Subscriber OnlyRugby

No quarter given: Jamie Heaslip recalls Leinster's last-eight battles

Former number eight played in all of Leinster’s quarter-finals up until last year

Jamie Heaslip will walk on the pitch before Leinster v Saracens.

"Mick Dawson told me this morning they are at just south of 50,000."

Imagine they booed you?

“It could happen!


The 34-year-old is in engaging form despite premature retirement.

“I haven’t had a chance to take the field for Leinster or Ireland since I got hurt. It was nice of Leinster to ask. That’s why I did The Sports Chronicle. I didn’t get to control how I finished playing the game so I wanted to do something on my terms.”

This interview has a simple hook: the evolution of Leinster through the prism of European quarter-finals ever since the worm turned. Heaslip had been the ever present number eight until last year.

2005 quarter-final – Lansdowne Road: Leinster 13 Leicester 29

Heaslip was registered for the European squad but Declan Kidney caused a fissure of rancour by replacing Victor Costello with Eric Miller and naming Ciarán Potts at blindside for the visit of an ageing Leicester Tigers pack.

“I remember watching it because I played Irish Schools with Ciarán. He finished early because of injury but was up-and-coming at the time.”

Leinster were well beaten and in the aftermath it was revealed that Leicester were to replace Martin Johnson and Neil Back with new signings Shane Jennings and Leo Cullen while Kidney returned to Munster that summer.

Champions: Toulouse

2006 quarter-final – Stade Municipal, Toulouse: Toulouse 35 Leinster 41

“I was young and maybe naive but I remember people going, ‘Toulouse are moving to the big stadium, you know what that means?’

“I was very laid back about it all. Cheiks had brought in set plays, and one came off for Brian’s try. That was the first time Leinster had done that sort of stuff. Mark McCall, funnily enough, had us running them for the Ireland under-21s. Wonder where he is now . . .”

Victory over Toulouse seemed like the beginning of something special but a significant obstacle lay ahead. The Lunster fans.

“I will never forget Rog jumping the hoarding, none of us did, but that was such a disappointing day for the organisation. I was blown away by the amount of support who travelled to Toulouse but I distinctly remember the bus driving through Ballsbridge before the semi-final. We were surrounded by a sea of red. It opened my eyes to something else. I always knew the support Munster had but I knew lads in the crowd who were wearing red.”

Lads from Kildare?

“Yeah. Maybe we were not giving them anything to shout about but it still hurt. We had just given them Denis Hickie’s try in Toulouse – probably the greatest ever Irish try.

“That semi was a big moment for all of us, the players and front of house, as we realised something’s not right here. The game in Ireland was about eight years professional. I don’t think anybody was ready. But the Munster thing still killed me. There were people who were not proud to be from this province or be associated with the team we played on, or with the blue jersey. This was a time when it wasn’t a great thing to be a Leinster player.”

When did that change?

“Cheika saw to that. The move to the RDS established us in a place and that summer Cheiks cleared house. All the guys who didn’t share the same values of what he thought the club should become.

"Get a picture from the 2005/06 squad and get a picture of the squad the year after we won the Heineken Cup in 2009. Just see the change. Yes, that naturally happens but Cheika broke a lot of lads along the way, it was tough, some guys got on with him, some didn't . . ."

You did?

"I was so lucky, I had Cheika and Mike Brewer as my two coaches starting out. Cheika let you be who you wanted to be – look at him, he built a fashion brand, the self-made man with all sorts of manners and tastes. He played eight. And Brewer brought that hard Kiwi edge that the pack needed."

Champions: Munster

2007 quarter-final – Adams Park: Wasps 35 Leinster 13

"Eoin Reddan! He saw the move a mile away. A wraparound off a scrum. He did his homework and they went the length of the field."

Reddan got two tries against his future team in this dying sting of the great Wasps era.

“Not two years before I would bring in videos of Dallaglio to sit down with Collie McEntee and study number eight play so it was mad to go against him, I really enjoyed it.”

Brian O’Driscoll was out injured.

"Ah, Wasps were ahead of everyone with the Shaun Edwards defensive system. The way we played, big passes out the back, allowed them to eat up our space. That game became about learning how to go to England and learn how to win in an intimidating atmosphere. You have to suffer a little to grow. It helped two years later at The Stoop."

Champions: Wasps

2008: out of contention in December – Murrayfield: Edinburgh 29 Leinster 10

A visibly shocked Cheika was asked if he would resign. Cullen and Jennings had returned from Leicester as English champions.

“I knocked-on in the corner. Cheiks gave me dog’s abuse. We kept falling at these away hurdles. Cheiks was still working on the mentality. We beat Munster in the Celtic League. I remember trying to hang on to that, to put value on the medal after they won their second European title.”

