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Ireland hope to call on 'fit and fresh Jamie Heaslip come the New Year'

The 95 Test veteran has not played since March due to a back problem.

Heaslip watches from the sidelines after his withdrawal from the clash with England.
Heaslip watches from the sidelines after his withdrawal from the clash with England.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THREE MISSING BACK rows at Ireland’s training session in Carton House yesterday left four men with a clear run at a matchday slot.

Though any combination of Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, CJ Stander and Rhys Ruddock will be plenty potent to tackle the Springboks, it’s still odd to list back row options without Jamie Heaslip.

The Kildare man was nigh-on unbreakable for 11 years and 95 Tests, but a setback on his back issue has further delayed a return that was initially expected early this season. Now, after a second operation, he will remain on the absent list while approaching his 34th birthday next month.

“You lose a huge amount of experience,” says Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby when asked about the absence of the veteran eight, who last played on 10 March when Ireland lost to Wales, before pulling out of the warm-up for the closing Six Nations match against England.

“You lose probably one of the most professional sportsmen that many of us would have worked with, certainly as a coach.

“He is incredibly dedicated. He has certain ways of doing things and that is to his massive advantage, in terms of getting himself right, in terms of his body. He knows what he needs to do to prepare himself to play big match for Leinster and for Ireland.”

Simon Easterby Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Back injuries by their nature are understandably difficult to put a recovery timeframe on. However, after going under the knife for a second time, Easterby is hopeful that Heaslip will be back in the mix come 2018.

“It is a big void to fill. What you lose in not having Jamie in, you gain from other guys having those experiences, trying to emulate some of the stuff that Jamie can do and has done for a long, long time.

We’re really hopeful that we’ll gain in experience and we’ll gain some valuable time with those players who are covering that eight position over that period. And then come the New Year we’ll have a fit and fresh Jamie Heaslip back, which would be great for us moving forward into the next couple of seasons for us.

“So I think he leaves a void, but there’s plenty of leadership that will step up in his place, but also it leaves an opportunity for others to step into that role and find their feet in the squad.”

In Heaslip’s absence, Stander is the best-qualified candidate to play in the number eight jersey despite Leinster’s use of O’Brien in that role at points this season.

Ian Keatley and Sean O'Brien Sean O'Brien makes his way to training with Ian Keatley. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The likely starters in the back row are just three of seven 2017 Lions forwards available to Easterby and Joe Schmidt. A return to green for Jack McGrath, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson is welcome heft when packing down against the Springboks.

“Guys that had those opportunities to travel to New Zealand and work with other players, with other coaches, we’re forever trying to find that little edge, that little 1 or 2% that can make us a better team, a better unit.

“Certainly from myself and Greg Feek’s perspective, it’s invaluable that they’ve been away and came back and there’s plenty that we can learn from those players who have had those experiences and they’re coming back into a squad.

“All of them are well used to the environment, well used to how we work, and that only serves to (push) the other players who were with us in the USA and Japan to step up to another level.”

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