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Jamie Heaslip is pictured at the unveiling of Aviva’s new Sensory Hub in Aviva Stadium.
Jamie Heaslip is pictured at the unveiling of Aviva’s new Sensory Hub in Aviva Stadium.
Image: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

'Johnny's at the right stage in life to be the main man, the captain, the leader'

Jamie Heaslip on why Johnny Sexton was the right choice as Ireland captain, and the challenges facing Andy Farrell.
Jan 30th 2020, 7:00 AM 5,255 23

JAMIE HEASLIP BELIEVES Johnny Sexton was the right choice to succeed Rory Best as Ireland captain, and has said the added responsibility represents ‘a really good step’ in the out-half’s evolution.

With Best retiring after last year’s Rugby World Cup, Sexton won the battle to succeed the Ulster hooker as captain ahead of a number of teammates, with Peter O’Mahony and 23-year-old James Ryan also touted as possible candidates.

However Heaslip, who retired from rugby in 2018, says new Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has chosen wisely.

“It’s not the first time as captain for Johnny because he’s captain of Leinster [since 2018]. At national level, he’s pretty much been the captain for the last two years, in my book,” Heaslip said.

“Any team that I’ve been on teams with Johnny, even if he’s not captain, he’ll still let his point of view be known. 

“He has to do because he’s in the driving seat. As a 10, he’s the quarterback, he’s directing the team, he’s the one on the field calling the plays, essentially. He’s the one trying to read the game and move the ball around, read the opposition. Other players will be feeding into it but he’s the one in the driving seat. 

“I think it’s a really good evolution step for him as a player. I think he’s at that right age and stage of experience in the game and life experience to be the main man, be the captain, be the leader.”

Heaslip also believes Farrell’s promotion to head coach will result in a natural evolution of Ireland’s gameplan, something which came in for heavy criticism at the latter stages of Joe Schmidt’s tenure.

“You’ll naturally get it, it’s a different coach. You’ve got Mike Catt [assistant coach] in there as well. The other change is Fogs [John Fogarty] coming in [as scrum coach] who has been excellent. Even in my time in Leinster, he got better and better and better. I know the guys speak quite highly of him. It’s great to see him in there. 

jonathan-sexton-with-jamie-heaslip Johnny Sexton and Jamie Heaslip during an Ireland training session in 2012. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Mike has come from that outside perspective. You have Andy who has been in the Irish set-up for the last couple of years. He’ll get the lay of the land and know the different dynamics and stuff. His dynamic, relationship with players will obviously change now that he’s head coach.

“Then you have Mike coming in from the cold. He will have an outside perspective on this while Andy might have had that outside perspective, but he’s been on the inside for a while now. It’s really good to have that outside perspective, seeing faults in Ireland’s game, seeing the threats in Ireland’s game that none of us really see because we’re seeing it through green-tinted glasses.  

“The only thing I can really relate it to is when Stuart came into Leinster and just completely evolved their play but built on the foundation of Michael Cheika, Joe Schmidt.

“I’m excited to see if they do evolve that and push it on and how they add to it. ”

And while Heaslip expects Farrell to bring Ireland’s style of play forward, he anticipates it being a slow process given the short amount of time Farrell has had to work with his players.

“If we’re looking at the now, the reality is that we’ve a new head coach and he got his hands on them for the first time in December, for a day. They had a week in Portugal, and this week as well. There’s obviously a fresh start. 

“There will be a new energy, there always is with a new head coach.

“That dynamic [Farrell has had with the players] will change. He will have had this relationship with a player where he wasn’t the guy making the final call. He will have different talking points and information relationship with players. I’m not saying that’s going to change completely but I do think that it will change. He’ll have to put his slant on it. He’s authentic, he’s been there, he’s done that and worn the t-shirt as a player in two codes. That’s really rare where you get a head coach of his level, his calibre that has done both. I think players will be taking his message on board.

“It’s advantageous to him because he’s been on the other side of getting picked or not getting picked; understands the media dynamic as a player, as an assistant coach, and now as a head coach.  

“Having worked with Andy, I’m really excited to see what happens now with this national team.”

Ireland head into Saturday’s Six Nations opener against Scotland looking to shake off the disappointment of another World Cup quarter-final exit.

andy-farrell Ireland head coach Andy Farrell. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The manner of Ireland’s performances in Japan sparked some debate about how Ireland manage the four-year cycle between World Cups, and Heaslip – who won 95 caps for Ireland – admits he would like to see a change in approach.

“People have asked me about what is success for this team right now, as in the Six Nations, and I’m kind of like, look, we’ve shown we can win the Six Nations, and it is very easy for me to say that and us to go out and not win a Six Nations [this year].

“If we went out, and won no Six Nations between now and the World Cup, and won the World Cup, all would be forgiven, right? You can’t plan for that,” he added.

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“But I think we have to plan for that World Cup [in 2023], and winning it, but you have to take a step back then, and you probably have to take it in two-year chunks, potentially.

“So now you’ve got to look at… ‘We’ve got this group of players for two years, we’re going to evolve this group of players and evolve the players who I think are going to be in the two-year cycle coming into the World Cup.’  

“When it comes to the captaincy for example, people were saying, ‘You should have a captain from now until the next World Cup’… I don’t believe so. I think you should probably have the guy who is going to be there for the next two years and then reassess it.

“Is he going to be there for the next two years? Is he going to be the starting guy? And you do that throughout each position. 

“If you look at South Africa, New Zealand, England, that’s what they did in the last cycle.

“Two years, 18 months out, they change it up, got rid of players they didn’t think were going to do a job for them in 18 months, brought in players some people had never heard of 18 months out – even closer in New Zealand’s case… 

“You still have to plan for it, but take a step out.”

Jamie Heaslip was speaking at the launch of the Aviva Sensory Hub, Aviva’s latest initiative to make Aviva Stadium a more inclusive space. For more information  follow Aviva on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook using #SafeToDream or  visit www.aviva.ie/sensoryhub

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Ciarán Kennedy

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