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Dublin: 8 °C Tuesday 22 October, 2019
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Heaslip the hero but Murray and O'Brien desperately unlucky to miss Lions cut

The Ireland captain has gone from an original squad outsider to Warren Gatland’s first choice at the back of the pack.

Lions captain Sam Warburton with Jamie Heaslip.
Lions captain Sam Warburton with Jamie Heaslip.
Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

JAMIE HEASLIP INSISTS he has not read the sports pages of newspapers or websites since his breakthrough with the Irish team in 2006. If someone who knows him is reading this, pass on our congratulations.

It has been a long eight months since Heaslip was shopping in Tesco for a engagement card and he got a call from then-Ireland coach Declan Kidney to tell him he would be leading his country against South Africa. Temporary became permanent in January as Heaslip’s yellow card against the Springboks was washed away by a free-flowing win over Argentina.

Victory over Six Nations champs Wales followed but the good news train was derailed by Owen Farrell and England a week later and by the end of his first campaign as Ireland captain he was already getting the ’100% backing’ of his coach. He returned the favour but Kidney did not last much longer.

Wales’ Toby Faletau, on the back of another Six Nations win, was the favourite to start for the Lions against Australia. Heaslip faced competition to make the squad from Johnnie Beattie, Tom Wood and versatile Irish teammates Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony. He needed to up his game and he did.

The 29-year-old scored four tries in Leinster’s six final games, including a score in the Pro12 Final and a double against Biarritz three days before Warren Gatland named his squad. He was nominated for ERC Player of the Year – losing out to Jonny Wilkinson – and carried his form onto the Lions Tour. Captain Sam Warburton will look to take most of the dirty work against Australia, freeing Heaslip to do damage in the loose.

Toby Faletau and Sean O’Brien will be spectators on Saturday. (©INPHO/Dan Sheridan)

It would have been just as simple to write a glowing piece on Sean O’Brien and how he deserved his start in the back row against the Wallabies. Unfortunately for the Carlow native, he will join fellow back-rowers Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau in the Suncorp Stadium stands on Saturday. That trio could well have started against Australia and done a job.

The other Irish Lion that must have been expectant rather than hopeful of selection is Conor Murray but his cameo against the Brumbies was ordinary. Still, he made a fantastic start to the tour and looked, for all money, to be Mike Philips able deputy when he tore the BaaBaa’s apart in Hong Kong.

Simon Zebo is unfortunate to lose out to Sean Maitland as backline cover as one looked lively and created a buzz when he faced the Waratahs while the other was exposed in defence. Maitland’s Kiwi upbringing means he is a useful, and confident, jack of all trades.

The Kiwi-Scot keeps Rob Kearney off the bench too but the fullback will surely be in the mix for the second and third Tests. Rory Best may have to settle for righting his lineout wrongs against Melbourne Rebels in the final midweek match.

As for the other three Irish starters, Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Jonny Sexton have all endured rollercoaster, injury-hit seasons but their undoubted class has shone through and the Lions coaching staff have full faith in their abilities, and winning mentalities.

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Patrick McCarry

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