Thursday 22 March 2018

It's time for Jamie to take a break

IT wasn't that long ago that Ireland number eight Jamie Heaslip was widely pushed as the next Ireland captain.

There is now a growing clamour for his club-mate Sean O'Brien to be inserted at number eight for Ireland's three-Test summer tour to New Zealand, making room for Munster's Peter O'Mahony on the openside.

Worse than that, a perceived loss of form for club and country has had some pundits calling for his head. That is how far the fall has been.

At 28, the Naas man should be coming into his prime as an athlete with deft control at the base of a scrum, under-rated lineout technique; bringing total commitment, a knack for the big hit and an engine that makes him the best aerobic athlete in Ireland.

Why, then, has Heaslip slipped back into the pack? The answer is simple: he could be close to burn out because he has been playing the highest level of rugby possible for seven straight years.

It could be a case of his greatest strength becoming his biggest weakness. The man who never gets injured could be playing his way to a standstill.

Heaslip made his international debut against the Pacific Islanders in November 2006. He became the Six Nations number eight ahead of Munster's Denis Leamy in February 2008.

He has averaged 28 matches in the last seven seasons. The first time he was unable to play due to an injury was when he rolled his ankle against Clermont-Auvergne in the Heineken Cup on December 12 2010. It was initially feared likely that he would have to forego the start of the Six Nations. His 'bionic' powers of recovery soon remedied those rumours.

Heaslip missed out on two matches and was back in time to play out an hour against the Ospreys in the Magners League, as it was then, on January 7 2011, two days short of a month before Ireland began the Six Nations.

He summered in New Zealand and Australia in 2008. He made the British & Irish Lions tour party as a Grand Slam winner in 2009, becoming the first choice number eight for Ian McGeechan.

He made a six-match contribution, starting five including all three Test matches. The season ended with an International Rugby Board World Player of the Year nomination. He was officially a world-class number eight.

There was a return to New Zealand and Australia in June 2010, where a red card for a knee into the head of All Black captain Richie McCaw halved the two-Test series for him.

Last summer, Heaslip put his feet up for June before an early start to this season in the form of four World Cup warm-up matches, playing in three, starting in two.

The World Cup was to produce its highs and lows.

Heaslip's club form for Leinster has been solid, not spectacular. He outplayed Wales' Toby Faletau in the Six Nations in what was his best performance of the championship.

The most durable player in Irish rugby is the man never felled by injury, the number eight known for his engine, simply perpetual motion in blue or green.

For the first time in his career, there have been calls for his demotion as Ireland's number eight.

True, his form has not been up to the standards he set himself on that 2009 British & Irish Lions tour.

It was only on Monday that Leinster captain Leo Cullen admitted he had not played pain free for almost a year ahead of his Achilles operation at the beginning of last month.

He has had three shoulder reconstructions. Perhaps the time away from the game gave Cullen the distance to replenish his body.

Before him, Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll talked about how time out of the game from his neck problem made him realise how much he loves it and how he doesn't want to put a date on his retirement.

Ireland full-back Rob Kearney discovered the positives from his nine months out of the game with a knee injury last year.

"I made a real point of trying to take as many positives as I could from it and instill some desire and hunger back into my game. Because you do lose it over time," said Kearney last month.

"It's only natural you begin to take things for granted a little bit. It's not a thing anyone wants to happen to them, but I definitely feel I benefited from it."

Of course, every individual is different. Players want to play.

No doubt Kearney would never pass up the opportunity to play the All Blacks in June.

Neither would Heaslip. Rugby is an endurance season as much as a sport. His summers have been filled with more of the same.

He needs time away from the game to replenish and re-energise. Injury has not been able to force that on him.

There are two choices: He could sit out the three Tests in New Zealand or he could make a late start to next season for Leinster.

Mr Indes-tructible is still Ireland's best number eight.

He can still be the best in the British and Irish islands for next year's British and Irish Lions tour to Australia.

To return to his best, he needs a rest.

Somewhere along the road.

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