During a comfortable win over Wales, Jamie Heaslip put in an exceptional display that underlined his importance to Ireland's Rugby World Cup campaign.
The list of honours compiled by Jamie Heaslip reads like a comprehensive catalogue. Now over a decade into his professional career, the 31 year-old No 8 boasts three Pro12 titles with Leinster as well as a trio of Heineken Cups and the 2013 Challenge Cup.
At international level there is another distinguished treble. Heaslip can reflect on three Six Nations victories with Ireland including a Grand Slam in 2009. That summer saw his first British and Irish Lions tour, four years before he headed to Australia and helped secure a series success over the Wallabies.
On Saturday in Cardiff, one of Joe Schmidt‘s central henchmen seemed eager on adding a Rugby World Cup to his glittering horde. Against an undercooked and inexperienced Wales, Heaslip – handed the captaincy in Paul O’Connell‘s absence – personified an Ireland performance of vastly superior accuracy and intelligence.
Here is a run-down of how he bossed the warm-up match before heading to the bench on 54 minutes.
A rock-solid set-piece platform would have been just one encouraging aspect Schmidt took away from the Millennium Stadium. Watch Heaslip rise to take this early lineout from Richardt Strauss:
Quick ball off the top of a line out usually provides a great attacking opportunity, and so it proves here as Darren Cave careers over the gain-line.
Generally, a throw to the middle or to the tail is needed to manufacture this situation. However, Heaslip’s slick transfer infield to scrum-half Eoin Reddan means Ireland can manoeuvre a midfield carry from a low-risk throw to the front:
Wales are probably expecting a maul after Heaslip’s take, but a rapid transfer means Paddy Jackson has plenty of time on receiving the ball:
Of course, Ireland can exercise another option with a short throw to Heaslip. Their lineout maul was devastating during the Six Nations, and looked very strong in this match too:
Heaslip’s take enables a robust, structured drive that finishes up well over the Wales 22:
At the scrum, where Ireland really dominated, Heaslip’s expertise at the base helped reinforce his side’s superiority.
In this instance, as a shove from the men in green splinters Wales, Heaslip calmly controls the ball:
Referee Glen Jackson orders a re-set and the hosts hold firmer this time:
Heaslip still has an important role. Look at his left foot slip back to block Mike Phillips as Reddan clears the ball:
This is the sort of subtle intervention that defines Heaslip. And there were plenty more across his display.
An athletic specimen weighing 110 kilograms, you would expect Heaslip to win plenty of collisions. Indeed, he steam-rollered James Hook early on:
This seems like a brutish, route one play. If we take a closer look though, we can see how Ireland seek out fly-half Hook in the defensive line with a flat pass from Jackson:
The result was quick ruck ball. Not long afterwards, Wales were stretched to breaking point.
Heaslip was the scorer. Fittingly, he had a say in the turnover that led to the try as well:
The No 8 dives on the ball as Scott Williams spills…
…before slicing over a couple of phases later:
Rewinding slightly, it is telling to track Heaslip as Jackson darts onto the blindside:
Trusting his colleagues to resource the ruck, he curves left around the corner and calls for Fergus McFadden to stay wide in order outflank Justin Tipuric – the only Wales defender to remain on the right-hand side of the breakdown:
Tipuric must step in to cover the trio of forwards following Heaslip around the corner and Reddan’s pass produces an easy walk-in:
Support and decision-making
For all the noise Wales have made about their gruesome fitness schedule, it was Ireland who appeared livelier. Heaslip epitomised that. This break was perhaps his most eye-catching moment:
Full-back Felix Jones sparks everything by waltzing through a non-existent Wales kick-chase, but Heaslip demonstrates his awareness very quickly.