Champions: Munster

2009 quarter-final – The Twickenham Stoop: Harlequins 5 Leinster 6

"Then Rocky came over to have the season of his life. Chris Whitaker was there too. No ego after years playing under George Gregan. "

Isa Nacewa also arrived under the radar and promptly suffered a bad arm injury. People joked about another Eddie Hekenui, how wrong they were.

"The Quins performance showed that we had changed. Cian Healy was in the team by then. Cheika told me to just follow Rocky around the field. The attacking plan was: give the ball to Rocky, so I was to get beside him in defence to tackle and he will poach or vice versa."

Did you see Tom Williams and the fake blood?

"No. All I remember is Nick Evans coming back on the field. He's going to take a pop."

Dean Richards came down to the sideline.

“I saw it all after. But at the time, all I thought was, don’t give a penalty away.”

Bernard Jackman gave the penalty away but Evans's knee forced him down the touchline as Harlequins tried to maul over. Stan Wright made an enormous tackle. The defence held.

Next up, Croke Park.

“Coming out to the field was something else: blue and red chequered around the entire stadium. It was fucking cool. Woah, we are at that level now. I was always proud to be a Leinster player but everyone was with us now.

“The planned moves came off – the dummy switch that put Rocky up the middle [before Contepomi got injured and Sexton arrived]. We would call moves as we were running, we’d constantly be calling what we were seeing.”

All season, from the press perch, Sexton appeared to be firing daggers at the coaching box.

“Maybe that was the making of him. Johnny is always pissed off! Ah, he was always a competitor. The coach makes the call. Seanie was frustrated with Cheika’s decision-making as well.

“But Johnny comes on and knocks over the penalty.”

And screams at O’Gara after Gordon D’Arcy’s try. “He says he didn’t but we were all saying stuff, we were all g’eed up.”

“The final against Leicester was touch and go until the very end. I managed to get over, Jenno gave me the rocket boosters. They had the ball around halfway for what felt like ages. No penalties! Cian was beside me when the whistle went. I was in the ruck thinking, ‘oh please don’t have given away a penalty’ but Church grabbed me, roaring ‘We fucking won!”

Champions: Leinster

2010 quarter final – RDS: Leinster 29 Clermont Auvergne 28

Joe Schmidt's first visit to the RDS was as Vern Cotter's assistant coach. Clermont outhalf Brock James missed five from 10 placed kicks and was off target with three drops at goal. Sexton hit seven from eight before breaking his jaw.

“They should have won. We could see how Joe coached in that game. He had figured out how we defend, hence the chips into space.”

Shaun Berne was Leinster's 10 for the return to the big stadium in Toulouse.

“We got absolutely dominated in the scrums. They did a job on us. I see a lot of similarities to us in 2010 and the current Leinster squad. The difference is the three stars on the jersey but I think the current group will eventually have two or three Grand Slams to their name.”

Champions: Toulouse

2011 quarter-final – Aviva stadium: Leinster 17 Leicester 10

The Schmidt era.

“My first phone conversation with Joe was in Singapore on my way home from New Zealand. I had just kneed Richie McCaw in the head. The captain of the place Joe is from, and I’ve been red carded, sent home with a four-week ban and he wanted me back in for pre-season with the Leinster lads who weren’t on tour.

“I travelled home worrying that my first meeting with the new Leinster coach was going to be an argument about holidays but Joe gave me the four-week break, knowing I had played a lot of rugby.

“I doubled down on my idiot ways. For the first training session back I got the field wrong so I was 20 minutes late. You know what Joe is like for timing . . . A couple of days later he said he was going to cane me in front of everyone if I made a mistake. But I didn’t make any mistakes. It was the beginning of a great relationship.”

The players are scared of Schmidt?

“I don’t think he’s scary. He has got to make tough decisions about selection and contracts. Joe is involved in everything. My contract was up before the World Cup and Joe called me in for a meeting.

“‘I’m dealing with the IRFU,’” I said.

“‘What’s the craic?’

“‘I want to stay but I am looking at the market price.’

“‘That’s grand but let me know because I’ve a really good guy lined up . . . ’

“I thought, fair play. Very Joe. This is the plan, it’s either with you or without you. Make your decision. We were very honest with each other. Sometimes he’s got to make tough decisions but he always tells you to your face.

“Without a doubt, 2011 was Leinster’s hardest earned European title. Look at the group we were in.”

Saracens, Racing 92 and Clermont were followed by Leicester and Toulouse (both in Dublin) before trailing 22-6 to Northampton at half-time in the final.

The story goes that Sexton compared Leinster in Cardiff to Liverpool in Istanbul.

“Not that it’s an urban myth but my recollection is we have a team talk before separating into forwards and backs. I could hear Johnny’s voice but we were much calmer: right lads, we are going grand here, couple of line breaks, we just need to eradicate the knock-ons and small errors. The backs were going mental. We got back out there and it just clicked.”

