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'I think Jack Conan is the best eight in the country right now'

Former Ireland international Jamie Heaslip feels his ex-Leinster team-mate deserves his shot.

JAMIE HEASLIP DOESN’T have much doubt about who he would be starting at number eight if he was in charge of Ireland.

But for injury ending his career early, the 35-year-old might still have been in the mix for Joe Schmidt’s side ahead of the upcoming World Cup but the debate at number eight is now focused on two names: CJ Stander and Jack Conan.

jack-conan Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Stander is the incumbent, a first-choice starter essentially since Heaslip suffered a back injury in the warm-up before the England game in the 2017 Six Nations.

Having started his Test career as Ireland’s blindside flanker, Stander shifted to his more natural position at the back of the scrum and has helped Schmidt’s side to some huge successes since. Stander has certainly earned Schmidt’s loyalty, while he is also part of Ireland’s leadership group.

However, Conan’s form with Leinster over the past two seasons has made him hard to ignore and though Schmidt initially seemed to have reservations about the 27-year-old’s game, he has worked hard to make himself a more complete player.

Having made three appearances during this year’s Six Nations, one of them a start against Scotland, Conan is firmly in Schmidt’s thoughts.

Dropping Stander from his first-choice team would be a big move for Schmidt this close to the World Cup, but Conan is set to have the opportunity to press his case against Wales in Cardiff this weekend, when he is expected to start at number eight.

For Heaslip, the issue is already beyond doubt.

“I think Jack Conan is the best eight in the country right now,” said Heaslip yesterday at a Land Rover event.

“I think he has a lot of variety to his game. Take his athletic ability – he’s a big boy, he’s lean, it’s not bad weight, he’s really strong and not just his upper body. We’ve all seen his fend and his upper-body strength but he’s powerful, he drives through contact.

“But then also for a big man, he’s got great agility. His acceleration is really good and his ability to move with such grace and balance, and also keep the ball available and look for that offload is a real string to his bow. He has shown that over the last two years.

land-rover-rugby-world-cup-2019 Jamie Heaslip is a Land Rover ambassador. Source: Photocall Ireland

“I actually saw his skills when I was playing and tried to learn a lot of his skills and vice versa, he pushed me and I pushed him. I was always really impressed with how he keeps that ball available all the time and is always looking to move it around.

“Defensively, I think he’s an aggressive defender and he makes really good reads and commits to those reads. An aggressive system suits Jack because he’s decisive, he makes big hits and he’s got the speed to catch you on the ball.

“Personally, that’s why I think he’s the best number eight in Ireland but I’m not the one picking the team and there are other factors that come into it. I’m not in camp, I don’t know how he’s training and that’s a big role.

“You can’t just be the guy that turns it on for game day because if you’re not putting in the work – day in, day out – and training well, the coaches see all that. We don’t see all that and coaches want to know what they’re getting.

“I’m not saying Jack’s a bad trainer or anything like that, but we’re not seeing the whole picture.”

Indeed, no one has a more complete picture of all factors than Schmidt, who will examine Conan’s performance in the final World Cup warm-ups games with close interest. 

Twice in the Six Nations, Conan came off the bench at number eight, with Stander shifting to openside flanker, so they could even play together at the World Cup.

On a more collective basis, Schmidt will be keen to see his Ireland team bounce back strongly from their heavy defeat to England last weekend with a convincing outing against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday.

Heaslip certainly isn’t panicking about Ireland’s World Cup prospects based on the hammering from England, with so many of Schmidt’s team having made their first appearances of the season at Twickenham.

devin-toner-dejected Heaslip is not writing Ireland off based on one game. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“The first game, no matter how much fitness you do, you’re blowing out your ass and you make mistakes you don’t normally make,” said Heaslip.

“You’re reactive with things in most cases, rather than proactive. I always think it takes about two games to get match fit, so what you saw at the weekend was the majority of guys not being up to match speed.

“Look, I’ll caveat that by saying there were a lot of errors that were not like a team that Joe Schmidt coaches, a lot of basic errors that he will be focusing on more so than lads being knackered. It just seemed like a lot of guys were standing around, not looking to do the job that needed to be done in front of them but sometimes waiting to do the nicer job.

“But Ireland have beaten every ‘Tier 1′ nation since the last World Cup, they’ve won a Grand Slam and achieved things that most Irish players have not achieved. At club level, the players have been going well.

“You don’t turn into a bad team overnight. I don’t think they’re on a downward trend, I think they’ll be good. You can read too much into the England game but, at the same time, these two Wales games are important in showing us what they’re about.”

Land Rover is the official Worldwide Partner of Rugby World Cup 2019. With over 20 years of heritage supporting rugby at all levels, Land Rover is celebrating what makes rugby, rugby. #LandRoverRugby

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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