By Tadhg Peavoy
At 32-years-old, with 211 Leinster caps, 81 Ireland caps, three European Cups, three Pro12s, one European Challenge Cup, three Six Nations, two Triple Crowns, one Grand Slam and one Lions Series victory, Jamie Heaslip is one of the most decorated Irish rugby players of all time. No doubt.
Lash in on top of that the IRUPA Supporters Player of the Year in 2010 and three Celtic League Dream Team selections, and you have an even more rounded view of how highly fans and professionals rate the Israel-born No 8.
But yet criticism of the Newbridge College man persists. Why?
He has been a player who has constantly reinvented himself throughout his career. Playing schools rugby for Newbridge he was a very prominent member of an excellent JCT side in 1998 and SCT side in 2001.
Back in his school days he was a clear talent that had pro-baller written all over swashbuckling displays that melded guile in attack with ball in hand, with the more nuanced play of a skilled groundhog, snaffling possession on the deck, and giving the Kildare school vital possession to attack from.
From there he went on to be drafted into the Leinster squad in 2004 and immediately set about turning a schools reputation into something more tangible. By 2006 he was nailed on as the first-choice No 8 for the province and shot on to become a fearsome attacking force for Ireland in 2009 as Declan Kidney’s team went on to secure the Grand Slam.
His performances were eye-catching and full of attacking verve and flair, which always garners attention, and brings a player into the limelight, as not just afficionados but also fairweather fans clamour to heap praise on such a star.
However, as his game has evolved he has become a different beast altogether, most especially since the emergence of Sean O’Brien as Ireland’s ball carrier of note in the back row. With the Tullow Tank performing the duties of bulldozing defences with go-forward ball, and standing as first receiver off the breakdown, Heaslip had to change his game to suit the team’s needs. He morphed into a No 8 that was relentless in work rate: hitting breakdowns first, bringing in tackle counts that were regularly in the top three of games, and performing unseen graft all over the pitch.
This kind of endeavour never gets the same perks as being the glamour man who carries on the front foot and breaks the line before offloading to the onrushing backs in the channel left in wake. Never. And with that change of style by Heaslip he became derided by many in the Irish rugby circuit as having lost his edge, being not the same player, and instead a man who’s card was marked.
The fact he has held his spot at the back of the scrum throughout two back-to-back Six Nations winning seasons with Ireland under Joe Schmidt is indicative of the fact that his value has maintained and one could argue has increased since his early days in green.
Yes, the pressure on him is mounting now, as CJ Stander presses for a regular spot in the Ireland starting XV, along with O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell and Rhys Ruddock all pushing for inclusion. However, with O’Mahony gone with injury for now, and with it Ireland shorn of one of their main workhorses, Heaslip’s merit has again been amplified. It was all too evident on Sunday against Wales as Heaslip made 14 carries and 16 tackles and gave as selfless a performance as could have been asked for.
Stander and, if fit, O’Brien will start on the flanks on Saturday against France. And they will lead the cavalry charge to set attacking platforms. But Heaslip will likely start at No 8 and bring the grit that is needed in a back row to ensure all others around him can do their job.
In terms of the evolution of the player, less is sometimes very much more. And Heaslip’s value – both past and present – must be appreciated.