Talking point: Heaslip's Euro absence raises fears for his future
Complicated back injury continues to keep unfortunate Ireland No 8 on the sidelines
Since he made his European debut at home to Bath on the first day of the 2005/'06 campaign, Jamie Heaslip has been present on the opening day of each season since.
The No 8 has missed just six of Leinster's 94 games across two tournaments in the intervening period, averaging 7.3 appearances a season and winning three European Cups and one Challenge Cup title.
Next month, for the first time in 13 seasons, Leinster will begin their campaign without the 33-year-old due to the lower back injury that he suffered in Ireland's Six Nations defeat to Wales last March.
Yesterday, Leinster confirmed he is not in their tournament squad for rounds one to four of the tournament, effectively ruling him out of action until January.
There is an asterisk to that point, however, because if the two-time Lion makes an earlier-than-expected recovery from the issue he can replace a member of the 40-man squad that has been named on the tournament website. After round four, he can be added to the squad ahead of the final two rounds in January.
However, if Leinster were confident of him being fit enough to play before Christmas then he'd probably have been named in the initial squad. Rob Kearney and Dan Leavy are out until November, but both have been included. Heaslip's injury has been bubbling under the surface of the season so far. His return seemed imminent, but now it appears as far away as it ever was.
The problem, which only came to light on the day of the following week's final game against England, has proven to be the most serious injury of Heaslip's career and fears are growing about the future of one of the IRFU's most valuable assets.
Certainly, Stuart Lancaster's assurances on Monday that the vastly experienced operator is "getting there" seem optimistic.
After returning to training in August, he was scheduled to go to South Africa for the two-match mini-tour and make his seasonal bow.
However, he was not in a position to travel when the time came after the injury failed to progress as much as he and the medics had hoped.
After training on the pitch with the squad in late August and early September, it is understood that he has not been involved in recent weeks after finding it difficult to run.
Leinster and the IRFU are being understandably cautious with a player whose contract with the union runs until the end of the World Cup in 2019. His new deal was announced on February 14 and he has played just twice since.
Although he was named in the team to face England on March 18, his withdrawal was announced at the 11th hour and Peter O'Mahony came in and produced a man-of-the-match performance in a famous win.
The back-row of O'Mahony, Seán O'Brien and CJ Stander had been preparing in Carton House in the build-up and the confusion around the late change led to all sorts of conspiracies.
In 2015, he missed a number of weeks after breaking three vertebrae after being kneed in the back by France lock Pascal Papé but Heaslip has described this current problem as "the first serious injury of my career".
Back in May, he spoke about how the injury had veered into "pretty serious territory very quickly. It would have had some really long-term consequences, permanent consequences".
At the start of this season, it appeared he had conquered those issues but the return to play has not gone to plan. The latest setback is bound to have frustrated the ferocious competitor within and last week he spoke to independent.ie about how uncertain his future is.
"I actually don't have an answer for people," Heaslip told The Left Wing.
"It is pretty complicated what I've done. I'm literally taking it week by week - some days are good and some days are bad."
Just as O'Mahony stepped in and performed brilliantly against England in Heaslip's absence, Leinser have handed his No 8 jersey to Jack Conan who has thrived with the responsibility.
Whenever Heaslip is fit to return he will have a realistic rival for his jersey at provincial and international level, with CJ Stander now likely to get three games to state his own case in the starting berth against South Africa, Fiji and Argentina in November.
Schmidt may choose to rotate for the middle game against the South Sea Islanders and give Conan a chance to build on the progress he made when starting all three summer tour games in the United States and Japan last summer. Behind Conan, the 2016 World U-20 Player of the Year Max Deegan is enjoying his break-out season with Leinster, while Jordi Murphy has been another able back-up to Heaslip who has started in the No 8 jersey at international level in the past.
Asked about the competition for the jersey that, for almost a decade, has been his and his alone, Heaslip was circumspect.
"At this stage of my career, I don't really care about myself, if I'm being honest," he said last week. "I've been a part of some really good teams that have accomplished a lot and what I want more is the team to do well.
"The Ireland and Leinster jersey will live long past my involvement and at this stage of my career I want to be involved in sowing the seed for the next generation."
Given his famed dedication, professionalism and work ethic, there is little doubt that Heaslip is doing everything he possibly can to get himself back on the pitch. As a senior player, he has remained an active member of Leinster's leadership group.
Long famed as the unbreakable exception to the rugby rule of long-term absentees and broken bodies, this is a new experience for Heaslip who has a number of business interests away from the game and used his time off to visit Harvard Business School last June.
At that time, he would have hoped to have been in New Zealand with the Lions - a proposition that looked realistic given his consistent form during last season.
When he returned to pre-season he was making up for lost time but instead his back didn't play ball and he is continuing to face a period of real doubt that will only be ended when he laces up his boots and returns to the field of play.
When that will be appears to be anyone's guess at this stage and that must be a huge concern to the player, everyone at Leinster and at Ireland.