Ireland's Mr Indestructible takes demotion on the chin
Heaslip unruffled by loss of captaincy, writes Ruaidhri O'Connor
YESTERDAY can't have been easy for Jamie Heaslip, even though he laughed off the idea that demotion might have been disappointing for him. The Lions No 8 will lead Ireland out on to the field tomorrow to face Samoa, but after that he will step aside and allow Paul O'Connell to skipper the side for the rest of November.
Some might have thrown a strop, sulked or threatened something more drastic. Heaslip, instead, immediately turned his focus to the weekend by asking Joe Schmidt about the specifics of Samoa and later shook O'Connell's hand.
Had the veteran second-row been fit this time last year, this scenario may never have arisen.
Heaslip assumed the reins in the vacuum created by Brian O'Driscoll and O'Connell's absence last November and retained the captaincy for the Six Nations; when he headed to Australia with the Lions, he handed the armband over to Peter O'Mahony for the North American tour.
Heaslip (pictured) was unfortunate that his assumption of the captaincy coincided with the dying days of the Declan Kidney regime, an unprecedented injury crisis and a dip in his own form.
With regime change under way, and after a difficult season, he knew there was a chance that he would lose his position, even if Schmidt trusted him regularly to lead Leinster in Leo Cullen's absence.
The vibe during the summer tour to the United States and Canada was that O'Connell had earned the right to captain his country for a prolonged period of time after backing O'Driscoll up for so long. He had skippered Munster and the Lions with distinction, so it would be remiss for his career to pass without the national honour.
The second-row's injury problems have stopped him from assuming the mantle before.
When he comes off the bench against Samoa, it will be the first time we have seen him in a green jersey since March 2012 and Schmidt admitted that his confirmation as captain was delayed because of the injury cloud that hung over him until he came through training on Tuesday.
In contrast, Heaslip is Ireland's Mr Indestructible.
Already eighth on Leinster's appearance list before he enters his 30s, and well on course to become the province's most capped player, he has missed just eight of Ireland's 62 games since 2008.
Four of those came when he was away with the Lions, one was a World Cup warm-up in Scotland and another against Australia in 2010 came when he was serving a suspension for his red card against New Zealand.
He was missing when Ireland suffered their lowest moment, the 60-0 defeat to the All Blacks in Hamilton last year, while his only Six Nations absence came against Italy in the opening game of the 2011 tournament.
In this attritional era of professional rugby, when coaches expect almost a quarter of their squads to be injured at any one time, it is a remarkable record.
As vice-captain, Heaslip is primed to cover for O'Connell when needed and, although he's had the captaincy taken off him, Schmidt said that he remained the "heir apparent" for the role when the Munster man makes way.
Given their injury records and the need to protect the 34-year-old skipper as he commits to playing in the 2015 World Cup, Heaslip will get plenty more opportunities to lead the side.
"Look, Jamie is the ultimate professional and he's key to our leadership group as well, as the other seven or eight fellas are," O'Mahony said yesterday.
"He's an extremely good leader on and off the pitch – you wouldn't meet anyone more professional, someone I'd have looked up as well over the last few years. He won't carry on any differently. He'll still talk when he wants to talk and lead from the front the way he always does, playing on the pitch.
"So I don't think you're going to see anything different from Jamie."
If Ireland's succession planning goes beyond Heaslip, it is probably O'Mahony – five years the Leinster No 8's junior – who is next in line. Schmidt yesterday described Heaslip as "durable", and O'Mahony (24), who plays in a similar position but with a very different style, is learning from a man he sees as a consummate athlete.
"It's a testament to the way he looks after himself. He's the ultimate professional, his diet is immaculate," O'Mahony explained. "His work in the gym and his maintenance is second to none – it doesn't surprise me in the slightest that he's that durable and is never really getting knocks and bangs."
While last year, when he assumed the captaincy, Heaslip was struggling for form to a degree, he has started this season on fire.
Sean O'Brien has been earning many of the plaudits, but the No 8 – who is acting as skipper in Cullen's absence – has put in some big shifts and executed a sensational rip during the province's win over the Ospreys that demonstrated his strength, awareness and physicality all in one go.
While he will face the cameras after tomorrow's game, O'Connell's probable return will allow him to step out of the limelight and perform for the rest of the series in the quiet of the back-up role.
As long as the demotion hasn't affected his mindset, he is in a good position to test himself against the best, something he will be keen to do after the disappointment of being left out for the third Lions Test last summer.
"It will be very easy," he said of the situation. "Paul is captain, I'm vice-captain, it's a huge honour for me to still be representing the players as well.
"To be honest anyone out of our leadership group could step up, and a lot are involved in the team or on the bench, so you've got a core there of the team. So it doesn't matter who is given the title, but obviously it's a great honour this week to be captain.
"When Joe told me what the lay of the land was I was like 'cool, what's the next thing?' because you've got to focus on the next thing which is the game at hand."
When Schmidt's described his vice-captain as "durable" he appeared to be talking about his body, but it could equally have applied to his mind.