The engineering graduate made a splash earlier this year with a number of quirky photo-shoots; posing shirtless beneath an apron and a Rocky-esque stance to promote the steak restaurant he co-owns.
Building up to last year’s Rugby World Cup as part of a series of photographs capturing various aspects of the team, he was shot with his bulldog Jay-Z, both sporting matching over-sized headphones.
The back row stalwart is also a devotee of social media and is a self-described “excessive tweeter”. He has often talked about the growing role he believes social networking will play in professional sport.
These tangents from Heaslip’s rugby career could be misconstrued as frivolous but in fact they demonstrate media savvy. By showing these other aspects of himself beyond rugby and the ability to make fun of himself portrays the Leinster player as someone who will appeal and relate to not just the new era of players he is captaining but also a new wave of fans.
Whether traditionalists like it or not, rugby is an increasingly commercialised sport. The appetites of particularly younger fans are growing for insights to the sport beyond the on field action.
Heaslip and others through the use of their Twitter pages with photographs of the current happenings within the Ireland camp provide those with the interest, a glimpse from an insider perspective.
There is, of course, the job to be done on the pitch. The 28 year-old spoke upon receiving the captaincy about leading from example and how his father’s military career serving in the Irish army as part of UN missions had inspired him as a leader.
There may not be many happy memories from last summer’s tour to New Zealand but, from a media perspective, Heaslip stepped up at a crucial point in the tour.
In the immediate aftermath of the 42-10 defeat in Auckland, Heaslip spoke candidly about Ireland’s deficiencies. On a night when he was one of the lesser draws of the mixed zone with hat-trick debutant Julian Savea standing across the room, he spoke with sensitivity and from the heart when asked about the Christchurch earthquake.
A few days later in Christchurch; the Lion endeared himself to the rather one-eyed Kiwi media. Up to that point any time he was mentioned in the press, it came with the tag of being that Irish player who had seen red for having the temerity to send a knee to the head of Richie McCaw in 2010.
Heaslip played a blinder during that media session with a combination of frankness, thoughtful technical analysis and humour that charmed the local journalists who are fond of a slightly irreverent style of interrogation.
The current captain’s dealing with the local media during that tough tour showed character and the ability to speak with eloquence required of a leader. Despite O’Driscoll holding the reins, Heaslip in fact led the team out on to the field in Christchurch as an honour as he won his 50th test cap. Perhaps, it was a sign of things to come.
Since Heaslip has assumed the captaincy, many players have spoken that he has urged them to buy into the notion “you only borrow the green jersey”. Although, the “green jersey” has been mentioned previously. The concept of it being something that you have to honour to wear and then give back is something that seems to be stressed by Heaslip.
This approach is similar to how the New Zealanders speak at length about the guardianship of the black jersey, giving the privilege of playing for your country almost sacred status. It obviously works for the All Blacks. It will be interesting to see if this can help Ireland against Argentina, as it would seem to inspire the newer caps and perhaps revive the veterans.
How events unfold on Saturday may affect Heaslip’s fate as captain. If the result is favourable, he may at some point in the future, hold on to the captaincy rather than borrow it in the face of absentees.