Six Nations: Heaslip excited at the leadership challenge ahead
Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip was in upbeat form at yesterday’s announcement of the team to play Wales in Cardiff on Saturday (1.30pm).
It will be the first time he has led the side in a Six Nations clash and those he leads vary markedly in terms of age and experience at this level.
For example, Brian O’Driscoll, from whom he has taken over as captain, is 34 and boasts 120 Irish caps, an unprecedented 84 of those as skipper.
On Saturday O’Driscoll and Leinster colleague, 32-year-old Gordon D’Arcy, who will be winning his 72nd cap, form a world record 48th international centre pairing.
In contrast, the wingers outside them — Ulster’s Craig Gilroy and Munster’s Simon Zebo — will be making only their second and fourth international appearances respectively. Gilroy is 21, Zebo 22.
For British & Irisk Lions full-back Rob Kearney, who completes the back three, this will be a 42nd Irish appearance and his first since last June’s ill-fated final Test against the All Blacks.
Up front Mike McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan pack down as a starting second row duo for the first time in the Six Nations. The return of fit-again Sean O’Brien at seven means Ulster’s Chris Henry has a seat on the bench.
Asked about the contrast between leading the side in last autumn’s Guinness Series and the forthcoming Six Nations, Heaslip joked: “In terms of the captaincy the only difference between November and now was having some quality time in London with Deccie last week (at the tournament launch).”
Then turning serious he added: “I keep going back to (Ireland backs coach) Alan Gaffney’s phrase, ‘You can’t win a Grand Slam or a Six Nations on day one, but you can definitely lose it’. It (Saturday’s match) is not the be all and end all but there’s a lot on it. I know from experience that in terms of momentum for the Six Nations that it’s a massive game.”
Referring back to Ireland’s most recent outing — November 24 when they beat Argentina 46-24 — Heaslip noted: “We finished on a high, but it’s just another stepping stone for us.
“I’m not going to say that we’re at where we want to be but we’re definitely going in the right direction and hopefully this will be another opportunity for us to go another step forward.
“We know all too well the potency of Wales. In the last three games they have beaten us and most of the time we’ve lost when they’ve punished us for our mistakes.”
Finishing on a light-hearted note, Heaslip revealed that rather than taking up the single room privilege traditionally afforded to the captain, he will continue to share with his Leinster team-mate, Cian Healy, as was the case during the Guinness Series.
“I’m so used to rooming with Cian in Leinster — we’ve been doing that for years now — that I didn’t see the need for me to change, so I was quite content to keep making him tea at 10 o’clock at night. It’s a kind of weird little ritual that we have — like an old married couple,” he said.
Ireland team and replacements to play Wales (RBS 6 Nations Championship, Millennium Stadium, Saturday 1.30pm):
(Player, province, caps): Rob Kearney (Leinster, 41); Craig Gilroy (Ulster,1), Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster,120), Gordon D’Arcy (Leinster, 71), Simon Zebo (Munster, 3); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster, 34), Conor Murray (Munster,14); Cian Healy (Leinster, 35), Rory Best (Ulster, 62), Mike Ross (Leinster, 24); Mike McCarthy (Connacht, 6), Donnacha Ryan (Munster, 23); Peter O’Mahony (Munster, 9), Sean O’Brien (Leinster, 22), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster, 52, captain). Replacements: Sean Cronin (Leinster, 23), David Kilcoyne (Munster, 2), Declan Fitzpatrick (Ulster, 2), Donncha O’Callaghan (Munster, 91), Chris Henry (Ulster, 4), Eoin Reddan (Leinster, 47), Ronan O'Gara (Munster, 126), Keith Earls (Munster, 34)