Heaslip’s broad shoulders can bear weight of Ireland’s hopes
Jamie Heaslip faces up to an unenviable challenge in his first competitive game as captain in the Six Nations on Saturday in Cardiff. In the background is a troubled history with Wales and controversy over players' contracts with his employers.
He is also succeeding the most successful captain in Ireland's history.
Speaking to Heaslip, however, it seems the responsibility lies easily on his broad shoulders. His only concern is to whom he is going to bequeath his room in Cardiff as he plans on continuing to lodge with Cian Healy.
"I'd usually leave that to the management, but maybe I'll make guys bid for it... who can sneak the most biscuits into my room maybe," he said.
Heaslip had his audition for the captaincy in November and he clearly grew into the role as the month progressed. It had, though, been assumed that when Brian O'Driscoll returned to fitness and the Ireland team, he would resume as captain.
It is folly to make assumptions in sport. And there was some caterwauling from all-too predictable corners when it was announced that Heaslip was to retain the armband into the 2013 Six Nations Championship.
It would, in a sense, have been easier to keep O'Driscoll on as captain. Certainly, it cannot have been an easy conversation for Declan Kidney to have with the man who had captained Ireland 84 times in his 120 appearances.
It's well known that Kidney struggles with inner-torment when he tells a player he is being dropped. The conversation with O'Driscoll must have been hell for him.
But it was the correct conversation to have.
Heaslip cut a dashing figure at the team announcement in Carton House. His hair was perfectly styled – perhaps a little too much gel, but we're being churlish here – his face relatively freshly shaven and he was revelling in his role and status.
He looked the part. Even his garishly coloured trainers – paid for out of his own pocket and not supplied – added to the image of a man who is content with his lot. The pressure of leadership clearly sits easily on his shoulders.
If Ireland lose their opening game this Saturday (1.30) against Wales, it would be the fourth successive defeat to the Red Dragons. Not only that, a loss will cost Ireland a potential Grand Slam, probably their shot at the Championship and, of course, the Triple Crown.
There's a lot riding on this first game of the season. The new captain simply laughed off the concept of him or the squad being under any more pressure as a consequence.
"I've been going back to Alan Gaffney's phrase that you can't win the Grand Slam or Championship on the first day, but you can lose it," said Heaslip.
"Of course that's there. And it's a game of huge importance. But it's not the be-all-and-end-all of our season. We've been making some good inroads in recent months, stepping stones if you will, and we want to continue moving in the right direction.
"I've said it before and it's true. We're focused on the task at hand, but won't be getting carried away."
Heaslip's captaincy of Ireland is a changing of the guard in a very real sense. There are only four players over the age of 30 in the starting team for Saturday's outing in Cardiff, with another three on the bench.
Those 30-somethings in the match-day 23 are absolutely deserving of their places, but to be successful, teams need to be in a constant state of evolution. There was a definite shift in dynamic in the squad during November and this is being brought further now.
A new regiment of leaders have emerged from the pack to the extent that even the new captain, at the ripe old age of 29, is not above a bout of self-pity.
"I had a depressing moment last night. We were watching the movie, with Will Ferrell ('The Campaign'). Paddy Jackson was sitting beside me and we were going on about birthdays or something like that. He was born in the 1990s and I was going: 'Oh God, now there are kids born in the 90s in the squad, oh no!'
"It's great having all of these guys full of energy. They are wet behind the ears a little bit, but they are quite professional at the same time. They just want to give things a go.
"It breathes life in and everyone just learns off everyone. They might have a new idea to try something and they might learn something off the player who has 100-odd caps.
"Everyone is constantly learning in our squad and everyone is investing time into making themselves better. We all know about Simon Zebo and his talent and his speed. But he works hard every day like everyone else. We all learn off each other."
He is clearly taking the captaincy in his stride and is changing as little as possible about how he approaches his role within the squad – "the only difference with the captaincy is that I got to spend some quality time in London with Deccie last week" – and revealed why he won't be availing of the usual captain's honour of a room to himself when away from their Carton House base.
"I'm so used to rooming with Cian (Healy). We're like an old married couple at this stage, so I'll be still making him his cup of tea at 10.0 at night."
Heaslip will be leading Ireland out for the third time in his career and the first time in the Six Nations Championship.
There is a very exciting look to the side with Craig Gilroy and Zebo retaining their places in the team from the November internationals which means that Ireland will have three players – Mike McCarthy being the other – who will be starting their first Six Nations game.
There is also a return of some powerful ball carriers such as Sean O'Brien, as well as the experience and dynamism of O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney.
Kidney's selection lends itself to getting excited about Ireland's prospects. There has been some querying of the make-up of the back-row, in particular the dropping of specialist openside flanker Chris Henry to the bench.
Ireland will be looking to play a more direct running game against Wales on Saturday, which is why Kidney opted for O'Brien and O'Mahony, with the latter's ability in the line-out also being a huge plus in his favour.
"It's a balancing act really," said Kidney. "If you talk about the strengths of one over another, it was a really tight call.
"Peter does go well in the line-out for us and that brings his chemistry to the whole thing, but whichever combination of the four of them you picked you would have had strengths in it. That's one that Peter has and we'll look to put that to some use on Saturday."
Heaslip admitted to being a little downhearted when he first entered camp 10 days ago. Leinster's exit from the Heineken Cup had just been confirmed by Munster's result in Limerick. The mood wasn't long picking up, though, and the prospect of achieving with Ireland has the whole group enthused.
"You have these guys who haven't played in the Six Nations tournament who have caps under their belt and then you've got guys who have tasted a Grand Slam," said the captain.
"You have guys who have a good few caps like Jonny or Seanie, but have never won anything with Ireland.
"We told them in November: 'Nothing beats winning with your country; whatever you've won with your club, it's nothing like winning a Grand Slam with your country'.
"Those guys are hungry to do it and we're hungry to do it again. "I know I was talking about winning, and it's like a drug at times it's so addictive; once you get a taste of it you just want to keep getting more and more and more.
"That's what we want to do, but that's the outcome of a process. That's what we've been trying to do the last two weeks, and what we're going to try and do on Saturday," he added.