Jamie Heaslip aims to end ‘roller coaster’ of a season on a high
Ireland’s captain hoping to gain revenge for two final defeats before going to Australia
Too cool for school maybe, but Jamie Heaslip cares profoundly about his profession. He’s certainly no rugby nerd, by his own admission, and is famed for his pre-match naps, incurring the wrath of some for wearing his headphones in the pre-match preambles, but he is devoted to the game, addicted to winning, but although losing hurts, he’s not one to dwell on things and remains uber positive in outlook.
An hour in his company can slip by easily as he talks happily about all things rugby and one comes away with the feeling that perhaps his desire has been intensified with the passing years and particularly the Irish captaincy.
Joe Schmidt has regularly turned to Heaslip as captain when Leo Cullen is not there, as was the case for last week’s Amlin Challenge Cup final, and Declan Kidney having made his call, there will be no complaints if Schmidt retains Heaslip as captain through to the next World Cup.
At face value, it certainly didn’t look a pleasant experience for him especially.
He relives the pain of those three defeats and even the win that got away in the draw with France. He admits found the immediate post-match interview, when feeling raw, very tough. You line up the question of captaining Ireland again, anticipating a diplomatic response, but there’s no need.
“It’s strange. I loved every minute of it! There’s no other honour really that you could really take, captaining your country. It’s Roy of the Rovers type of stuff and yeah, the results didn’t come our way, and yeah, it was a bit of a steep learning curve, but I loved it.
“I absolutely loved it. It was such a huge honour and I’ll bite the hand off Joe if he lets me be the captain again. I couldn’t believe it that I was captain even last week.”
Heaslip’s captaincy of Ireland in the November Tests and the anti-climactic Six Nations typified what he describes as a “roller coaster” of a season, which also saw Leinster miss out on the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup, yet today offers the possibility of a second trophy with a Lions tour to come.
The night before we met, the Lions had been entertained in Bear Restaurant in South William Street, where Heaslip is a part owner, which for him and his five fellow Leinster Lions, was merely an appetiser before joining up fully with the squad tomorrow.
“It was really weird. It gets you a little bit giddy and then you realise how much you’re not in sync with them yet. All the lads are getting their chats going on. They’ve got that first day of school stuff out of the way and we were kind of very much still a little bit on the outside.”
Besides, he has a final to focus on today, so he left the Lions to their night out by 9pm. Like most rugby pros he’s also good at compartmentalising things. They have to be. So Heaslip enjoyed last Friday night and parked it Saturday morning.
“You have to celebrate these things. Like, I mean, why do you play otherwise? So we celebrated on Friday and that was it. I disappeared then. I live right beside the stadium so I purposely got out of Dodge, went down to Monart (Spa), just relaxed, recovered and made sure Monday morning like everyone else that we were good to for a full week of hard bloody work.”
This also betrays his utmost respect for Ulster. “We’ve played them twice and they’ve beaten us twice and we know the challenge that it’s going to be against these guys. It’s a a huge challenge. They’re playing really, really good rugby. They are a team that if you make mistakes against them, they punish you and make sure you’ve got to be on your game to score.
“You’ve very much got to be on your money to beat these guys. I think that’s why they finished top of the table after such a long season.”
He goes through them player by player, highlighting their array of finishers, their set-piece efficiency, their excellent breakdown work, Ruan Pienaar’s goal-kicking and talks animatedly of all the little things Leinster will have to do well. Herein lies Heaslip, for his game is all about selflessly devoting himself to the team cause.
In keeping with all this, more so even that a third European title in a row, winning a League final is more of a squad effort, and he talks of the responsibility of doing it for the 50-plus players who’ve represented Leinster in the campaign and indeed trained with them.
And while losing to the Ospreys at the RDS might appear to have hurt more after topping the table, he points out: “losing to Munster as well is never nice. But they beat us well in that game and they were deserved winners.”
As was the case three years ago, last year’s hugely frustrating and anti-climactic final against the Ospreys slipped away from Leinster in the endgame after they went in at half-time in what he vividly recalls as a very good position.
“That was a hard one to take, being such in a good position and disappointing because we weren’t as accurate as we were in the first half of that game. We kind of pride ourselves on little details and your ball focus and at times we let that slip in the second half.”
The sense of anti-climax was compounded by it being a carnival-like, sunclad day a week after retaining the Heineken Cup.
“Aw, the RDS on a sold out day when it’s sunny . . . I challenge a lot of grounds to be like that and it’s going to be the same for this final. I know technically it’s not our home venue this weekend, but it’s going to be fantastic. They’ve got really good fans now, we’ve got some of the best fans in the world, and one of the really amazing features about the RDS is that terrace as you come out onto the pitch.
“All the Leinster fans, that little Lions’ pit as I call it right beside the tunnel as we come out. It would send shivers down your neck. It’s electric stuff coming out and playing there.”
The latter two League final losses also spoiled preceding European successes, and the same would be true if they don’t complete the double today. Such are the ultra demanding standards they set.
“And that’s how we keep ourselves going on a week by week basis, just these little targets just to keep pushing it, never settling, never settling.”
Water off a duck’s back
As for his own role in all of this criticisms are water off a duck’s back. All that matters is what his coaches and fellow players think, be it the Leinster or Ireland coaches and his long-time mentor Collie McEntee, who has coached him in some shape or form since Heaslip was 15.
His stats from game to game and over a season border on ridiculous, be it carries, tackles, turnover, line-out takes; whatever it takes with one objective solely in mind.
“I am so happy with the way I’m playing, but to be honest the most important thing to me is winning. I honestly I don’t give a sh** what people think as long as we are winning. I am hardwired to win. That’s the way I am. That’s the way I have always been, probably because of my two brothers being so competitive and the way my dad has always been involved with things, and probably something to do with Newbridge College.
“We didn’t win a whole lot of games in college and I don’t think I ever won anything until I won an All-Ireland medal with the under-20s with Trinity, that’s the first time I remember winning something.”
Indeed, as he stresses, things usually haven’t come easily for him. At 15, Heaslip was “gutted” to be overlooked after his first Leinster schoolboy trial, so the next year he made it. The same again with the Ireland Under-20s, and having made the team the following year was shortlisted for IRB Young Player of the Year when Jerome Kaino won it.
The ensuing November he watched Kaino play for the All Blacks while he was playing for Trinity. Similarly, when Michael Cheika initially overlooked him, “that was a huge motivating factor for me. It took a while before Eddie (O’Sullivan) would pay me any heed, and then I didn’t make the 2007 World Cup.”
Along the way there have been profound influences on him, not least Brad Thorn last season, “a massive inspiration,” the standardbearer he simply calls “Drico”, and Isa Nacewa, who he still describes as the best player he’s ever played with.
And, amongst other things, he says today is about sending Joe Schmidt, Nacewa, Jonny Sexton and six other players off into the sunset.
Four years ago, he admits to being “a little wet behind the ears” about the whole Lions concept, but now he gets it. His policy will be to “go hard or go home, and I won’t be doing that.”
Tomorrow, he will be on an 8.50am flight to London with his Leinster teammates to meet up with the Lions for some tests, recovery and a farewell banquet in Kensington before Monday’s flight to Hong Kong.
Four years ago he recalls getting home at about 5.20am, and Luke Fitzgerald picking him up for the drive to the airport at about 5.40am.
“I’ll never forget meeting Ian McGeechan. I didn’t have the freshest of breath I suppose or look the freshest in general and the first thing he says to me: ‘I’d be worried if you weren’t like that!’ And I was just like, alright I’m in a good place here so.”
He hopes there’ll have been reason for a similar lack of sleep this time round.