Champions: Leinster.

2012 quarter-final – Aviva stadium: Leinster 34 Cardiff Blues 3

Jamie Heaslip is Tadhg Furlong for the Brian O'Driscoll try that becomes CJ Stander's try at Twickenham.

“Smoke and mirrors. Against Cardiff I just gave an out the back pass for Johnny who found Lukey on his inside who tears through and gives it to Brian.

“What Tadhg did is different. Bundee pretends to run a crap line, looks like he got too flat, to make it seem obvious the ball was going to Johnny on the loop but Tadhg just leaves the ball up there.

“For the Cardiff try we used Seanie as a decoy, so the focus was on him. Bang bang bang. Those moments are so sweet.”

It requires a certain level of intelligence to play in a Schmidt team?

“The environment does not slow down for any one individual. You are either a guy who can pick it up the first time or you need to go away, write it out or whatever, because come our walk-through, unless it’s the group’s first time doing a move or your first time in camp, you better be at the pace.

“Maybe I think like an engineer but if I see it I get it. Other guys stress a lot about it.”

Clermont was a titanic struggle before Leinster destroyed Ulster at Twickenham.

“The semi-final in Bordeaux was the toughest club game I ever played in. Easily.”

Champions: Leinster.

2013: Challenge Cup champions

Leinster failed to escape a Pool containing Exeter, Scarlets and Clermont.

"Clermont beat us home and away. The Six Nations hadn't gone well either so we looked at the Challenge Cup as the only shop window to make the Lions squad. I remember coming up against Billy Vunipola for the first time. Saracens are really going to miss him on Sunday.

“We also won the league.”

Champions: Toulon

2014 quarter-final – Stade Felix Mayol: Toulon 29 Leinster 14

Schmidt switches to Ireland, Heaslip becomes Leinster captain and Matty O’Connor arrives just after Sexton joins Racing 92.

“People talk about a dip around this time but we won the league again and Ireland won the Six Nations in Paris!”

Losing to Northampton at home Christmas week meant an away quarter-final.

“We smashed them the week before and then let in some silly tries. We were hammering their line in injury time [trailing 13-9] when I tried an out the back pass but I broadcast it too much, it went forward, intercept, they went length of the field.”

So began Leinster’s threepeat with Toulon.

"How Steffon Armitage wasn't picked for England during that time I don't know. We were beaten up by a bloody good side with players from all over the world and Matt Giteau calling the shots."

Not Munster nor a rising Saracens could deny the Boudjellal project.

Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen retired.

Champions: Toulon

2015 quarter-final – Aviva stadium: Leinster 18 Bath 15

"I thought Jimmy Gopperth was fantastic for us, and Ian Madigan stepped up as well."

Matt O'Connor preferred Gopperth at outhalf. The compromise saw Madigan remove D'Arcy from the team with a comparative problem existing today as Joey Carbery lacks game time at number 10.

The current Bristol outhalf kicked six penalties to see off Bath only to throw an intercept for Toulon and Springbok legend Bryan Habana to race to victory in Marseilles.

“Bar an intercept in the second half of extra time we went toe to toe with the champions for 100 minutes.”

Five days later O'Connor was publicly dressed down as Schmidt and David Nucifora called a press conference to brand his comments about the player management system as "grossly inaccurate".

“Matty rubbed certain people up the wrong way, he can be a bit gruff, but the players liked him.”

Leinster sacked O’Connor that summer, promoting Cullen from forwards to head coach.

Champions: Toulon

2016: out of contention in December after losing home and away to Toulon

“I got taken off on 70 minutes against Toulon at the Aviva. I blew a gasket. I was never, ever, ever happy coming off before the end. I was more fuming with myself. A tough bloody game, we made so many stupid errors.”

Champions: Saracens

2017 quarter-final – Aviva stadium: Leinster 32 Wasps 17

Jamie Heaslip had already played his last game of rugby.

“When it all happened before the England game I immediately thought: quarter-final against Wasps. In my head I was thinking, that’s my last shop window for the Lions. Watching the England game and the lads winning and the way they all played, I thought: deadly! Ah, I was delighted for them but I knew I had to get myself right for Europe and make a major statement.”

Like Paul O’Connell against Harlequins in 2013?

“Exactly. That’s where my head was at. Obviously it didn’t pan out. That game could have gone another way if Willie le Roux’s try had stood; Johnny made sure it was checked.”

Clermont beat Leinster 27-22 in the Lyon semi-final.

Champions: Saracens

2018 quarter-final – Aviva stadium: Leinster v Saracens

"I'm the eternal optimist. Bookies have it as a five-point game in Leinster's favour. I think it will be a one-score game. The lads are super fit and will keep moving Saracens around or Johnny, Joey or Isa will find the space in the back field. They are actually quite similar teams but I think Sarries will miss Billy Vunipola. "