Jamie Heaslip and Declan Kidney cut contrasting figures at the launch of the 2013 RBS Six Nations. One was buzzing, visibly excited to be here, and the other was relaxed, having seen it all before. Newly-appointed captain Heaslip’s enthusiasm was infectious, right from the moment he bounded into the room through the wrong entrance, pausing to ask, “Am I in the right place?”
Laughter ensued, and that set the tone for the rest of the interview. “I’m still really wet behind the ears, to be honest,” Heaslip said. “I’m buzzing about the whole thing – to be here, to be starting to talk about the Six Nations. I haven’t stopped smiling since I got here.” Ireland fans will be hoping his enthusiasm rubs off on the rest of the squad. An interesting blend of experienced campaigners and fledgling talent, Ireland could well be the dark horses this Six Nations. After an autumn series that brought mixed results, a narrow loss to South Africa preceding a spanking of in-form Argentina, Irish fans can be quietly confident without getting ahead of themselves.
Heaslip is visibly proud at being chosen to captain his country. “I found out last Wednesday evening – Deccie asked me and I nearly had to stop myself jumping across the table and kissing him, which would have been really awkward. I was really proud and humbled by it all.”
One of the most interesting aspects of his selection as captain will be the dynamic with previous armband-wearer and god of Irish rugby, Brian O’Driscoll. “He came up to me, we shook hands, and he told me he was 100% behind me, and if I need any advice or help just to ask – which I’ll definitely be doing, I’m sure.” Heaslip says O’Driscoll was third on the list to call, behind parents and girlfriend, when he was appointed captain for the autumn tests. It is a strong relationship, then, and one that will benefit Ireland hugely no doubt.
Will it make for any awkwardness at all though, with O’Driscoll having been leader before? “The dynamic won’t change at all,” insists Heaslip. “I’ve been captain before for Leinster while he’s on the field. It doesn’t matter who’s captain, he’s the same individual and the same professional no matter what. I don’t think I’ll talk any more or less than I have in the past. We’re really lucky that we’ve got some great leaders in the squad, and everyone contributes.”
Replacing someone of O’Driscoll’s stature is a daunting task, but Heaslip says he is up to the challenge. “They’re big shoes to fill, and hopefully I do an alright job. In November I went ok; I learnt a lot, very quickly. But you’re constantly learning, and I’ll grow into the role during the Six Nations. I’ve always played by leading by example both on and off the field, and the chance to represent my teammates and the nation is a pretty humbling experience.”
Declan Kidney, or ‘Deccie’ as he seems to be affectionately known by the players, is rather more understated than his captain. Still, it is obvious that he is completely confident in Heaslip’s ability to lead the team. “Jamie did a good job in November. It was also about giving Brian some space, but Jamie carried himself really well. They’re totally different, and yet they have some important similarities in that they both lead by example.”
Despite his support for Heaslip, Kidney is keen to emphasise the importance of the collective. “When it comes down to it it’s just about the jersey, it doesn’t matter who’s in it, it doesn’t matter who’s coach, it’s all just about the jersey doing well.” A slightly baffling statement, but what he means is that all the players, whether they are 100-cap veterans or uncapped newbies, know that they are playing first and foremost for their country.
Kidney says the impressive win against Argentina was important for morale in the squad. “The Argentina win came at a good time for us. You learn more about yourself when you lose, but we were fed up with it. It makes it easier when you come back together again. We’d like that momentum to continue.” With a new captain and a good win in their last game, the mood in the Ireland camp must be good at the moment.
Ireland are also fortunate in that the schedulers have been kind to them. This year they have England and France at home, meaning they face perhaps the two favourites in their own backyard. It means that if they can beat Wales on the opening day in Cardiff, then they will be in with a great chance of putting a title-challenging run together. They will travel as favourites to both Rome and Edinburgh, and will know they have enough quality to win in both places.
The opening game thus takes on increased significance. With Wales having lost their previous seven games, is it a favourable time to be playing them? “I don’t think it’s ever a good time to play Wales,” says Heaslip diplomatically. “We’ve been on the end of three defeats (in a row) playing them, and they’re a tough side. I don’t think their results in the November series really reflect the form of the team. Two scores and it would have been a completely different series for them.”
However you look at it, the stage is set for two proud nations to play out what is undoubtedly the clash of the opening weekend. Playing against a demoralised Wales team, under a new, enthusiastic leader, there is no reason why Irish fans shouldn’t be confident their team can get off to a winning start.