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Heaslip backs Conan to wear Ireland's No.8 shirt at World Cup


Vote of confidence: Jamie Heaslip (left) has backed Jack Conan (right) to be Ireland’s first-choice No.8 in Japan
Vote of confidence: Jamie Heaslip (left) has backed Jack Conan (right) to be Ireland’s first-choice No.8 in Japan

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

For almost a decade, Jamie Heaslip was synonymous with the Ireland No.8 jersey, and if things had gone to plan he'd be heading to Japan in situ at the back of the scrum.

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Unfortunately, injury intervened and forced the five-Test Lion to retire, leaving a vacuum in the set-up that has largely been filled by CJ Stander.

At Leinster, Jack Conan has filled the void in impressive fashion and has increasingly been a regular in Joe Schmidt's match-day squads, and Heaslip, now a pundit on Channel 4, believes Conan has done enough to go to Japan as the first-choice No.8.

"Jack Conan," he simply replied when asked who he believed is the first-choice No.8 before expanding on his answer.

"I think Jack's the form No.8. It is no way a shot at anyone else. The competition in the back-row is really good, really healthy.

"Thank God I'm not picking the team because CJ does what CJ does. He carries really well and a lot. Then you have Jordi Murphy, who is a real dynamic footballer.

"Peter O'Mahony can play all three positions as well. Having that diversity to the way you play is a string to your bow to get into the back-row.

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"You have Pete, who brings so much to the squad in terms of leadership and as an option in the lineout. You've got Josh. You can play Tadhg Beirne in the second-row or the back-row."

As a vice-captain, O'Mahony seems like a cert to be in the starting XV, but there are times when the Munster skipper's statistics are used against him in the post-match analysis.

Unlike some team-mates, the 29-year-old often racks up high numbers in the carry or tackle counts, but Heaslip says his contribution as a leader and as a player who comes up with big moments is invaluable.

"In the back-row, you need a blend. The role Peter plays right now is blending into that back-row," he said.

"For me, Pete is really good at identifying what role he needs to play in according to the skills of the other two players in the back-row.

"Pete's skills attributes at No.6 are very different to someone like Jack Conan or CJ in that position. As well as all that, Pete has a lot of experience playing in big games. He's a good professional and can lead by example.

"Those emotional intelligence skills are big factors as well when you are in a pressure environment. You need people with experience.

"If you look at the squad now, it is younger than the previous. That's the impression I get."

Although they'll talk publicly about taking it one game at a time, Heaslip says the team will be going to Japan aiming to win the tournament.

"Being a player, I don't know if they will say this publicly or not, you are going to win. You are not there just to take part," he said at the launch of Guinness' new 'Liberty Fields' ad.

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