Friday 15 December 2017

Heaslip ready to lead troops from the front

Jamie Heaslip
Jamie Heaslip
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Jamie Heaslip knows the jury is out on what epaulettes to stitch on his tunic.

The son of an army man, he recognises that leadership is about more than meeting the President or standing to speak after dinner. Trouble is, people keep shining a torch in his eyes and, it seems, can't yet quite figure out what it is they see. He's a mix of the kid filling his team-mate's boots with ants and the inspiring officer whose men would follow him unquestioningly into a burning building.

Jamie juggles a white-hot determination with frivolity. It confuses the world.

Quite a few old Leinster team-mates railed publicly in recent days against Declan Kidney's decision to give him the Six Nations captaincy ahead of Brian O'Driscoll. Jamie understood the din. Demoting O'Driscoll is a bit like mugging Nelson Mandela. Civilised society just doesn't get it.

Yet Heaslip says the two have discussed the decision and that there is no residual tension. "Yes, I talked with Brian about it," he reflected. "He said he's 100pc behind me. He's obviously such an influential player and leader in the squad, so it's great to have his support."

Today, Heaslip will be in London for the formal Six Nations launch and his presence there may have much to do with words spoken last November on the eve of Ireland's game with Argentina. For a captain sin-binned at a critical juncture of the 12-16 loss to South Africa two weeks earlier, he would have known there were doubters in the room.


But Heaslip addressed the legacy of Ireland's 60-0 humiliation in the third Test of the summer tour to New Zealand. He hadn't played in that game, but he knew how deeply it offended the group psyche. "I was kind of doing the captain's meeting," he said. "I said, even though I wasn't involved in that game, I bloody knew about the hangover that came from it. So win, lose or draw (against Argentina), it was about being able to just hang it up and go 'You know what? I'm happy with the job I did!'

"I said I didn't know how many guys could say that after that last Test against New Zealand. I didn't want that bad taste in my mouth the next two months. I didn't want that hanging over me.

"I was kind of putting that to them."

The subsequent seven-try spectacular transformed the vibe of a group that had lost its previous five Tests. Heaslip admits there was "a spring in the step" when the Irish squad gathered in camp just after Christmas. Now it is partly his responsibility to sustain that dynamic through this Six Nations.

He is a deceptively complex figure, outwardly the antithesis of Dick, his retired Brigadier General father who was one of the most respected officers in the Irish army. Among many remarkable postings, Heaslip Snr found himself commissioned to be one of six Irish cadets escorting John F Kennedy's coffin into Arlington Cemetery.

On being granted the Irish captaincy for those November internationals, Jamie joked that his father's playful rebuke was "I'm a colonel, so I still pull rank on you!"

Yet, their relationship is one of those traditional Irish father-and-son alliances where nuance and quiet loyalty tend to supplant the spoken word.

Dick Heaslip's last posting was a three-year stint in Belgium as Ireland's representative to NATO. His son admits that a picture of the JFK funeral is "up in the house at home", but that it isn't really something they choose to talk about. Nor, ordinarily, is rugby.

"That's the last thing that I want to talk about," reflected Jamie with a smile. "When I go down home, I'm like, 'right I'll give dad five minutes here to talk about rugby and that's it.'

"One thing he always said to me was 'talent is nothing without discipline!' I've just read that book 'Bounce' (The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice by Matthew Syed) and kept hearing my dad in the background. Because I learned a lot from my dad in how to lead guys and how to set an example, I suppose.

"My dad's quite the moral compass at times. He's a pioneer, quite a religious man and his moral compass is pretty straight. He's a good sounding board. He would know how to deal with a diverse array of characters, like you do on a rugby team, I suppose."

Had Dick offered an opinion on that sin-binning against the Springboks?

"He knows I'd be disappointed. If I was going around bragging about it, he'd probably clip me around the head, to be honest. Even at 60-odd he still fancies his chances! He never really says much. He knows when I'm disappointed. He knows his son."

