Saturday 20 January 2018

Heaslip fighting fit to face French

Any doubts about Jamie Heaslip's fitness for Sunday's clash with France were dispelled by yesterday's rigorous training session. Photo: Brian Lawless / Sportsfile
Any doubts about Jamie Heaslip's fitness for Sunday's clash with France were dispelled by yesterday's rigorous training session. Photo: Brian Lawless / Sportsfile

Last week, Irish rugby paused for breath as its supporters desperately hoped Jamie Heaslip would stay in Ireland.

This week, Irish rugby was similarly agog as it waited to see if Heaslip would be back in the Ireland shirt.

The talismanic giant No 8's return to fitness continued apace in South Dublin yesterday; the firmness of his handshake and moon-shaped smile indicating a specimen raring to burst from the traps.

After a rigorous session in the RDS, the doubts shrouding his participation had been gleefully removed.

"We had felt earlier today we weren't in a position to name the team as there was too much doubt on the fitness of several players," admitted manager Paul McNaughton ahead of today's announcement of the team to play France.

"But following training this afternoon, Andrew Trimble and Jamie Heaslip came through the session okay. We felt there was no need to actually hold off on selection, so we will go ahead as planned tomorrow.

"We were also able to confirm that Stephen Ferris is still not ready for a return to play and has been ruled out of the France game."

After last week's dismal failure of an Ireland back-row that failed to gel, never mind finish its shift, thanks to Denis Leamy's slow walk in the game's pivotal period, urgent back-row alterations are required.

With Kidney maintaining his current predilection for a quasi-back-rower at scrum-half, the key now will be to ensure aerial prowess becomes a factor in the back three picks, not to mention an ability to engage team-mates as well the opposition tacklers.

Heaslip offers all of the above. A glance at the French team sheet shows one change in personnel from the side that started against Scotland and will harden the resolve needed to conduct radical surgery on the Irish back-row.

Such was the limited variety of Irish line-out options last week, one would suspect Rory Best would be craving more targets beyond two and four -- had he a mind to slip a suggestion note underneath the selectors' door.

"The first note I'd drop under the door would be for myself rather than anything else," he smiles. Perhaps his own fallibility led to such conservatism from touch against Italy.

"We have a lot of options across the back five; we have height, we have explosive jumpers as well.

"In terms of the back five in the scrum, going forward, we have a lot of thinkers there so we can get space, not matter who we pick back there."

With Tommy Bowe possibly earmarked for some game time with the Ospreys a week before a tentative recall for the trip to Scotland, Andrew Trimble is back in contention, but a change in the back three is as unlikely as it is unwarranted.

Ireland's try concession last Saturday was unnerving. Worryingly, Italy's only attack produced a score; again, as was often the case in November, it happened out wide after bunched-up Ireland were caught out, ultimately forcing a last-gasp decision which, in this instance, Luke Fitzgerald got wrong.

"As a trend, it's probably a bit of an area that we would like to improve, the edge defence," confessed defence coach Les Kiss. "I don't think there is anything critically wrong with it. It is just combination issues and reading things at the right time.

"It is getting those reads right. It is that terrible coach's cliché, a work in progress, but we are trying to get that right."

France will crucify Ireland, particularly if they're given coughed-up ball so gleefully by the hapless Irish as in Rome.

And, as Best avers, getting even basic skills right would be helpful.

"Individual errors can always be eliminated," he says.

"There are always going to be those small errors in team sport, but the more you can minimise those, the better we can become."

It's a wearily familiar retort that will hopefully produce the familiar, resolute response this Sunday.

Irish Independent

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