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Graham Jenkins
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Graham Jenkins is a former senior editor of ESPNscrum
British & Irish Lions
Heaslip happy to swim with Sharks
Graham Jenkins
June 8, 2009

Jamie Heaslip believes there are no 'untouchables' within the Lions squad and not even captain Paul O'Connell is guaranteed a place in the Test team.

Head coach Ian McGeechan, a veteran of six previous tours as first player then coach, vowed to restore the unique spirit and ethos of the British and Irish Lions when he embarked on his latest quest for glory and Heaslip believes his pledge to give every player the chance to put their case for inclusion in the Test series is a winning formula.

"He's been very fair and it's great for team bonding," insisted the No.8, who will pack down for the Lions in their latest tour clash against the Sharks on Wednesday night. "There are no untouchables on the team. You can say that for everyone, even Pauly [O'Connell], no one is guaranteed to start.

"Everyone has been playing well and pushing each other and I think that with the competition on the pitch and the camaraderie off the pitch he's got a good mix. The atmosphere that's been created within the team is brilliant. It's not a dictatorship, everyone gets an equal say, both players and coaches. I'm living the dream right now to be honest."

In a ringing endorsement of McGeechan's man-management skills, the 26-year-old Heaslip insists that his methods are bringing out the best in everyone.

"In the back row, there are so many different mixes, you've got to go out and give your best on the training field and the pitch. We are pushing each other more and more, it is competitive, but when you are off the pitch everyone is still giving each other tips. There's no cloak and dagger stuff, it's all for the good of the squad which is the ethos of the Lions."

Off the field, the likeable Heaslip has embraced each opportunity that has come his way and has soaked up every experience following a word of advice from Ireland team mate and 2005 tourist Shane Horgan. His travels have included a visit to Leinster team mate Ollie le Roux's farm in Bloemfontein and the seemingly obligatory Lions excursion to swim with sharks.

"It was brilliant," said Heaslip, who started the rout of the Golden Lions last Wednesday and appeared as a replacement against the Royal XV. "We were snorkelling with them and that was a bit different, you don't get that much in Ireland I tell you."

Heaslip not only has his eye on bigger challenges on the pitch in the form of their latest Super 14 opponents and the Springboks - he is also looking forward to taking on more formidable foes off it.

 
"You're asking the wrong person for analysis on the other team."
 

"Hopefully when we get down to Cape Town we'll be able to hop into the cage with the great whites. That will be pretty cool," he said, obviously revelling in the opportunities that come with the famous red jersey. "Not only are you getting to play with brilliant players you're getting to experience different things."

The possible danger that comes with tackling the ocean's fiercest predator was obviously not an issue for Heaslip and he is set to carry that attitude into the Lions' latest clash at Absa Stadium. He knows another strong showing will see him edge nearer claiming that much-prized Test berth but admitted he had some homework to do when it came to analysis of a Sharks side that includes the formidable back row trio of Keegan Daniel, Jean Deysel and Jacques Botes.

"You're asking the wrong person for analysis on the other team," he joked. "To be honest the first time I looked at them was this morning in training, and I have to go and look at them now obviously but from what we've seen this morning they have a pretty mobile and aggressive pack. We know they're missing some player with the Springboks but there is definitely going to be some confrontations."

Heaslip's assessment of the strengths of South African rugby in general went yet further.

"They are very power-driven, they like to kick, they're big boys, they run hard and are very aggressive at the breakdown, " he declared. "The front five are generally big units and you've just got to break them down. Be confrontational at the gain line in attack and defence - don't give an inch, they play a territory game but then again they are not afraid to have a go from deep if they see space."

The Lions were second best at the breakdown in their narrow victory over the Cheetahs on Saturday and Heaslip readily admitted to the tourists' shortcomings in Bloem. The Cheetahs adopted an abrasive and effective game plan stripped the Lions of any significant momentum and Heaslip is aware it will be a decisive area of the game once again with the arguably the more formidable Sharks their opponents. But he remains confident that if they can get the upper hand, a talented Lions backline will capitalise.

"We've looked at it and we know that maybe we've let ourselves down," he said reflecting on the narrow 26-24 victory at Vodacom Park. "But I think they [the Cheetahs] were pretty effective at slowing it down so due credit to them. It's something we'll need to look at because slow ball is easy to defend against compared to quick ball.

"The breakdown is always key and if we give our backs quick ball, they are going to be hard to stop. You've seen Jamie [Roberts] and Brian [O'Driscoll] and Keith [Earls] and Luke [Fitzgerald] last week - when any of the backs have got quick ball they have caused trouble."

The ever-smiling Heaslip is obviously loving every minute of his Lions tour but only time will tell if his second encounter with sharks will rate as high as his first.

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