THE MOOD AT the Irish team announcement was upbeat – the end is in sight but it is blocked by some hefty Italians.
An hour before the squad was rumbled with the news of Jonathan Sexton’s withdrawal, Heaslip accentuated the positives and insisted there are bright days ahead for Irish rugby.
Heaslip may have been overshadowed by France’s Louis Picamoles at the Aviva Stadium but he scored an excellent try, was part of effective mauling and lineout units and called penalty shots with authority.
The back row will the only area of the team’s line-up to have played all five games in the championship but, with Alessandro Zanni and Sergio Parisse on the horizon, the challenges do not get any easier.
“It’s another massive, very good, back row to go up against,” Heaslip told TheScore.ie.
“I haven’t played against Sergio yet this season but I’ve played against the others in the Rabo. Zanni is the one that stands out for me. He gets through a lot of work and combines quite well with Sergio and has caused [Leinster] a lot of problems with Treviso.”
The No. 8 feels Italy have ‘come on leaps and bounds’ since their sides were included in the RaboDirect Pro12 and has also highlighted outhalf Luciano Orquera as a dangerman.
Red zone, green zone
Italy served notice of their improvements with a win over France on the opening day of the championship. England edged them out at Twickenham last week but there was not much room to spare.
Heaslip said, “They hold onto the ball quite well in our red zone, their green zone [opposition 22], and put it through a lot of phases.
They are holding onto the ball for 10 and 12 phases and wearing teams down and getting a lot of rewards from it with penalties or grinding it out and getting mismatches on the edges.
As for Ireland, currently with a solitary win in the current campaign, the players, Heaslip feels, are not being clinical or ruthless enough when hard-earned chances arise.
He added, “I would love it, this weekend, if we came out all guns blazing, were clinical and take every opportunity that comes our way. Sometimes it doesn’t work that way and you have to grind it. Italy aren’t going to make things easy at all.”
Heaslip paid tribute to Brian O’Driscoll, the man he replaced as Ireland captain, before his 125th start in green.
“We were trying to work out how many professional games he has played,” he commented. “I’d say it’s surely knocking on the door of 300 at this stage. Impressive players, great squad guy, great guy and a fantastic player to have around the squad.”
The man who made the captaincy call is head coach Declan Kidney. Many supporters expect Saturday’s game to be his last in charge of the national side, irregardless of the result.
“The whole squad is 100% behind the management,” declared Heaslip. “The staff, the management, everyone here; we’re just focused on the game this week.”
As for the future of the older guard, he remarks, “No-one knows what is going to happen in the future. I don’t have a crystal ball with me unfortunately, otherwise I’d be making a lot of money at Cheltenham.”