‘Rugby World Cup,’ Jamie, those three words — what comes to mind when you hear them?
“The one that got away,” the retired Ireland star says, with no hesitation.
And no wonder. Having missed out on the 2007 tournament, the No8 who started two Lions tests in 2009 went on to feature heavily in 2011 and backed that up with another five appearances in 2015.
He played in 10 games in total, losing just two. Which two? Two quarter-finals, of course.
“The ones that mattered,” he grinned.
Two Lions tours, three Six Nations titles (including one grand slam), three Heineken Cups and three Pro12 titles – it’s quite a CV, but the letters ‘RWC’ will remain forever conspicuous by their absence.
“I pretty openly stated that after winning Six Nations and the stuff that we won, that was the only thing that we hadn’t,” he said.
It’s not easy and things have gotten a lot tougher for Ireland particularly over the last 12 months.
The quarter-final was the limit for Heaslip & Co and there’s a growing, rational argument to be made that it might yet be the same this time around.
New Zealand or South Africa are likely quarter-final opponents, barring a major shock, and while the All Blacks are favourites and defending champions, the continuing growth of Rassie Erasmus’s Boks — the Rugby Championship winners — are the story of the last year.
“If we come out first or second in our group, it’s New Zealand or South Africa, and particularly South Africa, Rassie [Erasmus] has done amazing things with them,” Heaslip said. “In my book, they’re favourites coming into this competition.
“They pretty much have two teams now, don’t they? That’s a first time in a long time that they can say that.
“They’re humming. They’re humming really well.
You wouldn’t want to face either in a knockout scenario, but in a World Cup that’s what you’ve got to do. We’ve proven since the last World Cup that we can beat all of them.
Indeed they have, with a series win in Australia following first win on South African soil and two wins over the All Blacks to boot.
Those results had people asking if Ireland were favourites just last November, and Heaslip believes the squad will still believe they can come out on top in Japan.
“Having been a player, I don’t know if they will say this publicly or not — you are going [there] to win, you are not there just to take part,” he said.
“It is very hard to frame that in the right way publicly and not get people carried away, or get slated or set yourself up to give others motivation — I can say that now because I don’t have to worry about that.”
Heaslip clearly sees his own World Cup history as a failure, but would another quarter-final defeat — at the hands of New Zealand or South Africa instead of Argentina and Wales, deserve the same label?
“If you want to talk about how we’ve done previously, the semi-final is an improvement and that’s definitely not the ambition of the squad.
“Is it a failure if they don’t? No, it is the exact same as they done previously. I’d imagine they won’t be saying they should be winning the World Cup. That’s the way to do it. You don’t want to give others motivation. But if I was in that spot, I would be there to win.
There’s something of a tradition in saying the latest squad/team is the ‘best prepared/most talented’ ever, but Heaslip says it’s especially true this year.
“If you took this squad and gave it an average score out of 10, I think it gets an average 8.5/9 out of 10, overall,” he said. “I think previous squads might have had a few more standout individuals, but the overall average might not have been as high.
“For a couple of different reasons, how the system is set up now — you can slot in and slot out, everyone knows their role, and they’ve worked hard on that.
“So in terms of squads, it’s probably the best squad. They’re down to 40 players now, so nine more guys have to go, but between us we could probably think of five who could go, but then arguments start breaking out.
To me that’s a really good sign — previously you could have made the call up to 28/29 players pretty easily. That’s no reflection to previous players, there’s just so much talent in the different provinces now.
Joe Schmidt has a few weeks to whittle down his squad to the 31 man limit.
“Take hooker — you’ve serious competition there between Niall Scannell, Rory Best, and Seán Cronin, I wouldn’t mind seeing any of them starting,” he said. “Second row, what a headache you have there — James Ryan, Devin Toner, Tadhg Beirne, Jean Kleyn, Iain Henderson, you could name a couple more, then there’s a lot coming into the back row, No 8 in particular, I’ll say Jack Conan, someone else will say CJ [Stander], someone else might say Rhys Ruddock, someone else might say Pete [O’Mahony] – at No 10 same thing, Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery, Jack Carty... at No 9 the same thing, so it’s a hell of a headache for the coaches.”