Jamie Heaslip admitted he was “humbled” at being asked to lead Ireland for the first time as succession planning for the captaincy began.
With Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Rory Best injured, Heaslip will be in command for tomorrow’s Guinness Series opener against South Africa at Aviva Stadium.
Either O’Driscoll and O’Connell, captains of the last two Lions tours, have provided inspirational leadership dating back to 2004, apart from the occasional interruption. But the injury crisis that has decimated Irish ranks has forced coach Declan Kidney to reveal his hand for the future, with Heaslip beating Jonathan Sexton to the honour.
The 28-year-old Lions number eight is unbeaten as a deputising skipper of Leinster and hopes that run continues in an Ireland jersey. “I was in Baggott Street getting my mate an engagement card when I got the heads up from Declan about it,” Heaslip said. “I felt like going out and celebrating. It felt like my first cap again. I received a text from (Leinster chief executive) Mick Dawson about my record, so no pressure there! It’s great. I rang my parents straight away and I’m humbled by the decision. I’m proud to lead this group. Once we get on to the pitch everyone will be on automatic pilot because we have such great leaders in the team. It’s talking after the dinner that’s got me more nervous than anything else.”
Kidney revealed Heaslip has been groomed for the position over the past year. “We talked with Jamie about the job and he’s shown good potential with Leinster,” Kidney said. “He’s been part of this group for a few years now. There were other guys holding their hands up for the job but the time is right for Jamie.”
Hooker Richardt Strauss, born in South Africa but eligible for Ireland on residency grounds, makes his Test debut. Strauss will lock horns with his cousin Adriaan, who lines up at hooker for the Springboks.
Ireland team: S Zebo (Munster); T Bowe (Ulster), K Earls (Munster), G D’Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Strauss (Leinster), M Ross (Leinster), D Ryan (Munster), M McCarthy (Connacht), P O’Mahony (Munster), C Henry (Ulster), J Heaslip (Leinster, capt). Subs: S Cronin (Leinster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), M Bent (Leinster), D O’Callaghan (Munster), I Henderson (Ulster), E Reddan (Leinster), R O’Gara (Munster), F McFadden (Leinster).