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Jamie Heaslip Exclusive: Respectfully...Ireland fear no one

BY Jack Tunney  ·  Wednesday Mar 6, 2024

Jamie Heaslip has been looking forward to the final two rounds of the 2024 Six Nations campaign with much anticipation as his former side lines up what could well be the first consecutive Grand Slam in the history of the competition.

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Speaking exclusively to RugbyDump, the former Leinster man gave us an insight into the Irish rugby psyche at this time.

Discussing the initial fallout from Ireland’s devastating World Cup quarter-final exit, Heaslip explained:

World Cup Fallout

“For the first time ever we had a proper contender for the World Cup, that’s why people really bought into it.”

Pointing out the similarities between the run-up to England’s World Cup victory in 2003 and Ireland’s challenge in 2023, Heaslip said: “We beat New Zealand in their own backyard and we beat them consistently, then we beat South Africa and we beat all the tier one nations along that road.

“We ticked all the boxes along the way right over that four-year period from 2019 to 2023. There are all these different milestones that we hit and then we went up the rankings to world #1. Just prior to the World Cup we won the Grand Slam, and the team is humming and playing really nicely, that’s why there was disappointment come the World Cup because of the hype that was building around us.

“Even in my era of playing I don’t think you could say we were ‘genuine’ contenders for the World Cup. We were hopeful, and we were going OK, but I don’t know that we were genuine contenders.”

Detailing his belief that the 2023 side had learnt from previous mistakes to ensure they were a more rounded team, Heaslip added: “This team only know winning as such and it’s always gone according to plan, so that would have been a big [reality] check for them to deal with that loss. Some of them probably found it more difficult than others, but sport is sport – you can’t linger on that…and I don’t think they’re lingering on it at all, they very quickly flip the page.”

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Ireland now

“With those players it’s over, now it’s a different group, even our coaching staff is going to change. Andrew Goodman’s coming in, Mike Catt is stepping away and you’ve different players there as well. You’ve got a different captain, and that will probably even change over the next two years before it settles down on the two-year cycle run into the World Cup.

“They’re very focused on the here and now and it’s not a consolation prize. How many teams have gone back-to-back Grand Slam champions? That’s a huge achievement in itself.

“Ireland have only ever been back-to-back Six Nation’s champions once back in 2014/2015 and we needed a bit of luck in terms of how it dropped to points difference.

“To see the guys after three games have 15 points and a massive points difference shows the strength of this squad and the infrastructure that’s underneath in the Ireland system.

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“Everyone’s looking at them now but they’ve got to look at the 25 years of work put into that, and then you couple with the fact that they’ve got really good coaching staff around club and international scenes, and Andy’s ability to keep constantly tweaking and evolving.

“I think he’s a bit more aggressive this year” Heaslip continued about Andy Farrell,

“Traditionally he has gone 5/3 on the bench and he’s experimented twice now with a 6/2 split which I think shows that he’s evolving the side a little bit.

“The one thing that that that you know is consistent is change, and he’s showing he’s willing to change and be flexible with different approaches across the full spectrum.”

Johnny Sexton out, Jack Crowley in

The king has left his crown vacant as he steps down for his well-deserved rest. In his place, a young master ready to pick up the mantle of a regime fully in motion. Will Jack Crowley prove a worthy prince, or will he be proven not to be the rightful heir?

Jamie shares his view: “Hard who wears the crown. He’s definitely in pole position to carry this forward. He’s got a lot of people nipping at his heels and Jack is a very talented individual and an attacking threat in his own right. He seems to fit into the system, control the style of play very well and he has the jersey.

“60% of the battle is getting the jersey and then 40% is keeping it, and you keep it by obviously delivering performances, constantly learning and growing. He seems to be the type of character that’s very hungry.

“He’s got great players around him as well. He’s got Bundee [Aki], Gary [Ringrose], Robbie [Henshaw], Stuart McCloskey, really talented individuals outside. Inside he’s got Jamison Gibson-Park who is arguably in the top five scrum halves right now in international rugby in terms of the pace of the game.

“You’ve got Connor Murray who’s still there to bring the experience when needed and then he’s got a pack that is playing to their strengths.

