Thursday 18 December 2014

Tony Ward: Heaslip will only be appreciated when he's gone

Published 10/03/2014 | 02:30

Ireland's Jamie Heaslip
Ireland's Jamie Heaslip

His team-mates dared not let him down, nor did they. Nothing was going to get in the way of the maestro's farewell on his home patch.

This arrivederci was even better than we had hoped for. The 39-point winning margin means that, realistically, we don't need to think about points difference in Paris next week – any sort of a win should give us the title. But be warned: we've won there just twice in 60-plus years (1972 and 2000) and it won't be easy.

For now, let us enjoy Saturday's spectacle for what it was and credit Joe Schmidt for keeping a lid on the emotion and the minds focused.

Yes, it was a lot more helter-skelter than we had anticipated early on but when you dominate possession and territory, I think you're entitled to give it a blast.

And it wasn't as if we lost our way in the set-piece, where the scrum and line-out were rock-solid, while ruck and maul, save for a brief period at the start of the third quarter, were at all times under control.

Playing Italy is one thing, playing the French something else again, so we'll not lose the run of ourselves other than to say that while we have put more points on the board against the Azzurri in the past, it is difficult to recall a more complete performance, particularly when it was needed in terms of putting the points issue on the final day to bed.

Right from the start the plan was to move Italy about. The concession of the opportunist try to Leonardo Sarto comes with the territory of 'giving it a lash'.

But what a lash it was, seven tries to one, with the man of the moment central to at least three of those scores as the sorcerer that is Brian O'Driscoll drew from his box of magical tricks as only he can.

The parallel might seem a little unfair to professional golfers but whereas Rory, Tiger, G-Mac and the rest have time to contemplate the next club to be drawn from the bag, the extraordinary O'Driscoll pulls his on the spur of the moment and invariably it is the right one.

Whether he deserved man of the match is a moot point – I believe he did, even if it was, as he suggested with typical modesty, "only for an hour's work".

There were other big individual contributions in a mighty team effort. Devin Toner grows in impact and confidence from match to match. He and Paul O'Connell (despite Luke McLean's first-half dummy that will have driven him to distraction) roamed the pitch like flankers, yet never neglected their primary set-piece duties.

Cian Healy was again a freak of nature with ball in hand, while Johnny Sexton, Gordon D'Arcy and the livewire, ever-ready battery that is Eoin Reddan were excellent.

Amazing, isn't it, how when Sexton has an indifferent game (as in London) it's the fault of those dastardly French for daring to demand he play a game a week? Then, when he produces a man-of-the-match type performance a fortnight on, that Top 14 den of iniquity doesn't even get a mention. It is a subject to which I will return anon.

The back-row too was immense. Iain Henderson may not yet rival Peter O'Mahony at the breakdown but as a back-five utility forward (no one yet knows his best position – Schmidt and Mark Anscombe included) he is already some operator.

Chris Henry has been terrific at No 7 in the absence of Sean O'Brien, while Jamie Heaslip's level of performance never ever drops.

He may not be a Billy Vunipola, a Ben Morgan or a Toby Faletau in terms of ball-carrying impact off the base of the scrum, but when it comes to that selfless work ethic, he is by a distance the most effective No 8 in this part of the world. For some reason, beyond my comprehension, it appears he will be only truly appreciated when he is gone.

BENCH

The other big plus, and here the role of the new main man cannot be emphasised enough, is in the use of the bench throughout this championship.

Experience is being gleaned through substitutions that are made according to mid-match needs and not by way of this standard practice (under the banner 'game time') of essential changes on the hour, with the rest of the troops racing out in the dying minutes.

The difference might seem subtle but it makes those not in the starting XV feel a genuine part of the match-day squad.

I still feel a place could be found for Simon Zebo and Ian Madigan on the basis of impact, but given what we witnessed on Saturday courtesy of the last three tries scored by Sean Cronin, Fergus McFadden and Jack McGrath, it is difficult to argue with the head coach's use of his replacements just now.

Throw in a couple of Paddy Jackson conversions and that's 19 points off the bench in the final quarter.

So it's all systems go for Paris and the pursuit of that third win in six decades in Paris, a second Six Nations title and a 12th outright championship in 131 years – oh yes, and the perfect au revoir for Brian, the fairytale ending he and all of us really want.

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