Monday 16 September 2019

Back-row battle will be key if Irish are to upset All Blacks - Heaslip

Former Ireland star Jamie Heaslip. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Former Ireland star Jamie Heaslip. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

Having been there, done that, Jamie Heaslip knows all about the physical toll required to beat the All Blacks. But ask the retired Ireland No 8 about that day in Chicago in 2016, and two memories quickly spring to mind.

One, the crowd - the difference it made and the difference he believes it could make if heard to full effect at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

Two, the innocence of youth - specifically the reaction of younger team-mates in Chicago who hadn't been there for previous All Black beatings or near-misses.

"It's funny, you go into the changing-room and have Joey Carbery who is like, "Yeah, I beat the All Blacks - so what?'" recalled Heaslip.

"I was like, 'F*** you!' I'd played them nine or 10 times at that stage and was thinking, 'You've no idea how hard it is to beat these guys.'"

Which brings him to this weekend, and what the current crop must do to upset the odds.

"A lot of Ireland's momentum comes from their back-row trying to carry the way it is right now - New Zealand will be aware of that and try to shut that down," said Heaslip at the launch of Vodafone's Wear Green with the Team of Us campaign.

With Sean O'Brien absent after sustaining a broken arm in the victory over Argentina, Heaslip believes much will hinge on his replacement at flanker last weekend, Dan Leavy.

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"Dan is a very good poacher and they'll be identifying him in terms of the ruck, making sure he doesn't get after it.

"Ireland put a massive emphasis on creating quick ruck ball, especially off launch phase, and manipulating teams and players around weaknesses.

"New Zealand will go after that, especially in the first five or six rucks off a set phase, and that's where the back-row will really come into their element. They're so vital in providing the link in attack but in defence as well."

Heaslip believes the back-row represents the most competitive area of the Irish squad and with O'Brien sidelined, he doesn't envy Joe Schmidt's dilemma.

"I mean, who do you pick? There's an argument for everyone in that squad. I'm a massive Rhys Ruddock fan and what he brings to table. There is an argument for Tadhg Beirne who wasn't even in the match-day squad (against Argentina)."

While not willing to speculate on Schmidt's choice, Heaslip was sure of one thing about the Irish tactics - they will be aggressive.

"You've got to score tries against New Zealand. You won't beat them just by kicking points."

One area of concern against Argentina was the space Ireland often left on the wing, which he expects the All Blacks to go after.

"New Zealand have a habit of playing quite wide, and Ireland have shown space on the edges on that Australian tour and in the Six Nations.

"They at times got tight and a team like New Zealand will exploit that space.

"I'm sure that's something they'll be mindful of and they'll have been working hard on that this week."

Meanwhile, Leinster's Joe Tomane is set for a spell on the sidelines having undergone surgery on his hamstring.

The versatile Australian back was replaced after 38 minutes in Leinster's last outing against the Southern Kings two weeks ago and could be looking at up to four months out.

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