Ireland have not won on Australian soil since 1979, but Joe Schmidt takes his side to Brisbane this weekend as the world’s second-ranked side and on the back of a record 12 straight wins.
There’s a Grand Slam in the bag, while Leinster dominated Europe and the Guinness PRO14, but winning in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney will really show they’re a force to be reckoned with.
They want to win that World Cup, but to win a World Cup, you’ve got to get to the semi-finals first and we haven’t done that, so that’s the first goal, but they’ve got a statement of intent to make down here in Australia,” said Heaslip.
“They’ve got to fire a shot down in the southern hemisphere and make people go ‘OK, so these guys are actually contenders, they can do it on a consistent basis, not just a one off games’.”
Ireland have beaten South Africa, New Zealand and Australia under Schmidt, but only one of those wins arrived in the southern hemisphere, in 2016. Still, Schmidt has a solid record of defeating the Springboks and Wallabies in Dublin, with the former enduring a record defeat last November.
Schmidt has been praised for his Midas touch with both Leinster and Ireland, but Heaslip was keen to point out that he has not done it alone. The former Clermont assistant coach took over at Leinster from Michael Cheika — the current Wallabies head coach — in 2010, after the Australian spent five years taking down and rebuilding the province.
Joe’s an amazing coach, he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever worked with and the way he runs an organisation is impressive, to say the least. His work ethic is amazing, but he got the Ireland job off the back of the Leinster job. Cheika, actually, was one of the people that looked around and found Joe,” said Heaslip.
“He was down in Clermont. He put him forward for it and he laid the foundation for Joe to have that success with Leinster and to go on from there. He changed the whole direction of the club and he laid a foundation at the club that Joe Schmidt wouldn’t have been able to build on top of without that foundation.”
Every Leinster player from that era speaks warmly of Cheika — those who survived, at least — and Heaslip is no different.
“Winning [The Heineken Cup] in 2009 announced [us] in Europe, and people thought it was a once off, but we’ve proved them wrong,” said Heaslip.
“Cheika was huge. He cleared house. He wanted players that wanted to be there, who wanted to play, who wanted to compete to play and wanted to be very, very proud of who they were representing. It was a complete cultural shift and he cleared house.
“If you look at the squad he inherited in 2005 and if you look at the squad even three years later in 2008, the change in the squad was huge. You had guys that didn’t want to be there, and he wanted hard-working guys that were willing to run through walls for that jersey and were going to play a certain way.”
Cheika was more than just a hard taskmaster, he was open and eager to use new ideas wherever they could be found, including an element of the game that is now taken for granted.
“He was actually a bit of an innovator,” said Heaslip. “No other rugby club in the northern hemisphere was using GPS data and he saw that being used in the AFL and brought that over. Cheika would also challenge the ‘why, why are we training this way? Because we always did.’ That wasn’t good enough, there had to be thinking behind it.
“He wanted to challenge the ‘why’, and bring the best of the best in.”
It wasn’t only tech he brought in, as witnessed by his recruitment of Rocky Elsom and Chris Whitaker, players who had been around the block and were able to inspire the younger generation.
“With his connections, he got some great players, like Rocky and Whitaker, that always gave it a nice pepper of flavour,” said Heaslip.
“He just changed the whole direction of the club and he gave a lot of young guys their shot, as well, that were just hungry, who just wanted to win and weren’t afraid of anything, weren’t afraid of what the norm was. They were like ‘no, this is our time’.”
Leinster added a fourth European star to their shirt last month in a game Cheika watched with his children in the early hours Down Under.
Now, Schmidt has to prove to his predecessor Ireland are ready to conquer more than just Europe.