Friday 15 November 2019

Brian O’Driscoll: I’m standing by Jamie Heaslip

He remains, inescapably, the centre of attention.

One of the many inglorious snapshots from Murrayfield last Sunday featured Brian O'Driscoll as its focal point, the bandaged head signifying indisputably the image of a battle-hardened general, vainly trying to exhort his mentally wearying troops.

The actual captain, Jamie Heaslip, can be seen on the outside looking in at the impromptu huddle, his features betraying a confection of confusion and bewilderment.

It has become almost impossible to ignore the fact that Heaslip seems, however unwittingly, to be inhibited by his predecessor.

O'Driscoll is adamant that he has shelved the disappointment of losing the honour. He does not want the captaincy back. Not at this late stage.

In any event, Heaslip's playing career will endure for much longer than that of O'Driscoll and, it seems clear, the current coach.

Far better to ensure that his Leinster colleague receives the requisite support to ensure that this nail-grindingly difficult first championship remains a springboard for Heaslip's future captaincy, not a graveyard.

"Firstly, some of the criticism, by the sounds of things, is pretty harsh," says O'Driscoll, who has shunned newsprint, but has found it impossible to distance himself from the familiarly active Irish grapevine.

"Jamie is doing a good job. I was in a very lucky situation in that I had some strong leaders around me, guys who had been in leadership roles themselves. The likes of Paul O'Connell was invaluable to me and Ronan O'Gara likewise.


"What I am trying to do with Jamie is to be an extra voice. There is nothing worse than being captain and feeling there is a huge onus on you to constantly talk.

"I found that when I had to say less and other people were doing the talking for me, that we were in a great place.

"That's what I'm trying to do – be vocal and be another voice and take a bit of the pressure off him, but what he has been saying is really good and no-one cracks it in the first three or four games as captain.

"You constantly get better the more you do it and I have absolutely no concerns about him."

Nevertheless, among the surfeit of system breakdowns last weekend was a recurring indecisiveness of leadership that alighted on decisions concerning when it seemed prudent to grant debutant Paddy Jackson a shot at goal.

O'Driscoll's 123 tests – 83 of which he captained – confirm to him that the view from the bleachers is not always accurate.

"It's instinct," he counters. "You can't pre-plan things. A Test match doesn't work out the way you want it to.

"The perfect scenario for a debutant would be to get a kick 10 metres out in front of the posts and slot the first one over, but it's rarely that happens.

"We felt as though we had concerted pressure on Scotland and the option was taken to go to the corner.

"It didn't work out for whatever reason, but you don't second-guess what happens. We all buy into it and sometimes it works for you and sometimes it doesn't."

And so, perhaps, the price for Heaslip's temporary inhibition may well be a prolonged period as an authoritative leader.

Not that O'Driscoll feels that his breath on the younger man's shoulders is necessarily a hindrance.

"I don't know, you would have to ask Jamie that and I'm not going to answer for him," he demurs. "I don't know how he sees it.

"I would say it would have been more difficult for me to captain the team with Keith Wood in it.

"I've been very open in saying that, yes, I was disappointed initially, but I have parked that.

"Now I am 100pc able to be a senior player and be a helping hand to him in channelling everything towards trying to achieve success and performance.

"It's not about individual satisfaction or disappointment of being captain or not being captain.

"Now it's about trying to look at the bigger picture of the team and 100pc, the team comes first.

"I'm just trying to weigh in behind Jamie and give him as much as a helping hand as I can."

Would that Heaslip had O'Driscoll's timing, though.

O'Driscoll had already fleetingly stepped in for Wood before assuming the job full-time following the hooker's retirement in the aftermath of the 2003 World Cup.

In O'Driscoll's first campaign, injury forced him from the opening championship defeat to France.


But he and his side, with a strong, healthy coaching ticket, then won their remaining four games to sweep to the first of three Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam that would occur on his watch.

In stark contrast, Heaslip is staring down the barrel of a putative wooden spoon play-off in Rome next month under a management team for whom leaving drinks are already being organised.

"Pressure has to come from somewhere when there are disappointing results," concedes O'Driscoll.

"It inevitably comes at the coach and then the leader of the team is the captain, so they are going to get the brunt of it as well.

"I know that Jamie said he was disappointed in his own performance after the English game and that he expected more, but I can't question his captaincy.

"The difference of making decisions on the field is that you have to have an understanding of what it feels like on the pitch.

"You have a different feeling to what everyone else sees as to how the momentum is going or whether you feel as if you have the opposition on the rack and you have got to go with your gut.

"That is what Jamie did, with a little bit of advice from other people that I'm sure he took on board, and it didn't work out on the weekend.

"On another day, we would have scored a driven maul, everyone would have been slapping him on the back.

"That is the way it goes sometimes, but I am certainly not going to say he is not doing a good job, because he absolutely is and he has got everyone's full backing."

O'Driscoll does concede that it was a help to him that Wood was initially injured when the younger man was appointed captain and then retired. Both scenarios served to ease the centre into the spotlight, even though there were misgivings among ex-players and pundits at that time too.

"There was the pressure of taking over from someone who was an icon in Irish rugby," he admits. "But I just realised I needed to do it my own way, I couldn't be a copy-cat of any sort.

"I think it's about finding your own way and Jamie is doing that. He will have his own ways of seeing and doing things and it's our job to back him up in that regard."

Irish Independent

The Left Wing: Champions Cup preview, the World Cup hangover and Joe Schmidt's next team

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport