Opinion & Analysis: We Need To Talk About Jamie Heaslip

Earlier this month Tony Ward wrote a piece for the Irish Independent where he commented that there was a case to be made for dropping Jamie Heaslip in the wake of our loss to Scotland in Murrayfield.

Tony argued that moving CJ Stander to No.8 would provide much more explosiveness which in turn would create forward momentum for Ireland and maybe move Heaslip to blindside flanker. All Heaslip has ever known is how to play No.8 so failing him adapting to this position, move Peter O’Mahony or Josh Van Der Flier into 6, both of whom are far more adept to this position.

When discussing Heaslip, there are generally two trains of thought. One strand argues that Heaslip is too lethargic and doesn’t do enough work around the pitch for a No.8. The opposing strand argues that Heaslip’s work-rate is without question and his acuteness off the ball, to the untrained eye, often goes unseen and under-appreciated.

In Ireland’s most exciting phase of the game, Heaslip provides a sublime offload and seconds later is there to offer himself as runner again before making a vital clear out on Eddy Ben Arous.

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear, Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander are both very different players who operate in completely separate fashions. They share the same position at club level but that’s where the similarity ends. Yet the comparison between the two keeps reappearing. I believe that you could make a more compelling argument to compare Stander with O’Brien and Heaslip with O’Mahony, but that’s a discussion for another day.

In fact, overhearing a recent Second Captains podcast, the question was raised as to whether Heaslip would even make it into any of the other Six Nations squads as No.8. Whilst Heaslip doesn’t have the ball-carrying dynamism as the likes of Stander, Billy Vunipola or Picamoles, Heaslip’s greatest attribute is undoubtedly his rugby intelligence. There is a reason why he’s known as ‘The Bionic Man’; it’s because he picks his moments very carefully and he rarely if ever get’s injured.

Heaslip effectively renders Baptiste Serin useless for the following phase of play, allowing Murray to scramble over.

He knows when to carry, when to run assist lines, when to hit rucks, and when to stop for a second and assess the situation in front of him. He even has the touch of the Richie McCaw about him, as evidenced by his ‘clear out’ of Baptiste Serin before the Conor Murray try above. Knowing Murray’s prowess for a snipe at the base of a ruck, Heaslip pulls Serin with him, allowing Murray those inches he needs to get over the line.

‘That’s all well and good, but he just doesn’t make the hard yards that other back-row forwards do’. The stats don’t lie so let’s take a look at his Six Nations so far in comparison to CJ Stander.

Jamie Heaslip

Ball Carries – 54
Metres Gained – 141
Defenders Beaten – 5
Clean Line Breaks – 2
Turnovers Won – 1
Turnovers Conceded – 2
Tackles Made – 39
Tackles Missed – 0
Tries Scored – 0

CJ Stander

Ball Carries – 69
Metres Gained -161
Defenders Beaten – 12 (To be fair, 11 of these came in the Italian game)
Clean Line Breaks – 2
Turnovers Won – 3
Turnovers Conceded – 4
Tackles Made – 35
Tackles Missed – 1
Tries Scored – 3 (Again, all scored against Italy)

Some interesting statistics here. Rather surprisingly, we can see that Heaslip over the three games is averaging 2.6 metres per carry in comparison to Standers 2.3 metres. He has also made more tackles than his Munster counterpart and hasn’t missed any all tournament. In fact, if you take the Italy match out of this equation for both gentlemen, then the stats weigh heavily in Heaslip’s favour.

Heaslip’s work along with Rory Best at the breakdown here is superb as they nullify any sniff of a French turnover.

People may argue that Heaslip doesn’t show the aggression that a No.8 should in both ball-carrying and tackling but my question is, does he need to? In Stander, O’Brien, O’Mahony, etc. we no doubt have fiercely aggressive players that can make a big impact at moments throughout a match. Heaslip, on the other hand, provides the calm and awareness in our back row akin to the likes of Kieran Read or David Pocock. He consistently makes his tackles and hits his rucks however, what separates him from traditional No.8s is his vision to spot potential opportunities in the back line and exploit it, hence why at times we’ll see Heaslip as the last man on the wing, again akin to New Zealand’s Read.

Therein lies the reason Heaslip garners so much criticism; what do we perceive a Number 8 to be? In the early days of professional rugby, the stereotypical no.8 would only know how to play that position was always supposed to be your best ball-carrier. The game has changed since then. Now your No.8 needs to be more versatile and almost an amalgamation of 6,7 and 8. And while there are still the old-fashioned type No.8s like Vunipola, Vermuelen, Picamoles who play that ‘up-the-jersey’ style rugby, one key point constantly gets overlooked.

That is, practically every world class back row over the last 20 years has always had one player who’s knowledge of the game was more important than their ball-carrying ability. Richie McCaw, Thierry Dusatoir, David Pocock, Juan Smith, even the late Anthony Foley weren’t the greatest ball carriers but they more than made up for it with their understanding of the game. In the wake of Foley’s passing, a number of former players remarked about how Anthony understood the game better than most players ever could and had incredible foresight. I reckon in years to come that this current generation of Irish players will be saying similarly about Heaslip.

The late, great Anthony Foley is not too dissimilar to Heaslip.

The issue as I see it is this; traditionally we’re used to impactful ball-carrying No.8s that make massive hits, consistently make it over the gain line and clear out rucks single-handedly. Heaslip ain’t that type of player and in truth, he never was. I question if Heaslip had played his entire career at blindside instead of No.8, would this be as big an issue as people make it? He has all the characteristics of a classic blindside, perhaps just lacking in pace but hey, he is 33 after all.

Heaslip’s influence on the team cannot be underestimated. His leadership and decision-making are what makes him vice-captain within the Ireland setup. He has twice been nominated for World Rugby’s Player of the Year in 2009 and most recently in 2016.  He’s also the only No.8 in five years in the Northern Hemisphere to taste victory over the All Blacks. And even though I am a massive fan of Peter O’Mahony, as long as Jamie Heaslip is fully fit and his body is up to the task, then I believe he has to be one of the first names on Joe Schmidt’s team sheet. Considering Schmidt’s options for those back row positions, Ireland’s short-term future looks very bright indeed.

Be sure to have a look at my colleague Ronan’s piece who see’s Heaslip in a much different light. Who do you agree with?

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