Matt O’Connor has no doubts about Jamie Heaslip’s ‘new’ role
Leinster number eight had become the de facto captain in any case
Jamie Heaslip (right) celebrating Leinster’s win over Glasgow Warriors in the final of RaboDirect PRO12 at the RDS in May. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Confirmation that Jamie Heaslip will be the ‘new’ Leinster captain for the forthcoming season in succession to the long-standing Leo Cullen, who has moved upstairs to coaching the forwards, will hardly constitute the most earth-shattering announcement ever to be made by Matt O’Connor. It may well be the easiest decision of his Leinster tenure too, for Heaslip had become the de facto captain in any case.
Last season, in addition to playing every minute of Ireland’s eight Tests prior to the Argentina tour, Heaslip had started and played every minute of 18 games for Leinster. This was exactly twice the number of starts made by Cullen and, for that matter, by Brian O’Driscoll. More often than not therefore, Heaslip was captain, including for the victorious semi-final and final to the Pro12 at the end of the campaign.
“The feeling was that he’s done the job before,” said O’Connor. “He’s an unbelievable professional in the environment and he rarely misses a game. He plays every week, he trains every session, he’s fantastic in the environment and I think Seán O’Brien and Rob Kearney in the vice-captaincy roles will tick all the boxes for us in that leadership scenario.”
Chain of commandIndeed, with O’Brien and Kearney as lieutenants, so a new chain of command is completed. “There would be no players unhappy to be led by Jamie,” ventured O’Connor were the decision to have been made by a player vote, before the coach admitted: “I think we’ll have a decision to make in the Test windows in relationship to who leads that side, but you have the likes of Shane Jennings and Isaac Boss and Kevin McLaughlin have probably slipped out of Test reckoning, who would probably be around in those windows for us. You couldn’t ask for three better candidates in those windows.”
Indeed, given both the captain and the two vice-captains are highly likely to remain front-line internationals in Joe Schmidt’s scheme of things, history shows us that roughly half of Leinster’s Guinness Pro12 games will require a captain from outside that trio, it’s a little surprising that, say, Jennings has not been formally anointed as a vice-captain also. That said, he will surely remain a key leadership cog in the Leinster machine.
Based on past achievements as much as anything else, one ventures, and perhaps a relatively favourable pool draw alongside Wasps, Castres and Harlequins, Leinster have been installed as 6/1 second favourites behind Toulon in the betting for the European Champions Cup.
“There are a lot of good sides in Europe,” said O’Connor. “It’s so much determined by how you’re going in the league and your injury profile, and for us how we pull through the international windows, which will have a massive bearing on the success of our season. I wouldn’t be allowed to put a bet on it so I wouldn’t know.”
Yet the reality is that the new fixture schedule works against Leinster, for in stark contrast to Toulon, whose contribution to last season’s Six Nations amounted two French and one Italian, no team in the world is a bigger bulk supplier to its national side than Leinster.