He begins sprinting even before Jones goes past him, pre-empting the Munsterman’s path and supporting accordingly:
Such anticipation is matched by composure. After receiving the ball and sprinting into the open, it would be easy for Heaslip to panic. Instead, he clocks that Wales have scrambled well…
…and takes the ball into contact rather than releasing a low-percentage pass. The upshot, with Heaslip’s textbook ball presentation, is continuity:
Heaslip never stopped working and never stopped thinking. Follow his path once more during this attack:
After taking a line out at the front and feeding Reddan – as highlighted earlier in this piece – Heaslip sweeps round to join the attack. He offers himself as an option off Jackson’s left shoulder…
…then, unperturbed as the fly-half selects another runner, attends the ruck to help retain possession:
Wales were generally outplayed around the breakdown – as we will get onto later. Even so, they made life difficult for Reddan here…until Heaslip intervened:
Taking this short sequence step-by-step, we can see that Tipuric is causing trouble as Heaslip moves away from the previous ruck:
Attempting to move the ball away from the danger zone as quickly as possible, Heaslip picks the ball up and trundles narrow to the breakdown:
He beats guard Richard Hibbard…
…and more fine ball presentation keeps the phase-play going:
Tipuric has carved a deserved reputation as a breakdown menace for the Ospreys. That said, Ireland shut him down on Saturday.
Moving onto the less glamorous aspects of Heaslip’s shift, we begin with a canny block on the Wales openside:
As debutant Ross Moriarty spills in contact, the ball is up for grabs. Heaslip and Tipuric converge:
Although the ball bounces clear of them, the Irishman continues on his path, blocking his rival…
…so Donnacha Ryan can spin it out:
These are the one-percenters that Schmidt relishes. The Kiwi coach is meticulous, so he would have loved this tackle on Dan Baker from a lost restart:
Wrapping up his opposite man, Heaslip stops any chance of an offload:
Falling on the Welsh side of the ruck, he makes it impossible for Wales to recycle quickly…
…before rolling away just early enough not to concede a penalty:
This approach did not always come off. Heaslip shipped a penalty just after half-time for something very similar following a tackle on Taulupe Faletau:
However, he made up for it minutes later with this hit on Hallam Amos to cap off a dogged kick-chase:
Put onside by provincial ally McFadden, Heaslip charges upfield with his head down…
…and makes contact on Amos with his shoulder, driving the legs through:
Clear-out and counter
The underrated Jordi Murphy enjoyed another industrious shift, but Heaslip also added massive graft and precision to Ireland’s breakdown performance either side of the ball.
To illustrate this point, we will look at two rucks. At this first one, a trademark spot-hit from Hibbard has put the visitors under pressure:
As the Wales hooker fells Tommy O’Donnell, there is a sniff of a turnover. Aaron Jarvis hones in on the tackle area as Heaslip realises he must react:
Jarvis is closer and wins the race to the ball, but Heaslip gets into a strong position…
…and dumps the tighthead behind the breakdown:
Though Ireland were stopped behind the gain-line, they retain possession. Wales had a tougher time finding fluidity, thanks largely to moments such as this:
The best pests are opportunistic. Hovering on the blindside, Heaslip realises that only wing Eli Walker is protecting the ball:
He powers through in a counter-ruck amid the presence of Tipuric and gets a boot to the ball, forcing it into touch:
Heaslip proved a thorn in Warren Gatland’s side until he left the field.
Link man supreme
Special players often elevate those around them. Heaslip is certainly a facilitator is this regard. A delicious inside pass here sent Strauss into a scurrying break:
Heaslip dextriously punishes Hibbard for getting disconnected and creating a dogleg:
Another well-judged pass fed Mike Ross after Heaslip had confounded Wales at another ruck:
Pouncing when he sees the ball has rolled out of the ruck – and benefitting from a marginal Jackson call, it must be said – Heaslip pumps his legs through the tackle of Lloyd Williams. He only releases Ross when it is certain the pass is on:
Heaslip left the field on the back of this try from Jones:
Typically, he had an under-the-radar responsibility. By running at the line and offering himself to Simon Zebo, he ties in Tyler Morgan.
That way, the long miss-pass finds its target unmarked:
Heaslip was effervescent and diligent. O’Connell and Jonathan Sexton are widely regarded as the indispensable figures in the Ireland set-up. Their No 8 is extremely close to that bracket too.