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IRELAND: Heaslip bridges the gap

Declan Kidney's account of the process which led to Jamie Heaslip's appointment as Ireland captain in the autumn could almost have been interpreted as indicating that the Leinster No 8 was the last man standing.

Hard-running, tough tackling Jamie Heaslip holds off the All Blacks   Photograph: Getty
Hard-running, tough tackling Jamie Heaslip holds off the All Blacks Photograph: Getty

"I'll probably get the order wrong but it was something like... on Friday night Rory [Best] was out... all right we'll deal with that; then on Monday or Tuesday Brian [O'Driscoll] was out; all right, let's see if we can work our way around that; then Paul [O'Connell] was out on Thursday and we were saying, OK what are we going to do now?" the Ireland coach said.

The truth, you suspect, is that with the peerless O'Driscoll dropping heavy hints that this will be his last international season and with fellow British and Irish Lions captain O'Connell's body now starting to give way to the stresses and strains of more than a decade at the top, Kidney was already looking to the longer term.

With the national team having been led by such authoritative figures for such a long period, it seems far from an accident that a different tone is being struck by an individual who is in his 30th year, but carries the demeanour of a man-child.

Heaslip has made his name as a hard-running, tough-tackling back-row forward, but bubbling enthusiasm rather than intimidating presence would seem to have been what got him the nod as he indicated when explaining how he had been told he was in charge.

"I kinda ramble on about anything as you know, but Deccy had to tell me to shut up because he had something he wanted to talk to me about and I was rambling so much, probably out of nervousness," he said. "I know I had a taste of it in November, but this is the Six Nations that we've all grown up with and I'm kinda giddy now even thinking about it."

Having led Leinster previously when the province's captain Leo Cullen and O'Driscoll have been absent, Heaslip suffered his first professional defeat as a captain in Ireland's autumn Test opener when they failed to hold on to a half-time lead over South Africa.

Kidney recognised that as having been largely down to the team's inexperience, and was excited by their response a fortnight later when inflicting a rare hiding on an Argentina side who had just beaten Wales. That probably explains why, even with O'Driscoll now restored to fitness, the coach seems to have calculated that he can get the best of both worlds by having Heaslip's almost gauche freshness as a foil for the worldly know-how of his Leinster team-mate.

The new captain meanwhile dismisses any risk of being undermined.

"It didn't cross my mind because at Leinster I've captained the side before when Brian has been on the pitch," he said. "He's not any different in that situation. He's the same player, the same professional team-mate I've had with the Lions and with Leinster. He doesn't talk any more or any less, his standards at training are the exact same. He's such a fantastic pro that I know I can lean on him for experience."

The same, he says, applies to the likes of O'Connell, Best and others in an Ireland squad that, as Heaslip pointed out, has a range of players from future superstars with cap hauls still in single figures, such as Simon Zebo (3), Craig Gilroy (1) and Chris Henry (4), to five of Ireland's 20 most capped players – Ronan O'Gara (126), O'Driscoll (120), Donncha O'Callaghan (90), Gordon D'Arcy (71) and Best (62).

To that end a combination of Heaslip's personality and his own vast experience which includes 52 caps, a Lions tour on which he played all three Tests four years ago and three Heineken Cup wins, may make him the perfect man to bridge the generation gap.

Whether that will translate to this summer's Lions tour remains to be seen, though he has been cited by Warren Gatland, this year's Lions coach, as a captaincy candidate.

"I heard that," Heaslip said. " I was telling Deccy about and I was surprised because Gatty used to be coach of Connacht and my brother was captain at the time. I was pretty young and Gatty probably hated me for kicking him in the shins and asking 20 questions about rugby as a young fella. So I found it ironic that he mentioned me."

Too immature or a breath of fresh air, then? As with so many other Lions considerations, the next six weeks will almost certainly tell us.

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