Heaslip knows he’ll have hands full with Italy and Parisse
Ireland captain acknowledges that Italy are no pushovers any more
Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip at Dublin Airport ahead of the squad’s departure to Rome. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Two months of Six Nations captaincy coming to a close, sniping comments on his stewardship and a match where one of the best backrows in the world, Sergio Parisse, is waiting and Heaslip would have to ask himself what is there not to like about being the front man for Irish Rugby Inc.
The captaincy has, he conceded yesterday, been “an honour” and a “privilege” and “challenging” but the job has also been of a different dimension to the one he did for the first time last autumn.
“I suppose I had thought I’d a good sense of how things are being the captain in November,” he said yesterday. “But it was a completely different animal come the Six Nations. That was, like, ‘woah!’ You have to get used to that, being at the forefront.”
Forefront is the operative word. A captain’s performance is what Heaslip craves closing this year’s account and in Parisse, he meets one of the most effective backrowers in the world and on a par with other celebrated mauraders Juan Martin Lobbe, Pierre Spies and Kieran Read.
Parisse is also the talisman of the Italian team, his performances often the barometer of how the side is performing. There are more significant issues in Heaslip’s mind than the team mascot and the toss, the torrid time Italy gave England in the second half of their match last weekend probably one of them.
“His name doesn’t come to mind, but he’s the South African number eight, yeah, Spies,” said Heaslip. “He’s a beast. The Argentinean? Yeah, Lobbe. There’s just a great standard of backrows out there and now I’m going up against another one.
“Parisse’s an amazing player and he’s an awfully nice guy as well off the field. He’s a great distributor of the ball, actually. He plays a lot off 10 and can obviously run very well, but he can also distribute the ball quite well.
“But also you know he’s going to give it his all when he plays and he is a talisman for Italy and has been for many years now. All around, he’s a cracking player. It’s great going up against him. They have a really good backrow; I really like Zanni as well, he’s a very good player and causes us a lot of problems with Treviso in the Rabo.”
Italy are no longer the side that bashes up front before they become bored and turn the ball over. Jaques Brunel, one-time assistant coach to France and head coach at Perpignan, has seen to respecting the ball and playing for 80-plus minutes. Italy lost to England last Sunday but for the first time in the playing history of the two sides,the winners failed to score a try. No swan dives from Chris Ashton. No bad thing.
“Every year on year you can see how they’ve come on,” said Heaslip. “They’ve accelerated the speed with which the national team have come on with the club sides being added into the Rabo League and they’re more adventurous with the way they’re playing.
“That’s coming through with the national side. They’re not just a set-piece team anymore now. They’re willing to play. They hold onto the ball really, really well and I think they’ve got a lot of tries where they’ve held onto the ball through nine, 10 phases in the opposition’s green zone.
“They outwork teams and get mis-matches and kick to the corner or just get numbers on them and get in in the corner. Or they can be quite direct with their pack as well, so they have a lot of different threats and as a pack we’ve got to address the first one, whatever the set-piece is – the scrum or lineout – and obviously win the battle of the gainline with carries or tackles.”
The last match is always the most recent. Italy on a rise, Ireland stuck somewhere short of top gear and a wooden spoon. It could get emotional.
“Last week the whole team knew the challenge,” said Heaslip. “We had our hands full. It’s going to be the same again.”