Former Ireland star Tony Ward has hailed Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip as his country’s best-ever No8.
Heaslip has been instrumental in Leinster’s charge towards Magners League glory this season and Ward has no doubt that the 24-year-old should now be viewed as an all-time great.
"Whenever asked over the years to select my best ever Irish back row, it tripped off the tongue – John O’Driscoll, Fergus Slattery and Willie Duggan. The chemistry and balance between the three was so good,” ex Lions fly-half Ward wrote in his column in the Irish Independent.
"But when a player comes along with the athleticism of Ken Goodall, the intellect of Anthony Foley, the dynamism of Victor Costello but, most of all, the Lion-heart bravery in adversity of Duggan, then the call in the middle of the all-time Irish back row becomes a no-brainer.
"There is an honesty and maturity to Heaslip’s game that makes him a certain future Irish captain.”
High praise indeed but, on current form, seemingly fully justified.
Having been a central figure in Ireland’s Grand Slam winning campaign 14 months ago, Heaslip returned from the 2009 Lions tour with three Test caps and a blossoming reputation as one of the globe’s leading back row lights.
This season has followed suit, with Heaslip at the heart of all things good about Ireland and Leinster rugby despite having had little rest over the past two years.
Last weekend he helped his province reach the inaugural Magners League Final with a 16-6 win over Munster at the RDS, producing an individual performance that Ward described as ‘sublime’.
"Heaslip’s barnstorming second-half runs – stretching Keith Earls to the limit and almost poleaxing the brave Ronan O’Gara – made for the icing but the real leadership is the hard yards and momentum gained in defence, allied to the tackle count and groundhog turnovers at the breakdown. Here, Heaslip was sublime,” added Ward.
"He is without doubt the Irish skipper in waiting and already, in my view, the most complete No 8 forward to wear green.”
Ward’s substantial praise in the aftermath of Saturday’s all-Irish Play-Off semi-final wasn’t just limited to Heaslip, however.
The former Leinster and Munster star, who inspired the later to a famous triumph over the All Blacks 32 years ago, was particularly impressed by the contributions of a number of Leinster stalwarts who led by example in the absence of club captain Leo Cullen.
"If ever a game defined Heaslip’s readiness to lead, this was it. In his team’s times of crisis, it was the Leinster No8 who controlled things with Shane Jennings and Brian O’Driscoll pretty close behind.
"Heaslip took the individual gong by a mile but was joined in the leadership stakes by Jennings and the ultra-consistent O’Driscoll. Leadership is about deeds not words but, most of all, it is about visibility when momentum is flowing the other way.
"Mention, too, of Rob Kearney. Uncertainty over full-back selection – shared with Girvan Dempsey and Isa Nacewa – has hindered his progress since last summer’s Lions tour but signs are of another leader in the making.
"On Saturday, Leinster were magnificent. I don’t think it’s stretching it to suggest they won almost every battle.
"Pick a combined side in the aftermath and there might be some room for discussion on the wing (Lifeimi Mafi), perhaps one centre (Keith Earls) and, as ever, outside-half. Beyond that, Leinster dominated."