'You wear the wins and losses so much more as a captain'
SUCCEEDING Brian O'Driscoll as Ireland captain must be akin to coming on stage after Elvis.
Being appointed to replace Ireland's greatest player by a coach whose contract was in its final months put Jamie Heaslip in a difficult situation, and he could only look on as Ireland's heavy artillery dropped away due to an almost laughable number of injuries.
Where O'Driscoll presided over a hugely experienced side, Heaslip was left with players with only a handful of caps between them, meaning he led Ireland's most inexperienced and unsettled team for years.
It was almost fitting that their Six Nations campaign ended with a back-row playing on the wing and a rookie out-half in midfield, making a difficult situation became almost impossible.
Heaslip wasn't offering any excuses but did admit to taking the results hard.
"The one thing that I learned is that you wear the wins and the losses so much more as a captain," he reflected.
"But I think the guys that stepped up to the plate were impressive.
"The guys who have new caps and guys who only had a couple of caps under them, they did a really good job. We used something like 35 players during the competition.
"You've a young squad there ... but I do think going forward that these guys will learn. We created so many opportunities in all the games, and I'd feel quite different if we didn't.
"When you look at the game and you analyse it that's a really positive thing to take away from it."
He took a few days off but sat down last night to analyse the Italy game on DVD. He insists that despite the results, there are reasons to be cheerful.
"What I said in the changing-room after the Italy game was that we have to learn from this.
"The frustrating point I suppose looking back on it now is that in the games we lost there was only one score in it really. Against England it was two silly penalties that gave them the upper hand again.
"Against Scotland we had two or three try-scoring opportunities. They were the sort that we took in the Wales game when we were really clinical with the ball. We just weren't that ruthless."
Back at provincial level, Heaslip will also see a changing of the guard for Leinster.
Isa Nacewa is in the last lap of his rugby career, while Jonny Sexton heads for France at the end of this season.
O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen may also choose to hang up their boots, meaning the Leinster dressing-room could be a much different place next season.
"It is going to be disappointing to lose lads at the end of the season. We would love to finish on a high, regardless of the lads leaving us," said Heaslip.
"We are a very ambitious bunch and we are still competitive in two competitions, we have two massive games, in Glasgow this weekend and Ulster next weekend."
Heaslip's form for Ireland came under intense scrutiny, but he declared himself broadly pleased with his displays.
"I was quite happy with my Six Nations. I was disappointed with the England game, I don't think I played to the standard I normally set myself. But I was very happy with Wales, Scotland and France and Italy I think I finished strong.
"Sometimes you get a chance to carry the ball, sometimes you don't.
You look to see if you make your tackles – all sorts of different things. Not just the pretty stuff."
Heaslip is widely expected to be on the plane to Australia at the end of the season as part of Warren Gatland's Lions squad. He flourished in the side in 2009 when he started all three Tests and came out on top in his battle with Pierre Spies, but insists he has played as well since.
"I think I have played a lot and won a lot since then," he countered.
"I am very happy with how my rugby has gone for me all season and how it is going now.
"But that Lions trip was one of my favourite tours I have ever been on, absolutely amazing. The friendship, the camaraderie you get on it is a bit of a rare experience. I really enjoyed that tour.
"There is a lot of rugby to be played with Leinster before the end of the season. Everyone is all hands on deck."