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Heaslip And Kearney Revel In Test Arena

Heaslip And Kearney Revel In Test Arena

In the past 14 months Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney have won the Magners League and Heineken Cup with Leinster, a Triple Crown and Grand Slam with Ireland and now boast six Lions Test caps between them. These are heady times for the pair who clearly thrive on pressure situations.

Jamie Heaslip could afford a few smiles of self-satisfaction after helping the British & Irish Lions to a long-awaited Test victory against one of the southern Hemisphere’s big three.

Saturday’s triumph in Johannesburg was the culmination of weeks of hard work by Heaslip and company, with the Kildare man providing a brilliant assist for Shane Williams’ first try.

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A delighted Williams, whose two-try blast steered the Lions to a 15-6 half-time lead, paid tribute to Heaslip’s play in the build-up to his 26th minute score.

“To be fair to him, that was great vision by Jamie,” said the Welsh winger, following the Lions’ first Test win since 2001.

“I thought he had one of the greatest games I’ve seen him play. He was dogged, he got involved in all the rucks, he carried the ball well and it was a great pass for me.

“Maybe a silent hero tonight. He’s been playing well all tour really and you expect no different from Jamie.”

Heaslip himself was clearly happy to get his hands on more ball, after being kept on the defensive for large chunks of the first and second Tests.

“I know I just got a lot more touches, that was it. People were saying was I annoyed not to be on the ball more but to be honest, it doesn’t really bother me.

“Sometimes the moments come for you, sometimes they don’t. I’m happy as long as the team does well and if I have to do a bit of ‘horsey’ work, that’s fine by me.

“In the first two Tests I didn’t get much ball and I had to get into the nitty-gritty and that’s fine.

“Sometimes games go for you like this week and I got a good bit of ball. I still think I was sometimes putting myself into positions, but that’s just the nature of the game.”

The athletic number 8, who could come up against the Springboks again in November at Croke Park, spoke too of the bond formed between this squad of four nations and the sense of accomplishment after ending the season on a winning note.

“You play this game to win, you don’t play to lose or draw. It’s coming off the pitch with those boys, the win means everything.

“We’ve had highs and serious lows on this tour – losing the series the biggest one – but we’ve bonded in such a good way, we’ve made some great friends and I’m actually going on holidays with some of these boys.

“Even for the guys who weren’t in the 22, to walk off the pitch with them – it was just brilliant.”

Heaslip certainly enhanced his reputation in the final Test, threatening often with ball in hand and adding his weight to a superb defensive effort from the Lions which saw them keep the World champions tryless.

He is becoming a marked man in the international game, as is Rob Kearney whose nerveless displays at full-back for the tourists have made many players, coaches and fans sit up and take notice.

Matt Dawson, a hero from the successful 1997 Lions tour, said Kearney was simply ‘phenomenal’ in the second Test defeat by the ‘Boks in Pretoria.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a full-back play that well under that much pressure. To be continually bombarded and cope so well was remarkable,” said the former England scrum half.

“Some of the catches he took, he had no right to take. But he did so much more than just gather those testing high balls, he would catch them under huge pressure then spin away from opponents and make 20-odd yards.

“He is a classic example of a player who just naturally looks like a Lion.”

Kearney, at just 23, is fast becoming one of the leading full-backs in European and world rugby and the Louth native is refreshingly modest to boot, preferring to talk about the Lions collective than his own individual performances.

Commenting on the infectious spirit within the touring party, he said: “It’s hard to put a finger on it but the people chosen for this tour were obviously chosen on personality as well as playing ability.

“I couldn’t believe how quickly everyone fell in together and I think the spirit was defined by this end-of-tour performance.

“I was gutted (after the two defeats), but winning the third Test is some consolation, particularly the way we won it.

“Okay, a few things had to go right for us but I felt we were entitled to a few breaks in this one,” added Kearney.

The talented number 15 highlighted the determination of the Lions to make sure they ‘can carry a winning Lions jersey for the next four years’, as Ian McGeechan termed it.

In addition, Kearney was personally delighted for the Lions captain Paul O’Connell, dedicating the win to both him and the players absent through injury. 

“The effort Paulie put in throughout the last seven weeks was immense, this win was as much for him as for ourselves.

“It was for Brian (O’Driscoll), Jamie (Roberts), Gethin (Jenkins) and Adam (Jones) too.

“It would have been easy to throw in the towel once the series was lost. We could have allowed that to happen but this squad was never going to be humiliated – that special bond simply wouldn’t allow that to happen.

“Everyone was aware of our responsibility to those who couldn’t participate through injury, to our captain, coaches and management and, especially, to players of the past who upheld the honour and traditions of the Lions so well over the years. Losing wasn’t an option.”

How fitting at the end of such a rewarding season for Irish rugby that the final word goes to Kearney, the player who spoke so candidly at that Ireland squad meeting in Enfield last December…setting the tone for that epic Grand Slam adventure.