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.
Bearing that in mind, in previous seasons the Heineken Cup quarter-finals were three weeks after the completion of the Six Nations, with the semi-finals a further three weeks later and the final another four weeks further on.
However, this season, in order to appease the French and English clubs, the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup will be within a fortnight of the Six Nations’ final weekend, with the semi-finals two weeks later and the final another two weeks on again. In other words, whereas Leinster won three knockout ties in the space of ten weeks after the Six Nations, this season they would have to repeat the feat within six weeks.
“The post-six Nations window is probably a bit tighter than it has been historically,” admitted O’Connor. “That creates more challenges for us than anyone else but that’s a bridge we’ll cross when we come to it.”
To that end, O’Connor said, there was an understanding within the Leinster squad that they had to improve in all areas if they were to dine at the top table of European rugby. They also took plenty of confidence from their defence, keeping Ulster and Glasgow tryless in the semi-final and final of the Pro12 last May, and producing “one of our best performances” of the season in that final.
“We’ve taken a lot of confidence from that in the pre-season but it’s a clean sheet and you’re only as good as your last game, and we haven’t played a game yet this season.”
Coaching staffO’Connor and the rest of the Leinster coaching staff, including Cullen, Richie Murhy and new scrum coach Marco Caputo, were unveiled at Tallaght Stadium yesterday, where Leinster will host Ulster on Saturday week after a young side play Northampton in Franklin’s Gardens this Saturday.
O’Connor confirmed that Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald and Seán Cronin should all return from end-of-season surgery at some point in September, with Richardt Strauss to follow in early October.
Chief executive Mick Dawson also announced that Leinster will have two new all-weather pitches at a cost of €1m (Government grant of €750,000) in place in their Donnybrook grounds by mid-September, and that tickets went on sale yesterday for the October 4th Pro12 clash with Munster at the Aviva Stadium.
These sales would also be part of a new ‘Demand-Based Pricing Model’ which Leinster have introduced this season, whereby all tickets will start at the same price as last season and will rise marginally depending on the level of demand for each price category at each individual game.
The aim, said Dawson, was to reward season ticket holders as well as supporters who are quick to buy tickets.