“It is a really mobile ball-playing pack that can all play, and that’s the other part of Ireland’s strength that everyone can actually be a multi-threat player in terms of passing game, carrying game, offloading game and that puts him [Crowley] in a very good driving seat.”

Why this Irish side are ‘Furlongs’ above the rest

It’s common knowledge that the Ireland first-choice XV consists predominantly of Leinster players who play with each other week in and week out. But what difference does that really make on an international scale? Well, quite a lot if you look back at history.

In a game like rugby, team cohesion is arguably the most important aspect that any championship-winning side must have. You only need to look at the likes of the all-winning, all-celebrating Aussie side of the 90s – a team built up of just three club-level sides, all of which played with or against each other on the regular. Fast forward to the 2011/2015 All Black side full to the brim with Crusaders talent – need I say more?

Well, that’s exactly what’s setting Ireland apart according to Jamie: “There’s four professional clubs to feed into the national side, and there’s very good relationships between all the coaching staff in the various clubs and the national side.

“The IRFU essentially oversee all the clubs so it’s all very aligned so therefore there’s not a big gap in terms of cohesion needed to bring various different teams together. Which is different in France and different in England.

Weighing up both sides to an argument, Heaslip did add: “You could argue that in a World Cup that cohesive advantage is eroded away because everyone kind of gets the same time together.”

Facing England and Scotland

Ireland have two big challenges lying in the road leading to their never-before victory. The old rivals, England and Scotland. Once upon a time, the former of the two would have created the much trickier obstacle, but nowadays it’s the men from up north that will have the better chance of putting the men in green to the sword.

Claiming Ireland will not fear either side, Heaslip did however admit: “I think there’s more of a gap between Ireland and England than Ireland and Scotland. Scotland will be pushing hard because they’ve got a big challenge to catch up with us.”

Ireland will go into both matches as overwhelming favourites, but the former number 8 was dubious of England, in particular, providing much of a challenge.

“I think England probably have to come up with some sort of left field trick if I’m honest. I think they’re playing in a very methodical way and I personally don’t think it suits the players that he [Borthwick] has, so I think they probably have to think outside the box a little bit in terms of how they’re going to unpick the Ireland defence firstly, and then how they’re going to negate the speed at which Ireland play.”

The threat of Duhan van der Merve and Finn Russell

Asked how he felt about the rampaging winger that tore English hearts to pieces in the last round, the 40-year-old was in awe of Van der Merwe’s attacking prowess.

“It’s very easy for an Irishman to say we’re delighted to see England get beaten” Heaslip joked.

“He is incredible like, he’s an athlete, an absolute athlete and on go-forward ball he’s incredibly hard to stop. I personally have questions over his ability defensively, and his reads that he makes defensively, and sides can turn him or make him make big decisions and challenge that.

“But going forward the guy’s an animal, you can’t argue with the volume of tries that he’s scored. Stuart Hogg won’t be happy now because he’s probably going to pip him on tries – but he’s also got a magician at 10.

“We’ve all seen the capabilities of Finn [Russell] over the last few years. He can have serious highs, but he can have a bad day as well and I think he’s a lot more consistent and that’s bringing a level of consistency to Scotland.

“Finn is one of those players that can just provide a moment and he’s been more consistent with those moments. That shows a level of understanding of rugby that others just might not have, and he sees it from a very different point of view at times.

 “That’s a very powerful thing in terms of trying to unpick  a very consistent side, in Ireland, and you can be sure they’ll be targeting him and trying to shut down the time he has on the ball and the speed at which he gets the ball, so that Ireland’s defensive line can come off and shut it all down.”

When Scotland are faced with such an organized and tight defence in which Ireland maintain, there’s only really one way of disrupting the side according to Jamie, who claimed: “Ireland get caught out when the game gets a bit frantic and open.

“You’ve got a player in Finn who can get the ball to where the space is, and then if Van der Merwe is in that space you know 9 times out of 10 if he gets any sort of half break he’s gone.”

The predictions are in and it looks like it’ll be a second grand slam victory for Ireland, but sport is sport, the pressure of the crown can always topple a king.

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