Jamie Heaslip confident Leinster have players to shut Wasps down

Irish number eight sees the physical side of Londoners as main challenge for the team

Leinster captain Jamie Heaslip speaking to the press at UCD, Dublin, yesterday. Photograph: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

In weeks like these players like Jamie Heaslip talk about their positions and hold them steady. No wavering. Wasps visit will test many parts of the Leinster edifice but Heaslip is unshakable in his belief that Leinster have the players to earn a first round win.

From his own standpoint he's up against a backrow that has been trotted out as formidable with coach Dai Young able to select from captain James Haskell, Ed Jackson, Nathan Hughes and Ashley Johnson.

But where there may be doubt in others the Leinster number eight sees none and even pointing out that injured players such as Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien and Martin Moore are the very ones needed when Premiership sides that pride themselves on brawny packs arrive, Heaslip radiates a can-do belief and even a comfortable accommodation of the looming challenge. He has been here before.

“With Wasps coming over, they pride themselves on their pack being quite big, a big forwards game with a lot of pace out wide,” he says.

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Big challenge

"From our point of view we've got to negate that forward pack and it's going to be a big challenge for us. But it always seems in Europe that whatever pack you go up against, they're a big bloody pack. To be honest, I'll probably be saying this the next time we're sitting down here."

But given the Leinster injury profile, can this team win in Europe? “One hundred per cent,” he snaps. “I never compete unless I think we can win”.

The archetypical foot soldier for trench warfare would have the pugnacity and strength of O’Brien and Healy, but those standout players are recovering well back from the front. Still, it seems heretical to suggest Leinster don’t have the depth to cover them.

“The players around me. The squad we have,” Heaslip says with conviction, are the principal reason for his certainty. His audience must have scepticism written across their faces.

“Yeah, look man, we’ve played without the guys who are injured now before. You know, it’s all about the squad, it’s not about the player, and I think we have a pretty strong squad.”

It would probably be wrong to say that no one doubts him but Heaslip’s point is well made and his conviction and loyalty to the players he trains with gives him a particular view.

The certainty of his faith is impressive and when he breaks off into an anecdote about Brad Thorn, there is evidence that some of the inflexible mindset of the New Zealand lock has remained behind in Dublin. Thorn stayed one year and, not unlike Australian flanker Rocky Elsom before him, played games with physical menace and burning drive.

“Let’s say it’s rugby week with a Saturday game. The Monday and Tuesday is where you front-load it with all the information about how you want to play,” Heaslip explains .

“That gives you confidence in your job, but then after that, rugby becomes quite simple. It becomes about physicality and mentality. You start ramping it up from Wednesday and Thursday, through to Friday. By the time we meet on Thursday I am taking it for granted that the seven and the six know exactly what they are doing. If you start going through players and they don’t (know what they are doing) then that’s when you have to start giving guys a bollocking.

“Brad Thorn used to say that he liked to think of players as machines. It is programmed in what you have to do and then it is just about smashing things again and again and again with the ball and without the ball, just smash things.

Ramping it up

“It’s pretty simple once you do that. It worked for him. It is still working for him. I get my confidence off the guys. Monday and Tuesday we had two good sessions and now it is all about ramping it up. Everybody knows what we’re asking.”

With all of his knowledge and buttressing of the team and players, Heaslip understands that the lifelines available in the Pro12 are not strung out to cling onto in Europe. You beat Cardiff, you lose to Munster and then you beat Zebre. The rhythms of the bread and butter matches are frequent and repetitive and there's always room to patch up. Munster, he says, is forgotten.

“When you play in the domestic league ...I don’t know how many games you play before it pans out for the top four for knockouts. There’s a lot more room there. Here you are kind of on the back foot (in Europe) when you lose one or two games.

“If you get out of the group and you are at home – bonus. We’ve gone away and had success but its pretty tough to get out of the group. That’s why there is such a massive, massive emphasis on it. You are going up against the best of other leagues and you’ve got to respect that.”

Munster, Heaslip says, also got away with a lot at the breakdown. He knows that area will be the fulcrum for Wasps progress or capitulation. The buzz words are “access points” and “momentum earner.” Win the collisions and Leinster have their access points, their backs, their running game.

“We have to meet that pack on the gain line,” he says. “With or without the ball.”

It can be, if you want it to be, as simple as Thorn says.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times