JAMIE HEASLIP PLAYED the full 80 minutes of all three of Ireland’s November Tests, captaining the side against Samoa.
The 29-year-old is vice-captain for the team and rated as one of the most important players within the set up. He has won Heineken Cups, a Grand Slam and gone on two Lions tours. Despite clearly being an excellent rugby player, there are still doubters.
Much of the criticism of Heaslip in recent years has quite probably been based on his off the pitch activities, which is hard to understand. Rugby players should be judged on what they do during games, and Heaslip rarely lets his teams down in that regard.
We’ve taken a detailed look at Heaslip’s performance for Ireland against the All Blacks on Sunday to see exactly what he contributes to this Ireland team.
This is an area where Heaslip nearly always excels. The No. 8 is exceptionally fit and very often ends games as Ireland’s leading tackler. The clash against New Zealand was one of those occasions, as Heaslip completed 24 tackles.
He did make a poor start in terms of tackling, missing Aaron Cruden with his first attempt in the sixth minute and allowing the out-half to break Ireland’s line. It was a case of not getting his feet close enough to the All Black before attempting the tackle and that meant he couldn’t use his shoulder (below).
Thereafter, Heaslip’s defensive input was superb. He didn’t make too many dominant tackles [knocking attackers backwards] but the sheer number of them was hugely impressive. The majority were tackles around the upper body of the All Blacks forwards, wrestling them to ground.
There were also a number of low tackles around the ankles of the stronger ball carriers. Heaslip was noticeable in those closing minutes as Ireland tried in vain to keep the All Blacks out, particularly in how he was one of the few players to remain aggressive in terms of line speed.
The 29-year-old’s fitness certainly helped in that regard, and is generally one of the reasons he is so prominent in defence.
Heaslip made one clean steal at the breakdown against the All Blacks and contributed greatly to two other turnovers. The first of those occasions came in the ninth minute, when he bounced back onto his feet after making a tackle on Israel Dagg.
The arrow in the screen grab above signifies where the ruck would normally take place in an instance like this. You can see Dagg trying to present the ball from the position he’s been tackled by Heaslip, but in the meantime, the No. 8 has bounced back off the ground and driven over the ball.
Heaslip, circled at the bottom of the new ruck, has gone off his feet, but Nigel Owens doesn’t see it as deliberate and Ireland make the turnover. Even when Heaslip doesn’t manage to help Ireland make turnovers, he is a real nuisance at the breakdown in defence. He’s always looking to drag attackers in, or use his feet to slow the ball down [as below].
This may seem like a meaningless action, but it frustrates the opposition and slows their possession down slightly. In the example above, Heaslip had had an effort at turning over the ball with his hands, got driven off it and then competed with his feet. It slowed down good All Blacks possession and Ireland were able to re-organise in defence.
Heaslip made a clean steal in defence in the 55th minute, with the away team looking threatening. It demonstrated his ability to bounce off the deck once again, as he assisted in a tackle then went back for the ball.
It’s quite rare to see a clean turnover at the breakdown nowadays, with most attackers choosing to hang on and concede the penalty, so credit to Heaslip for this one [below].
Heaslip contributed to another of Ireland’s turnovers earlier in the game, when Gordon D’Arcy wrapped up Aaron Smith and the No. 8 piled into to create the choke tackle. This example again demonstrates Heaslip’s intelligence as a player.
As you can see in the screen grab below, Heaslip is grabbing and holding up players who aren’t even on the ball. He’s preventing any chance the All Blacks players have of bringing the choke tackle to the ground. It’s a simple thing again, but it helps.
There were a couple of other examples of Heaslip getting close to turnovers and frustrating the All Blacks at the breakdown when they were defending. The No. 8 was something of a thorn in the side for Steve Hansen’s men in this area.
Heaslip made a total of nine carries over the course of the afternoon for Ireland. He didn’t make a huge amount of yardage in those carries, but all of them created forward momentum for his team. One of the batons used to beat Heaslip in recent seasons has been his failure to stand out in this area for Ireland, but it’s a nonsensical argument.
The majority of the ball carrying Heaslip does for Ireland is in positions like that above, close in to the rucks. It’s difficult to make line-breaks and bounce defenders off in here, simply due to the build up of bodies in front of him.
Some critics wonder why Heaslip is less visible than someone like Sean O’Brien in attack, but the No. 8 has a different role. One aspect of his duties is to maintain width for Ireland after set pieces. He is often off camera, keeping defenders occupied by holding wide positions.
It’s a thankless task and there is strong temptation to abandon it and head into the ruck area for a slice of the action. Kieran Read performs a similar role for New Zealand – holding width – but the difference is that the All Blacks move the ball out to him regularly, whereas Ireland haven’t played with width in recent years.
Against Samoa and Australia, Ireland used O’Brien to hit the ball up in midfield on first phase after line-outs, but it was Heaslip who stepped into that role twice against the All Blacks. It’s a promising development, particularly as it may eventually free up the flanker to carry the ball in later phases, when he excels.
Heaslip is one of the top ruck specialists for Ireland, and many of the defensive strengths we highlighted above are useful in attack too. Against the All Blacks, the 29-year-old was involved in 16 attacking rucks.
Only one of those involvements was negative, coming after just 35 seconds when Heaslip was slow to the ruck and allowed Wyatt Crockett to make a turnover. That apart, the No. 8 was effective. Quite a few of his attacking rucks involved acting as guard, where he simply provided protection over the ball, but there were five excellent clear outs of opposition defenders too.
Heaslip is usually very quick to recognise any threats of a turnover against Ireland and remove the offending player. The example above highlights one of those occasions against the All Blacks. Ma’a Nonu is having an effort to steal the ball, but Heaslip is swift to remove him and Ireland retain possession.
Even when Heaslip is acting as a guard in the ruck, he is clever at involving defenders around the fringes. The screen grab below shows a typical example, where the No. 8 is dragging Cory Jane into the ruck. Again, it’s a simple thing, seemingly meaningless, but it means that Jane is slightly delayed at getting back into the defensive line.
Heaslip was obviously involved in every single scrum in the game from his position at No. 8. He is skillful in controlling the ball at the base of the scrum and he made two pop passes to Conor Murray from that position against the All Blacks.
The Leinster man made only one catch at the line-out against New Zealand, popping the ball off the top after a clean take at the front of the line-out. He made a single lift in the entire game, on Paul O’Connell in defence, but it didn’t lead to a steal.
It may not have been spectacular from Heaslip against the All Blacks, but that is not his role for Ireland now. Instead, he was as doggedly effective as ever in contributing to one of Ireland’s best performances in recent times.