Heaslip laying down gauntlet with his show of player power
Published 01/03/2011 | 05:00
Sometimes perception is everything. As Ireland imploded during the 2007 World Cup, marooned in a soulless warehouse far from the civilised world, not one player from this privileged group sought to question what most on the outside perceived to be a rapidly disintegrating escapade.
Not one player -- or coach for the matter -- questioned the suitability of the squad's conditioning or the fact that the first-choice XV had been effectively swathed in cotton wool since the conclusion of that year's Six Nations.
The ultimate result? Ireland performed dismally at the World Cup and yet, astonishingly, few players or coaches sought to intelligently assess a freefall into decline that was only arrested when Eddie O'Sullivan left the head position following the 2008 championship.
Contrast this prolonged period of obsequious silence with the blizzard of mixed messages emanating from the Irish camp this past month and, most spectacularly, the forthright challenge to the coach's authority by one of its highest-paid and highest-profile players.
Ireland are struggling to implement a game-plan and both the players and coaches are becoming increasingly tetchy as a result; witness coach and captain's wide variation in addressing indiscipline.
The threat to morale within the squad is, as yet, intangible.
But it is difficult not to reach a conclusion that matters are now resting delicately upon the sharpest of knife edges.
Jamie Heaslip's utterances are at odds with the squad dynamic. In directly questioning why his Leinster colleagues Fergus McFadden and Jonny Sexton were excluded from Sunday's team to play Scotland, he laid down the gauntlet to Kidney.
And it was particularly vivid as he recalled his own demotion during the 2009 Grand Slam success.
"The coach has his reason for doing things," Heaslip told RTE's Tracy Piggott. "If you reel back to the Grand Slam, he did something similar to me. I thought I was going well and he put me on the bench against Scotland.
"You can't really do anything about it. Yeah, you can talk to him but you're not going to change his mind. That's what I said to the boys. It's probably worth your while having a chat with him, not an argument, just a pretty frank discussion.
"I'm sure they'll do than and, in Jonny's case, just prepare to be ready to go when he's given the chance. And in Fergus' case, he'll probably go back and play with Leinster this weekend, take his chance there, play his game and just do what he's been doing.
"You don't know the reasons why he's let other players in. But he's done it. And they just need to keep doing what they've been doing. Because the two boys have been playing well."
As a future Ireland captain, his comments could merely be interpreted as over-arching loyalty to close friends and colleagues as opposed to an act of treacherous treason. The reaction of the coach when he hears the comments would make for compulsive viewing as his coaching career has rarely brooked any forthright dissension from within the ranks, particularly when it comes to something as fundamentally definitive as selection policy.
And the fact that he alighted upon the critical out-half selection also skirts, none too subtly, the ongoing contentious issues about how Ireland have been struggling to leaven their expansive style with smarter play.
The current Irish captain also alluded to the manner in which his team needed to rein in their at times crazily ambitious play, particularly when within their own half.
Solidarity with Heaslip? Perhaps. However, O'Driscoll's stunning declaration, for the second time in three matches, that players should be looking at themselves could have been applied most particularly to his potential future successor as captain of the national team. For Heaslip was guilty of transgressing for two of the blatant penalties which contributed to an appallingly inept Scottish team, tryless at Murrayfield for 15 months, coming within a whisker of what would have been a seismic upset.
"We are definitely giving away four or five penalties that guys that are infringing know they are guilty of and you are letting the team down a bit by doing that," said the irate captain.
"You have to look at making sure that, if you get the jersey to wear in the next game, you don't do that again because it is not acceptable at this level to keep Scotland in the game they way we did."
Heaslip's has buoyancy within the squad, and one welcomes his inability to pander to the often predictable cliche-riddled nonsense that is normally peddled by today's professional players.
But one has to ask whether he is skating on thin ice. The message from O'Driscoll is, however, crystal clear.
Heaslip would do well to concentrate his mind on this criticism, rather than waste time and energy on the witless tweeters to whom he completely demeaned himself by stooping to respond to their criticisms.
As Rob Kearney said last night, such criticisms go with the territory of being a rugby player.
Aside from this, there are other areas of imperceptible concern in how the squad are addressing what is clearly a crisis of confidence in both their rank indiscipline and, consequently, their stuttering attempts to develop their style of play.
Last week Ireland backs coach Alan Gaffney pointedly referred to a lack of communication and confidence within the squad, while also alluding to how sloppy training had become.
Two days later, Declan Kidney reiterated Gaffney's comments regarding communication issues only for the adjoining captain, O'Driscoll, to utterly discredit the issue. Gaffney was notably sidelined on this issue.
Later in the week, Ireland manager Paul McNaughton sought to clarify the matter when questioned about the differing signals emerging from the camp on the subjects of confidence, on-field communication and the accuracy of training.
"I've seen a lot of the coverage, most of the interviews from individual players," said McNaughton on Friday, albeit that it was uncertain whether he had yet heard Heaslip's explosive comments.
"There is a consistency in terms of they're happy with the game plan and there's not a communication issue on the pitch. The players aren't on message, they're not censored, they say what they feel, there's no debriefing going on.
"From all the interviews I've looked at and seen, it's fairly straightforward. We're confident in our plan, we need to tidy up the execution and in relation to communication, we all talk on the field and sometimes we talk too much.
"I just look to the players in terms of private conversations and through the media, there's a consistent message coming across. It's from the players, not from the centre or from management."
If that satisfies the vast swathe of confused supporters remains to be seen. We don't know if there are underlying tensions within the squad. Reports from a former international suggest that one player didn't turn up to the post-match function in Rome.
Another former international questioned whether tension or negative feelings exist between team-mates. It is admirable to give the players control and free rein to express opinions, like Gordon D'Arcy's comments on indiscipline, and certainly it is a healthier situation than what once prevailed in the international team.
There is nothing contrived about this analysis of the squad's utterances, as the comments are out there in the public domain.
Player power can be an important factor in Ireland's development but not, however, at any price.