Six Nations 2009, Ireland Vs France, Jamie Heaslip scores a vital try.
Rapid, powerful, talented. Heaslip epitomized Declan Kidney’s Grand Slam winning team.
I think Ireland were on a different level back then and I would have similar feelings about Jamie Heaslip.
Ireland Vs France 2017, Ireland win and Heaslip has had what is considered to be one of his best games in quite a while. In the eight years that have passed, you can see the improvement of his intelligence around the park, but in terms of impacts, the 33 year old has set out a far lower standard for himself. Is that because his ever presence has taken a toll on his body? He prides himself of his “wolverine blood” and that he’s “like Benjamin Button, getting younger” but his carrying ability has certainly waned – whether playing through the pain barrier, feeling his age or otherwise.
I will be taking a closer look at the mechanics behind what is considered a top-end Jamie Heaslip performance in 2017 and conclude whether it’s enough to warrant a starting position in the Irish team.
When describing Heaslip’s offerings, people will usually refer to his ‘unseen work’ but now we’re going to dust that off and put his less applauded contributions under the microscope – ranging from important tackles to soft passes.
Within the first ten minutes, the two time British and Irish Lion had already made a couple of important covering tackles.
Heaslip isn’t making big hits on his opposite numbers as most backrowers might, but is instead playing a crucial role in covering for his teammate’s mistakes. A safety blanket.
On the left-hand side, you can see Heaslip making a dart back from the centre of the picture to – not the direction of where Baptiste Serin is running with ball in hand – but to the area where he anticipates the Frenchman will look to exploit. In doing so, Heaslip denies a potential try before disrupting good possession by slapping the ball away in an act of elite awareness, if not cynicism.
The tackle on the right, further underlines his worth as a covering defender.
Heaslip has also been used as a decoy carrier/playmaker in attack. This for me, is his best role. With supreme ball carriers in the side such as Tadhg Furlong, CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien, Ireland can afford to nominate a player to take this Brodie Retallick-like role. Heaslip for me, fits the bill perfectly as probably Ireland’s most skillful and intelligent forward. As I’ll come to below, his carrying from the point of contact is making minimal yards but by making this tactic a regular fixture, Joe Schmidt could well get the best out of Jamie Heaslip and Ireland.
Unfortunately if you’re looking for effective play at the ruck, I can’t sell him to you. He didn’t hit a huge amount of rucks and the ones he did (above), he didn’t exactly clean them with any domination.
You talk about physiological boosts in games and you see CJ Stander barging over a guy in the third clip above. That kind of moment is crucial. Heaslip just doesn’t offer you that power; whether in his tackling, rucking or ball carrying. Yes, he has nice touches and saved Ireland from some dangerous French attacks, but is that enough to classify as a world class number eight?
No doubt, he’s a remarkably secure player, who generally doesn’t make mistakes but he’s not winning those physical battles. On the subject of tackling, he makes two of them in the space of 30 seconds above which says all you need to know about his concentration and awareness. It’s understandable why his post-match statistics often impress when you look at phases like the one above, but the search for a spark of aggression continues. Heaslip’s tackle technique is perfect for getting a man down, but he hasn’t shown any ambition in knocking attackers back behind the gainline for seasons now.
Indeed, when it comes to physical duties, the same mindset translates across a number of aspects of Jamie’s game – he does all of his jobs (15 tackles, 17 carries) just not any particular verve.
On conclusion, it’s pretty clear that he isn’t the best carrying or rucking number eight you will find. He makes all of his tackles but they’re more often than not assisted, or side-on. He has sweet hands and an excellent understanding of this surroundings, but he’s not having significant impacts in games – at least in his current role.
If Joe Schmidt wants his eight to make 13 carries into contact over 80 minutes (as was the case on Saturday), CJ Stander is your man, not Jamie Heaslip. But if he wants to adjust the role of his eight then I strongly believe Heaslip can compliment the likes of Stander and O’Brien by taking up a playmaker role.
On Munster Haka we’ve been critical of Heaslip for ages now because at eight he isn’t ploughing into people in contact situations. Maybe he’s lost his aggression or his body just isn’t up to it anymore but under Schmidt’s instructions he isn’t delivering very often. Brian O’Driscoll adapted his game in later years to become more of a playmaker than a sprinter and Heaslip should be told to follow suit.
Until then, yes I still think a backrow of O’Mahony, O’Brien and Stander is the best option for Ireland. O’Mahony effectively preferred over Heaslip because he hits those rucks with more meaning and offers those mental boosts by winning vital turnover penalties.
On the other hand, the sooner we accept that Heaslip and Stander will never directly compare the better.
It should be horses for courses. Right now, Schmidt is taking a direct one.