The 5 things Jamie Heaslip must do to show he can lead Ireland
Published 08/03/2013 | 04:00
As the gripping 2009 Heineken Cup final lurched uncertainly into its final quarter, with Leinster and Leicester locked together at 16-16, it seemed as if every heart-hampering moment was magnified in significance.
When a relatively simple pass from Jonathan Sexton was spilled by Jamie Heaslip, the thousands of blue-clad fans who had decamped en masse to Edinburgh gulped an ocean of astonished air.
All at once, Sexton became a whirling windmill of flapping arms and a cottage industry of expletives.
Heaslip just looked at his colleague and, with the calmness of someone operating a remote control, mouthed a simple message – "RELAX!"
Leinster would cling on to win in a season when, like the Ireland team that also swept the northern hemisphere, they were driven with the determination of champions and utterly focused in everything they did.
In 2013, Heaslip is now captain of an injury-plagued Ireland team devoid of all cohesion, wracked by indecision off the field and on it a startling absence of composure.
As the titular head, Heaslip has been a familiar target on the coconut shy with his indiscipline, performance levels and leadership all subject to ready attack. Or, failing that, his decision to wear headphones and flip-flops to the coin toss.
Like the rest of his embattled squad and his beleaguered coaching staff, Heaslip unquestionably needs to improve tomorrow but, as his Ireland and Leinster predecessor Victor Costello avers, perhaps it is time the captain remembered his own advice from 2009.
1 LEAD BY EXAMPLE
"Relax," agrees Costello.
"It despairs me when I see him coming out with all this stuff about how he's happy with his form and that he's capable of handling the pressure of being the captain. Why should he feel the need to explain himself?
"Jamie Heaslip has nothing to prove to anybody, we all know that because we have seen the performances that he's capable of delivering. His form hasn't dipped much below his high standards as has been suggested elsewhere.
"But he has suffered a little from the general demeanour of a squad that has been attacked by a virus of bad injuries, poor selection and an overall lack of clarity in how they are trying to deliver performances.
"Jamie doesn't need to prove anything to Declan Kidney, us in the stands or most of all himself. He is a world-class player, the best No 8 we've ever had, who just needs to play his rugby and get on with it. That's the best way to lead."
2 EMBRACE OTHER LEADERS
The clumsiness of the captaincy handover still loiters uncertainly – although Heaslip has captained Brian O'Driscoll on club duty, he never had to do so under such fraught circumstances as these.
"It wasn't just that the captaincy changed hands, it was how it changed hands," Costello reminds us, "as if Declan Kidney was doing Brian a favour, when nobody knows his body better than Brian himself.
"So that was wrong and Jamie has been burdened by that. It created a shadow which has lingered a long time and now there's a spotlight on everything he does."
Few recall that O'Driscoll's early captaincy was marked by humiliating carpeting at the hands of Martin Johnson in 2003; fewer still believed that O'Driscoll would go on to become such a revered leader of men for nearly a decade.
A Six Nations campaign offers no oxygen for learning on the job and, too often, Heaslip has been horribly and publicly exposed as lacking in decisive leadership; hence his deferment to his predecessor.
"Listen, Jamie is the natural successor to Brian and he will captain Ireland for a lot of years," says Costello.
"But this is a tough time, and from a situation where he's used to being in a confident team with coaching clarity behind him, that isn't the case at the moment."
3 AVOID YELLOW FEVER
Heaslip's indiscipline follows a thread that is a microcosm of the team's decline during this championship; where he uncertainly leads, others have followed.
Cian Healy's ridiculous stamp on Dan Cole was a primary example; as Ireland lost their way, so too did the players, and Healy ultimately paid the price by needlessly forfeiting his place in the side.
Heaslip, who faulted himself for being binned in a crucial stage of the South African defeat last November, has again had to implicate himself in this campaign with his penalty concession increasing since keeping his bib clean against Wales.
"Back-rowers play on the edge so I wouldn't be as hard as some people have been," argues Costello.
Nevertheless, if the role of a captain is, as Costello declares, to lead by example, then avoiding the referee's wrath would be a good place to start.
4 CARRY ON REGARDLESS OF CARRYING
When Heaslip first came to prominence – he has been an Irish international for seven years now – it was as a barnstorming ball-carrier of almost cartoon-like quality. The type of player that got people off their seats.
His role has changed, though. Now he gets down and dirty, clearing out rucks with a frenetic energy unmatched by any of his colleagues.
The absence of Stephen Ferris and his ability to puncture holes has altered the balance of the back-row; Peter O'Mahony's frailties, also alluded to by Costello amongst others, haven't helped.
"The balance is all wrong and I'm not convinced by O'Mahony and whatever his job is supposed to entail," says Costello. "I just haven't seen whatever it is he is supposed to produce."
Heaslip carried more the last day, particularly as Ireland, without Healy, were devoid of effective carriers in the front five. But tackling – his 30 in three games continue this season's theme with Leinster – and clearing out have become his forte.
Aside from some unforgivable handling errors against England, his form has remained, like much of his team, acceptable. Sadly, merely acceptable is not enough at this level.
5 WAIT FOR NEXT SEASON
Defeat to France tomorrow in Lansdowne Road – which history suggests is more likely than not – would ensure this campaign is a write-off and also consign the coaching ticket to dust.
Heaslip may have to wait until next season, or indeed the summer tour, should current form decree that he is one of several high-profile Irishmen to miss the Lions, to really stamp his authority on this Ireland team.
Finding himself directing an out-half, Paddy Jackson, who hadn't run with the team in training just days earlier and hadn't kicked for his province either was almost farcical.
"The management haven't done him any favours with regard to selection and a lack of clarity," says Costello.
"If they had trusted Ronan O'Gara all week, he would have easily nailed those kicks and Ireland would have had an easy win against the Scots. Going for three points or not would simply not have been at issue."
One big game could turn the tide. One huge performance. One decisive intervention from the captain to show that he can keep his head, even though so many others in charge appear to be losing theirs.
As he has said before facing a similar challenge in his international career: "I will win a game any which way possible. That's the way I was raised anyway."