Jamie Heaslip says Johnny Sexton is still “the man” and the obvious choice to lead Ireland for at least the next two years.
The Leinster out-half was named Ireland captain by Andy Farrell for the upcoming Six Nations, replacing Rory Best, who retired after last year’s World Cup.
Many had speculated that Leinster’s second row James Ryan could be next in line to take up the baton from the experienced Ulster man, but Heaslip thinks it could be too much, too soon for the 23-year-old.
Ryan made his debut in 2017, and has won 23 caps since — starting his last 20 — and is established as one of the first names on the team sheet.
Heaslip, who was made Ireland skipper by Declan Kidney, believes Ryan will benefit from learning under Sexton — just as he learned under another legend of the game.
“I don’t think you need the same person [as captain at RWC 2023] as now, if you’re looking at things in a four-year plan — I’d be looking at it as a two-year plan, and for the next two years Johnny is the man,” said Heaslip.
“When Joey (Carbery) comes back, he’ll push him, but I think the step change between Johnny and everyone else in that position is too big.
It will close and I think it will become a headache, but Johnny’s been pretty much the captain the last two years anyhow.
"He’s the quarterback, he’s been calling the shots, he’s guiding the team around, he knows the gameplan better than anyone, and I think it’s the right choice (to make him captain).
“That’s not taking away from James, he’s a cracking young talent, a cracking athlete, I think Andy — he could have picked anyone, but it’s not a bad call to have James learn off Johnny as well for a bit longer.
“He’s not around senior rugby that long. He’ll learn loads, I learned the most ever about leadership being under Paul [O’Connell]. So let him sit under one of the great leaders of Irish rugby.”
Making Sexton captain was one of the easier decisions Farrell had to make in recent times, and he showed he wasn’t afraid to make others — with Peter O’Mahony benched, Keith Earls in the stands, and Rob Kearney out of the squad entirely.
With youngsters like Caelan Doris and Rónan Kelleher being given their debuts in a Six Nations game, he’s shown a willingness to shake things up.
Heaslip admits things had to change after a disappointing World Cup. Ireland beat Scotland well in the first game but lost to Japan before being humiliated by New Zealand at the quarter-final stage, bringing Joe Schmidt’s tenure to an end under a cloud.
While Heaslip argues that the last year of the Kiwi boss’s reign should not be used to judge the previous nine years in the country, he conceded that Ireland should have shaken things up after the 2018 Grand Slam success.
“Andy’s only had a Christmas camp, one day, and then they’ve had the last week and this week’s training,” said Heaslip, outlining how little time the new head coach has had to mix things up tactically.
“Does he have to start down a new path? I think first let’s address the Joe thing. I think the criticism he’s come under was unfair. I think the way it’s been framed at the end of his [Irish] career is taking away from everything he has done to that point. He came here in 2010, won two Heineken Cups, an Amlin Cup, a Pro14, three Six Nations, became number one in the world, won a test series for the first time in Australia, a test for the first time in South Africa — so yes, they’d have loved to win the World Cup, but they didn’t.
“But I think it’s reframed how the team should be perceived, in terms of expectations — which is a good thing. We’re thinking ‘oh, we can win the World Cup’, which is amazing.
“So, does Andy need to do something different? I’m sure he’ll have his style, Mike Catt will have his style, the rest of the coaching team is the same bar [John] Fogarty, who is really good as well.
I think they will build on that game, but they do have to evolve on it. In 2018, we had thin margins on the way to the Slam.
"We put England away in 40 minutes but that wasn’t the real England team... credit where it was due, we beat New Zealand and we were amazing that night.
“So maybe we thought we were as amazing as we were (that day) and started looking down the line, instead of the here and now. You saw teams like England, South Africa, New Zealand all go ‘you know what, these guys aren’t going to be with us for the next 18 months, I don’t see them being the main guy’ — and I think we didn’t evolve our style and build on that in-game multi-phase play. I think teams were starting to figure us out a bit.”
The backline has a fresh look to it now, while the back row has also been shaken up, with Caelan Doris getting a debut and O’Mahony dropped, with CJ Stander moving to 6, where he began his test career, alongside Heaslip.
“I think 6 is his position, I don’t think he’s a No. 8,” said Heaslip.
“He’s good at carrying the ball, so let him carry the ball at six.
I think the No. 8 position, with that back row, needs to be a bit of a pick ‘n’ mix and needs to bring the blend together, particularly with someone like Josh [van der Flier] who’s an out and out 7.
“So it needs to be blended well together, and I think 6 is his better position. He’s being pushed as well, there’s a lot of competition across multiple spots there and he’ll be under massive pressure to perform — as they all will.”