Monday 23 April 2018

Heaslip born to lead his country on to battlefield

New Irish skipper will draw on experiences of army life to help his team stand up to might of Springboks

David Kelly

David Kelly

For Ireland's newest captain, honour and humility can be only minutes apart.

Jamie Heaslip may have been on cloud nine when his phone rang in Tesco on Baggot Street and Declan Kidney informed him he was to become the latest wearer of the cherished armband.

But it didn't take long for his dad to put him in his place after his proud son informed him of the fact that Ireland's 1001st international player was soon to become its 101st captain.

"Yeah that's right," he said with a smile. "The first thing he said to me, he goes: 'Congratulations on your captaincy, but I'm still the colonel, so I pull rank'.

"They were literally his first words, so I was put back in my box. Yeah, dad has obviously led men in much more dangerous fields than I... well, actually, I don't know!"

A tour of duty that includes such troubled global hotspots as Kosovo, Cyprus and Israel probably puts the physical perils of facing down several tonnage of Springbok beef in true perspective.

Heaslip was born into a life far removed from a scrap for a warped globe of pig's bladder.

Born in Tiberias, Israel -- his father, now retired Brigadier General Richard Heaslip, was there on duty with the United Nations -- he had a necessarily nomadic and, at times, dangerous lifestyle.

Heaslip senior was a fine rugby player in his day -- with Shannon -- and he managed to inculcate in all his sons (Graham and Richard also played at a high level in Ireland) not only a passion for rugby, but also a cerebral insight into leadership.

And, while many staid rugby types might frown at Heaslip's often left-field lifestyle -- the studded tongue, the bulldog, the pre-match cat-naps, the raucous dance music -- his disparate interests are far from a distraction when it comes to earning his bread and butter.

If anything, his diversionary passions inflame his devotion to the game when he puts his mind to the day job. Kidney, never slow at allowing his players to indulge in a broader landscape beyond rugby, is clearly empathetic. "Being around my father so long," Heaslip explains, "seeing him work in places like Kosovo, Cyprus, Israel, Belgium, living over there and seeing what he was working in, I obviously picked up a couple of things. It's probably why I'm able to compartmentalise things a bit, deal with rugby as a job, as such, and then step away from it afterwards.

"That's how I saw dad do it. He would be the ultimate professional in what he was doing, then step away from it and be the family man that he is.

"He has never sat me down and told me anything. In fact, probably the way I used to learn rugby was off my brother, you know, monkey see monkey do."

If anything, Heaslip's induction to his new role could energise a squad that is brimming with youthful enthusiasm -- given the potential four new caps -- and, despite the absence of so many leaders, the fresh leadership voice could be a boon.

Kidney alluded to a second tranche of leadership figures that had been pinpointed during the summer -- with Heaslip, Jonny Sexton and Rob Kearney among their number -- as Irish rugby continues to undergo its most dramatic changing of the guard in more than a decade.

"We'd have talked to fellas individually before that but we then recognised it during the summer and we've subsequently been working more on it," explains Kidney, for whom this enforced radical shift in priorities could conceivably even extend his own shelf life as coach with the Irish team.

"It's not anything major. You just find out where fellas are in their career," he adds.

"It sits more comfortable on some guys' shoulders. As you go on in your career, you look for fresh challenges, new areas that you can contribute (to).

"You do need leaders right across the park, because whoever's on the ball is a decision-maker at that particular point in time.

"At some stage, then, decisions have to be made, so you want guys who are willing to lead during the match.

"I think Alex Ferguson said he needed seven players playing well all of the time to win the Premiership. So, you always need 11 guys playing well at any one time in a rugby match.

"It's unfair to lean on the captain all of the time. He needs five or six guys around him. Jamie knows who he has around him and is working with them."

Heaslip is undefeated as a Leinster captain in 12 starts.

All he fears is the prospect of swearing and angering his mum at the post-match banquet. He appreciates that sense of collective responsibility.

"I've said it before when asked, there's definitely leaders on the field," the Leinster back-row affirms. "I know that Rory (Best), Paul (O'Connell) and Brian (O'Driscoll) aren't around this weekend, but there are other great leaders in there who can guide the game around the pitch, take it on and aren't afraid to voice their opinions during meetings or on the field.

"There's a lot of respect there among the players for people's opinions who are on the pitch.

"It's great to have a really good group around there. We talk about having ownership of the jersey and that's what we're going to do on the day.

"That's the main thing, that they all want to, as a group and a collective, be able to come into the changing-room afterwards, take the jersey off and put it up on the hook and know you've done the jersey proud.

It may also help that Heaslip carries little of the baggage from Hamilton. He was injured that day, so his last appearance was the agonising near-miss in Christchurch -- when he earned his 50th cap and where, ironically, he also had the honour of leading out his country to mark his own personal milestone.

This time he will do so for real.

"I remember running out on the field just thinking it was the best feeling I've ever had in my life," he says.

"So, to get there as captain now, it's Roy of the Rovers type stuff."

Irish Independent

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