The Big Interview: Jamie Heaslip

Jamie Heaslip won 100 caps, went on two British & Irish Lions Tours and was part of the first Ireland team to win the Grand Slam in 61 years so when he talks about the back row, he does so with authority.

Jamie Heaslip won 100 caps, went on two British & Irish Lions Tours and was part of the first Ireland team to win the Grand Slam in 61 years so when he talks about the back row, he does so with authority.

After calling time on his career a year ago, Heaslip has explored a number of different avenues, investing in tech start-ups, peer-to-peer lending as well as owning two bars in Dublin.

Alongside that he has turned his hand to commentary and was at BT Murrayfield with the BBC for Ireland’s Guinness Six Nations win over Scotland in Round Two.

In that game Sean O’Brien was making his first start in the Championship since 2017, and he certainly caught the eye of his former teammate thanks to his contributions with ball in hand.

Heaslip explained: “I thought Seanie was one of the great silver linings of the Scotland game, I thought he had a great game.

“He showed the importance of momentum in the side and showed the importance of getting over the gain line, they hadn’t really got over the gain line an awful lot the previous week.”

O’Brien’s return to fitness came at the perfect time for Ireland, with CJ Stander currently on the sidelines, and Dan Leavy also still out with injury.

As a Lions Test starter and with 59 international caps to his name, the 32-year-old O’Brien brings bags of experience to the table.

But despite how well he played in Edinburgh, Heaslip does not believe there are any nailed-on starters in the Irish back row at the moment, such is the depth that Joe Schmidt has at his disposal.

He continued: “I don’t think anyone in the back row in particular can say they deserve to be in the team, such is the competition. If everyone is fit in Ireland, no one’s position is safe in the back row.

“I think Seanie brings a lot of voice to it, as well as a player who can consistently get over the gain line. There’s not a lot of other back rowers in the country who can say that. I think he made a big difference.

“But I’m not saying he should start every time, that’s down to the coach. There’s a lot more factors that come into it in terms of the blend of a back row and the different attributes and how you are trying to play as a team.

“There’s way more of a conversation around that. Being in the back row is competitive right now and Seanie definitely cranked that pressure up with his performance against Scotland.

“Imagine Seanie is fit, Dan Leavy’s fit, Rhys Ruddock is pushing them hard. Those are guys who could all start for Ireland and are doing an unbelievable job, putting the pressure on them.

“Josh van der Flier would have felt hard done by, he was the best back-rower, I felt, on the day for Ireland against England and he was put on the bench, so everyone will have a case for starting. It’s a good thing we’re not coaches because it’s an awful headache for Joe Schmidt, but it’s a good headache.”

Ireland head to Rome in Round Three, looking to build on that victory in Scotland as they work their way back from an opening day defeat to England.

The Irish have not lost to the Azzurri since 2013, a day when Heaslip and O’Brien started together in the back row, alongside Peter O’Mahony.

Schmidt will name his side on Friday, and having been on the wrong end of a loss in Rome, Heaslip knows only too well the challenge facing the Irish.

He added: “It will be interesting to see what Joe does. It’s a shame they didn’t get a bonus point against Scotland but the fact they won means Joe can definitely rotate the squad but it’s a fine blend. Because if he does rotate the squad, you might have players who haven’t played in four weeks, which is a lot in rugby terms.

“It will be interesting to see the changes that are made but he’ll have to rotate. He needs to give guys some starting time, some game time. Italy over there will be a very tough side and they’ll be looking for a scalp.

“Because of the position Ireland are in, still number two in the world and current champions, they have a target on their backs. They are the big game for everyone so Italy will be coming hard after that. I’d expect to see a side that I hope will be as elegantly simple in their attack but ruthlessly efficient as we’re used to seeing.”

With all the success they have experienced over the last year, notably the Grand Slam and a first win over the All Blacks on Irish soil, it easy to forget how young some members of the Irish side are.

James Ryan and 2018 Player of the Championship Jacob Stockdale only made their Test debuts in June 2017 and yet already feel like experienced campaigners.

And it was their ability to respond to the first real adversity they have faced at the highest level that stood out for Heaslip against Scotland.

He concluded: “I think it was a bit of a slugfest against the Scots. It was important for Ireland to win in terms of mindset, coming back from a loss like that, with the injuries they had.

“This is a very young team, mostly, and they haven’t had to face a loss, really.

“For them to experience that, in the way they did from England, and bounce back – even if it wasn’t an amazing game, I think that goes a huge way for their growth going forward.

“The way they did it wasn’t great but I don’t think they need to change a whole lot. You’ve got people panicking around that, I don’t think that’s true but it was an opportunity for a lot of players to put the pressure on in positions. When everyone is fit there will be a lot of competition, which is great.”