Tuesday 21 November 2017

Heaslip heroics show he's an Irish captain in waiting

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

We are a great little nation at buying into extremes. At any given moment, we are either the very best or the very worst with little room to operate anywhere in between.

Last Saturday at the RDS, Munster were beaten more convincingly than the 16-6 scoreline suggests. Leinster were outstanding in completing a fourth competitive victory in a row over their great rivals.

That the balance of power has shifted is beyond dispute. Aside from winning, the fact that they held Munster try-less in each of those four games will have pleased Michael Cheika, his players and backroom staff no end. And, irrespective of the outcome in the final against the Ospreys, Cheika will leave some legacy before departing for France.

The best any coach can do with a squad is to leave it in better nick than he found it. Cheika has not alone done that but, in his time in charge, he has inculcated a winning culture built on a dog-tough mental and physical edge. They have assumed the Munster mantle but that does not by any means equal the end of the southern province as a European and Celtic League power ... Far from it.

They lost a match (and with it a title) but losing two semi-finals does not make for a system in decline. The structures are too good for that. So bígí cúramach when writing the obituaries. A Munster team with Jerry Flannery, Paul O'Connell, Denis Leamy and David Wallace in situ is a very different competitive animal entirely. If I did have one wish for change, however, it would be to see Munster handle constructive and objective comment with much greater dignity.


In blazing the trail for Irish rugby, some within the organisation have become blinded by that success. They do the province no favours by believing them to be immune from informed analysis. Put simply, Munster don't do criticism well. By contrast, Leinster have taken all the 'ladyboy' jibes etc and channeled that criticism into the area of only meaningful response -- on-field performance.

On Saturday, they were magnificent. I don't think it's stretching it to suggest they won almost every battle. Pick a combined side in the aftermath and there might be some room for discussion on the wing (Lifeimi Mafi), perhaps one centre (Keith Earls) and, as ever, outside-half. Beyond that, Leinster dominated. The platform was laid up front but the Leinster back row, particularly Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip, were immense.

I suspect Wallace will work his way back Down Under but don't rule out a Kevin McLaughlin/Jennings/Heaslip back row lining out in at least one of the June matches. Heaslip took the individual gong by a mile but was joined in the leadership stakes by Jennings and the ultra-consistent Brian O'Driscoll. Leadership is about deeds not words but, most of all, it is about visibility when momentum is flowing the other way.

Heaslip's barnstorming second-half runs -- stretching Earls to the limit and almost poleaxing the brave Ronan O'Gara -- made for the icing but the real leadership is the hard yards and momentum gained in defence allied to the tackle count and groundhog turnovers at the breakdown. Here Heaslip was sublime. He is without doubt the Irish skipper in waiting and already in my view the most complete No 8 forward to wear green.

Whenever asked over the years to select my best ever Irish back row, it tripped off the tongue -- John O'Driscoll, Fergus Slattery and Willie Duggan. The chemistry and balance between the three was so good. But when a player comes along with the athleticism of Ken Goodall, the intellect of Anthony Foley, the dynamism of Victor Costello but, most of all, the Lion-heart bravery in adversity of Duggan, then the call in the middle of the all-time Irish back row becomes a no-brainer. There is an honesty and maturity to Heaslip's game that makes him a certain future Irish captain.

If ever a game defined his readiness to lead, this was it. In his team's times of crisis, it was the Leinster No 8 who controlled things with Jennings and O'Driscoll pretty close behind. Mention, too, of Rob Kearney. Uncertainty over full-back selection -- shared with Girvan Dempsey and Isa Nacewa -- has hindered his progress since last summer's Lions tour but signs are of another leader in the making.

As with the Flower of Scotland, the Munster army has been sent home to think again. Of that you can be sure they will. It is NOT the end of an era but a moment of transition.

And I for one do not believe the signing of Jean de Villiers has been a hit. His route-one style, while creating some important tries, has hindered the Munster backline development more than it helped. However, Mafi and Earls have much to offer as a potent midfield force.

Indeed, on the subject of innovation, I doubt you will see a finer creative try than that engineered by Gordon D'Arcy, Jonathan Sexton and O'Driscoll (by way of subtle obstruction) for Saturday's match-defining score. Alan Gaffney take a bow. All told, it made for one of the games of the season.

  • Word has reached us that the Westmeath town of Moate will field its first adult rugby team next season. Since its formation six years ago, Midland Warriors RFC has tapped into rugby's growing popularity by fielding underage teams. Now the first batch of young Brian O'Driscoll wannabes are coming to adulthood, and the club will compete in Leinster J3 for the 2010/11 season under head coach Jude Lennon. Interested parties can contact Graham Ross (087-9290196), John Seery (086-1016042), Hugh Flynn (086-2522313) or midlandwarriorsrfc@gmail.com.

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