Six Nations: Heaslip promises Ireland will play to win
Published 17/01/2012 | 10:37
Tomorrow's Six Nations squad announcement officially marks the start of another four-year cycle and the countdown to Ireland's 2015 World Cup campaign.
By that stage, Jamie Heaslip will be 32 and will be facing into what will almost certainly be his last World Cup, something the Naas man might find hard to fathom seeing as it's only a few months after his first taste of the tournament.
The squad named tomorrow is likely to include everyone from the possibles to the probables and even the probably nots, but Heaslip acknowledges that, come the opening match against Wales on February 5, there are likely to be some new faces around the Ireland camp, at the expense of some old ones.
"You'll be sorry not to see some familiar faces there, like John (Hayes), who has been a stalwart of the team and a guy that I would have looked up to as the consummate professional that he is. Change will happen. I guess it will happen. I'm looking forward to it," Heaslip says.
Heaslip has frequently referenced missing out on the 2007 World Cup as the biggest disappointment of his career, but it was an omission that kick-started his upward trajectory, as the following four years were good to him, delivering a Grand Slam and two Heineken Cups.
It wasn't long before he was being spoken about as a future national captain, but the following summer he became the first Irish player to be sent off in 32 years when he decided Richie McCaw needed sorting out. Some of Heaslip's detractors revelled in his misery and suggested his form slipped, and that experience helped him develop a thick skin when it comes to criticism from certain quarters.
"How do I put this nicely? I listen to a select group of people who I trust and outside of that I don't care what people say. If they say good or bad, I don't care, as long as we're winning. I have the medals at home. A lot of people who talk, don't," he says.
"So (my friends) dish it out when it's needed. Brutal honesty from people that you trust is pretty humbling."
We're in a studio in London where Heaslip is fulfilling his duties as a Guinness ambassador, and talk inevitably turns to the defeat to Wales in New Zealand, but he doesn't buy into Ronan O'Gara's assertion that Ireland "fell in love" with themselves.
"No, no. Ronan and I get on very well. He's a man who has his opinions and I've got to respect that, but I wouldn't agree with him on it. That's Ronan's thoughts. We all know he's very strong opinions and that's what he thought."
The defeat to Wales wasn't the first time the favourites' tag hung too heavily around the neck of an Irish team, but Heaslip denied that had any bearing on the performance.
"I got a bit of stick for saying, 'yeah, we're going to the World Cup to win it.' I mean, why should I be afraid to say 'we're entering this competition to win it'? I don't understand the problem.
"There is a difference between confident and cocky, or being arrogant about something. We all play to win. If you're not playing to win, I don't think you should be about at all."
Before the next World Cup comes around, there is the Lions tour of Australia in 2013. Heaslip came to global prominence in the '09 series against South Africa, where he started all three Tests.
"It'll be there, like. It will be lingering alright and that season it might be a goal, to be in the Lions squad at the end of the year," he says.
"But it's too dangerous two years out or even at the start of that season to go, 'I want to be in that Lions squad at the end of the year' because if you focus on that, you're not focusing on the game that week and you might play crap.
"You might end up playing a load of crap games and not get picked, so you've just got to focus on the task in hand. Mind you, that's just me."
This year's Six Nations is a more pressing issue as Ireland try to adapt to life without Brian O'Driscoll. And while Heaslip acknowledges the Irish captain's loss, he pointed to the encouraging performance of some of Leinster's young guns that has seen the province hardly miss a beat since O'Driscoll's operation.
"We're obviously missing a big guy, we're missing our skipper and massive leader and a massive talent on the pitch as well," he says.
"He's laughing and joking and saying is there a spot for him in the changing-room anymore and stuff like that when we see him about.
"He'll be a big loss but it's an opportunity for other people and guys at Leinster anyway -- you've had Eoin O'Malley, Fergus McFadden, I think Lukey (Fitzgerald) had a go at outside centre as well, you've had a couple of other guys there as well and they've all done a fantastic job.
"It's good to see Brian around, he's helping out people like Brendan Macken as well. He's been in the video room helping those guys out, imparting the plethora of wisdom Brian has."
Heaslip captained Leinster in their recent Pro12 victory over the Cardiff Blues which maintained his proud 100pc record when he has led the province, and while skippering Ireland remains an ambition, he backed the selection of Paul O'Connell to lead Ireland in the spring.
"Obviously no one would turn the (Irish captaincy) down, so I would have taken it with both hands, but Paul's there. I've been under Paul loads with the Lions, Ireland and there's no better man to lead you into battle," he says.
"I let Joe (Schmidt) know every time that I've a 100pc record as captain, something like six or seven games as Leinster captain. I was straight on to him afterwards and I was straight on to Leo (Cullen) actually after that game as well, taking the mick out of him. I love leading the Leinster lads out, it's a very proud thing to do."
The start of the last four-year cycle marked the beginning of the most successful period in Heaslip's career, and with Leinster and Irish rugby in general in rude health, can the next four years yield as much silverware?
"The only time I am really going to stop and look back on my career is when I'm finished. I'm just not built that way," he says.
"I'm more about the now and what's got to be done than what's been done. It's just the way I am. I know what I have done. I have the medals as well to prove it. They're there at home to remind me. But I'm more about what can be done now."