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'It was a stupid thing, a rush of blood to the head really. I was so riled up'

From the low of being sent off in New Plymouth, to the career-high of Chicago in 2016, Jamie Heaslip has mixed memories of playing the All Blacks.

LOOK BACK ON Jamie Heaslip’s nine appearances against the All Blacks, and two moments stand out. One is the low point of his 95-cap international career, the other the ultimate high. He has mixed memories to say the least.

The former Ireland number eight had already played New Zealand twice — at Wellington and Croke Park — before Declan Kidney’s side toured there in 2010, at which stage Heaslip had firmly established himself in the back row. 

Sam Whitelock and Jamie Heaslip Heaslip charges through the tackle of Sam Whitelock in 2016. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Having tasted defeat on both previous occasions, Heaslip was ‘riled up’ for the opening Test of the tour in New Plymouth, one of his many remits that day to try and stop the influence Richie McCaw was having on the ground.

But in a rare flash of irresponsible indiscipline, Heaslip became just the second Irish player to be sent-off in a Test match — Willie Duggan in 1977 was the first — after kneeing the All Blacks captain, forcing Ireland to play with 14 men for 65 minutes of the game as they ultimately slumped to a then-record 66-28 defeat.

The Leinster back row was a the centre of an intense New Zealand media storm and after a disciplinary hearing, was handed a five-week ban for his actions.

“I’ve had to some great memories against New Zealand [laughs],” he says, recalling the incident.

“Yeah, jeez, imagine doing that nowadays? A scary thought. Yeah, it was a stupid thing. A rush of blood to the head really.

“It was a player…I let that be a reaction rather than an action and I’ve had very few reactions in my career like that. Kind of like an emotional reaction, because they’re unpredictable, they’re a bit dangerous.

You need to be on automatic pilot but that’s off the back of putting loads of work in and you can become quite deliberate with what you’re doing even though it’s split-second thinking. That was very much an emotional reaction. I was so riled up.

Heaslip was determined to prevent McCaw do what he did best.

“Richie is blessed in the dark arts of, you know, first 20 minutes if you get inside their 22, he had a very good knack of slowing that ball down and I had just had it in my head it wasn’t going to happen but the way I did it was just wrong.

“I paid the price and the team paid the price. I remember straight away when the lads came in after the game, I just remember going, before Deccie [Declan Kidney] or before anyone spoke, just kind of owning it. It was a lesson for me and not a very great moment in my career.

“In a weird way, I thanked CJ [Stander] when he got a red card against South Africa [in 2016] because I didn’t want to be the only Irish international getting a red card, so I was like ‘thanks CJ.’”

Heaslip returned to action in time for the All Blacks’ visit to Dublin later that year, but more painful experiences were to come in the form of four further defeats, including the heavy series whitewash in 2012.

And then Chicago.

“Aw man,” he smiles.

Jamie Heaslip celebrates winning Celebrating victory in Chicago. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The 34-year-old played the 80 minutes at Soldier Field, producing a typically relentless and whole-hearted display, finishing the game as captain following Rory Best’s withdrawal to see out Ireland’s most famous win.

His pick and switch for Robbie Henshaw’s try, however, will live long in the memory.

“The crowd. It is the crowd, to be honest,” Heaslip says. “It was great, they made a massive difference to us in that middle 20 [minutes] in that second where New Zealand did what New Zealand do.

“The crowd made so much difference to us. It’s funny though you go into the changing room and you have Joey Carberry who is like ‘yea I came on second half, beat the All Blacks. So what?’ and I was like ‘F**k you.’

“I’d played them nine or 10 times at that stage and was thinking you’ve no idea how hard it is to beat these guys.”

As it happened, Chicago would be one of Heaslip’s final games in green as a debilitating back injury forced him into early retirement, after 100 Test match caps — 95 for Ireland and five for the Lions.

Less than a year after officially hanging up his boots, he has been kept busy with a number of business ventures as well as media work with BT Sport and, most recently, Channel 4 by joining Ryle Nugent in the commentary box for Ireland’s November internationals.

“I always thought it was never really for me,” he admits. “I got asked if I would try doing the first Australia-Ireland game in June on Sky Sports. I said I would try it out, see what it was like.

“It was grand, it was fun. I really like it because I get to talk about rugby which I wouldn’t have done before in this forum, but I would have done in meetings and stuff.

What I am saying on TV is what I would have said when I was doing my own analysis. It is basically no filter bar a couple of expletives which are removed.

Heaslip will be part of Channel 4′s coverage for Saturday’s first-versus-second showdown at the Aviva Stadium, as Joe Schmidt’s Ireland bid to record a first win over the All Blacks on home soil.

The Ireland head coach will name his team later today, but Heaslip doesn’t envy the Kiwi’s selection dilemmas, particularly in the back row.

“A lot of Ireland’s momentum comes from their back-row trying to carry the way it is right now — New Zealand will be aware of that and try to shut that down,” he said.

“I mean, who do you pick? There’s an argument for everyone in that squad. I’m a massive Rhys Ruddock fan and what he brings to table. There is an argument for Tadhg Beirne who wasn’t even in the matchday squad [against Argentina].

“I felt so sorry to see Seanie [O'Brien] come off last week, with something that’s not even related to any other injury. But I’d say he’s really gutted because he has given someone else an opportunity to see what they can do with that jersey and that person just happens to be Dan Leavy, who is in great form and is getting better and better.

Jamie Heaslip with Ireland fans Heaslip was in Dublin for Vodafone's 'Wear Green for the Team of Us' campaign yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“That’s the danger, isn’t it? The bar just keeps going unless you push yourself others will just take it from you. Everyone wants a spot in this team, and everyone wants the team to do well. Everyone is just going to keep pushing that and pushing and pushing and pushing. If you stay still, you’ll get caught out.”

And a prediction?

“I’m actually glad they [New Zealand] won at Twickenham because I don’t remember the last time New Zealand lost back-to-back games so it’s kind of nice that we don’t have that stat to worry about.

“But I just think the squad that we have is even stronger than the squad we had two years ago and I just think as a stepping stone for putting ourselves in the right mind frame for winning the World Cup, this is a big step to take to be able to do that.” 

Vodafone, and former Irish rugby international Jamie Heaslip, are calling on Ireland fans to show their support for Irish rugby when they face New Zealand this Saturday and “Wear Green with the Team Of Us”. Fans travelling to the match are encouraged to pull out their Ireland jersey, green scarf, hats and flags and turn Aviva Stadium green.  Fans at home can also get involved by sharing a snap of themselves in green with #TeamOfUs on social to be in with a chance of winning one of 100 new Ireland rugby jerseys. We all belong to the #TeamOfUs.

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Ryan Bailey

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