Jamie Heaslip believes all five Leinster players could feature in next month’s Lions Tests against New Zealand — but fears the Munster and Ulster contingent face a tougher battle to earn starting spots.
Leinster quintet Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, Seán O’Brien, Johnny Sexton, and Robbie Henshaw are all strongly in contention for starting places against the All Blacks in June, while Ulster’s Jared Payne and Munster’s Conor Murray, CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony are potential starters. But, with the sheer amount of back row talent on offer to Warren Gatland, Heaslip fears it is very unlikely that the Munster backrow duo will both start, while Rory Best and Iain Henderson also look outsiders.
“I’d love to see all the Irish guys start, but that’s not going to happen,” Heaslip said.
“I’d love to see all the Leinster guys start, and I think it could happen. But it’s going to be tough. Guys get injured and the group you’re picking from can change dramatically, and the guy could be flown over from one of the tours over the next couple of weeks and he could start, and that’s not completely unrealistic.”
As if to illustrate his point, Heaslip had Billy Vunipola down as one of the first names on the starting team sheet, before the Saracens backrow withdrew with a shoulder injury.
“It just shows you how fluid the situation is,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were 10 injuries or 10 guys sent home, it’s going to be intense. The New Zealand internationals are playing in the club games in the first couple of weeks, so you’re getting full strength sides there and that’s going to be tough. Watching the games the last couple of weekends, Super Rugby teams are playing some fast, fast rugby that’s going to take its toll on guys, especially if they’re jet-lagged for that first game.”
And what of Munster pair Stander and O’Mahony?
“Oh, they’re up against it, just think of the people out there now who can play 8,” Heaslip added.
“You’ve got Toby [Faletau], Ross Moriarty, James Haskell can actually play 8 as well, Seánie O’Brien, CJ. When you look at that...
“I’m a big believer of having your back row as a blend of skills. You can’t just have a mass of big ball players, for example, because there’s some work that just has to be done and some guys, that just isn’t their game. So you’ve got to the blend right. I think we can all agree that Sam Warburton is probably going to start at 7 and he has a certain set of skills, and then you’ve got to match another two to that.
“But then you’ve got second rows who can play 6 as well, with Iain Henderson, Maro Itoje, and Courtney Lawes. So do you play them second row or at 6 for the lineout and all that, and then who do you put on the bench?”
Heaslip backed Johnny Sexton, the Ireland out-half, to “start all day”, likely alongside international halfback partner Murray, but admits there’s plenty of discussions to be had before the management decide on whether existing combinations are transferred to the red shirt. “It just changes so much week in week out, from training sessions to how guys click together,” he said. “You’ve got some potentially good, interesting combinations who haven’t played together.”
Heaslip, who toured with the Lions in 2009 and 2013, had his season cut short thanks to a serious back injury that required surgery, but never gave up hope of making a third Lions tour — until the surgeon told him otherwise.
“When you’re delivered the news that you’re not going anywhere in a couple of months time, you’re thinking ‘I think I can, it’s worth the risk to come back early’, but the doc was just like ‘No, it’s not happening,’” he said.
“They removed the emotional part of it. That was fine, when Warren Gatland announced the squad, I still had in the back of my mind that ‘maybe just maybe’. But there’s a silver lining: I’ve never had a break this long in sport, it’s the first time in 12 years I haven’t gone on tour. All going well, I hope it’s the last significant break before the World Cup.”
Heaslip was speaking at the launch of the new healthy drinks range; CocoFuzion100. The new 100% natural still and sparkling coconut water contains all the natural electrolytes and has no added sugar. Follow @Fuzion100ire for further details.
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