LEINSTER team manager and former Ireland scrum-half Guy Easterby has come out strongly in defence of under-fire international captain Jamie Heaslip.
The Naas native has come in for heavy criticism in the wake of Sunday's disastrous Six Nations defeat to Scotland as pundits search for reasons why Ireland lost a game that they dominated.
But Easterby – who won 28 caps between 2000 and 2005 – believes that the skipper has performed well throughout the Six Nations and wants him to be given time to grow into the role.
The 41-year-old points to Heaslip's impressive record when captaining his province – he has won 11 out of 12 games – and reckons that the No 8's adaptability when playing alongside ball-carriers like Sean O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony contributes to unfair criticism of his performance.
"I'm disappointed with the criticism," said Easterby. "Outside the captaincy, I think he's playing well.
"It's very hard to listen to some people on the television criticising his performances because Jamie plays a certain role and is very selfless in the way he plays the game, depending on the make-up of the back-row that he plays in.
"He is a good enough player to be able to adjust his role accordingly and I think he's doing that.
"In terms of the captaincy, he's done a good job here (at Leinster), he's got an incredible record. The international captaincy is a different environment, he's obviously learning that as he goes along, but for people to be questioning his choices from the stands or from the television, I find that incredible."
One of the key criticisms levelled at the Ireland skipper is that he was not assertive enough in making his own decisions on Sunday, but Easterby disagrees, believing he has to draw on the experience around him, instead opting for a "committee" approach.
"I don't understand – who decides if there's too much committee?" he asked. "I've seen people coming up and saying something to him, but that happens in every single game.
"Jamie's the captain and I haven't heard anything from anyone (within the game) to say that he's not performing that role or that he needs to be more forthright and strong.
"Jamie's very much his own man and I don't think he'd take on a role like that and not perform it the way that he sees best.
"You've got to give someone like that an opportunity to grow into the role as well, there's a lot of responsibility with the captaincy.
"Rory Best is in there as well, Brian O'Driscoll, as much as people say it's a young side, there's experience in there you can lean on. Rory has led Ulster I don't know how many times and he's captained Ireland.
"It would be wrong of you, certainly at the early stage of your captaincy, not to be having a word with those guys and saying 'what do you think' because that's all part and parcel of learning. You don't learn that by talking to someone before a game – it's a pressure environment and you want to have someone like Brian O'Driscoll's opinion, who has 120-odd caps... I think that's a pretty clever thing to do."
Meanwhile, Easterby paid tribute to the professionalism of Ian Madigan, who overcame his disappointment at being snubbed yet again by Kidney with another excellent display when coming off the bench in Leinster's win over the Scarlets on Saturday night.
"You'd always be disappointed when you're in the mix and you just miss out like he has this time," said Easterby.
"His attitude and professionalism is excellent. He understands that he is still learning, he certainly didn't show any disappointment; he came in here, as he does, jumping and bounding and going about preparing for the game with the utmost professionalism."
Easterby revealed that experience was the key facet that any new recruit replacing Jonny Sexton would need in order to complement the talents of the 23-year-old, who should start at out-half against the Dragons on Friday and is looking more and more like a worthy successor to the St Mary's man.
Leinster welcome Quinn Roux back into the mix for this weekend's game, but Kevin McLaughlin remains out and it has emerged that Damian Browne's season could be over after the open surgery he underwent on a shoulder injury last month was assessed.