The sin-binning hinted at unwelcome and, frankly, unwarranted things. He describes it as "falling on the sword", saying that he "wasn't happy with it". And, for some, it brought to mind New Plymouth and the early red card that so starkly undermined Irish hopes against the All Blacks in June of 2010.

"It's not somewhere you want to be, trust me," he said. "My experience is that you're better off on the pitch than off. I unfortunately had the experience of sitting on the sideline for 65 minutes watching Ireland play with 14 men.

"It's hard enough playing rugby games 15 on 15, so to be down to 14 men isn't where you want to be."

Kidney, evidently, sees maturity in Heaslip now that over-rides such aberrations. He certainly sees the work ethic that, last Sunday, had Heaslip set aside two hours of mapping his own personal schedule for the build-up to Cardiff on Saturday week.

"It all goes in the iPhone, once it's in the iPhone, it's set in stone and I'll do it."

He says the group sets a target of being actually ready to play a week in advance of the big kick-off. "We put all that effort into learning the moves, the game plans, the line-outs the mini-calls, without giving away the provincial calls. You're trying to get all that right in a short space of time.

"Unfortunately, it's the stuff I hate, sitting down in front of a laptop, trying to remember the plays, the calls and getting on the Team Ireland page."

They had a day of group meetings together at the Aviva back in August that produced a communal vow to create a club vibe at future Ireland get-togethers. "It's all about the jersey," explained Heaslip. "Paying the jersey the respect that it deserves."

The Wales game will, most likely, make or break their season. Kidney's men have not won this fixture since a 27-12 Croke Park win in March of 2010 and, factoring in the World Cup quarter-final, Warren Gatland's Wales have now won the last three meetings.

Gatland will, of course, be missing this time and with an epidemic of second-row injuries to contend with too, the Welsh have seldom looked more vulnerable. Heaslip, though, is wary.

"We know the tall task that's ahead of us," he stressed. "We're going to have to quickly bond together as a team and quickly get on the same page.

"It's a tough thing to do... I think you'll probably have five or six training sessions before that first game. So there's not a lot of time there to get it right. We know what we're facing.

"If they (Wales) see a weakness regarding the shake-up of backs versus forwards, they go for it. Their game, basically, is trying to spread you around and looking for the mis-matches. We have to be on our game that we don't give them the space.

"You look at the last five minutes against them in the Aviva (2012 Six Nations), we didn't come off the line. We knew what they were doing, but just kept soaking and soaking and soaking. Next thing, they get a penalty just outside our '22', kick it, win the game.

"We could have very easily shut that game down by just coming off the line and not letting them keep winning the gain-line battle. These are things that we're going to... (look at)"

That 23-21 win for Wales was notable for Wayne Barnes' failure to show Bradley Davies red for a tip-tackle on Donnacha Ryan. Instead, Davies was shown yellow, the same colour later encountered by Stephen Ferris for a foul on Ian Evans that enabled Leigh Halfpenny kick the winning points.

Wales, of course, marched on to win the Grand Slam, but a wretched November series has reaffirmed their reputation for extreme, yo-yo cycles.

Heaslip believes their November performances were maybe better than the scoreboard arithmetic suggested.

"They didn't really lose those games by a whole lot," he argues. "In fact, they were only a score or two away from having a completely different November. But they haven't won in a while and those guys will want to correct that.

"Equally, we haven't beaten Wales in a while and we'll want to correct that. So it is going to be a hell of a game."

Can Ireland win the Championship?

"There's absolutely no reason why we can't, but then there's absolutely no reason why the other teams can't win it either," he said. "Personally, I want to win everything. When you come up short, it's not a nice place to be.

"But winning the Grand Slam in '09 gave us a taste of what it is all like and, f**k me, it is something else. A couple of us said it, whatever you think about winning for your club, it ain't nothing like winning a Grand Slam.

"Like nothing I own comes close. It's just out-of-this-world kind of stuff."

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