"Johnny Sexton is THE best player that Ireland have ever had" - Jamie Heaslip
"I don't want to take away from it... but they care about winning."
On Sunday, in Monaco, Josh van der Flier was named World Rugby Player of the Year, joining Johnny Sexton and Keith Wood as Ireland players to win the top individual prize in the men's game.
Jamie Heaslip, who was nominated for the award twice (2009 and 2016), knows how big a personal achievement it is, but insists players like Sexton and van der Flier would sacrifice it, as they currently see it, to win a big trophy with Leinster or Ireland. Indeed, Sexton confirmed as much ahead of last weekend's game against Australia.
On the latest House of Rugby [LISTEN from 29:15 below], Heaslip went further with his Player of the Year thoughts, and made a claim that may not sit well with the Munster faithful.
"That was not the professional era" - Jamie Heaslip
Jamie Heaslip, who was on the Amazon Prime punditry team for their Bank of Ireland Nations Series coverage, was speaking with House of Rugby ahead of the awards, last Sunday, and made the claim that Johnny Sexton was the only true Ireland professional to have won the big accolade.
"I've often said that Johnny Sexton is the best player that Ireland have ever had. Just look at what he has won and his individual achievements - I think this is the third time he has been nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year, and he has won it once.
"He is the only Irish player to really win it in the professional era. I know Keith Wood won it, early on [in 2001], but that was not the professional era, I can tell you that right now. And the calibre of players, right now, is just insane."
Keith Wood claimed the first ever International Rugby Board [now World Rugby] Player of the Year in 2001, seeing off a quartet of George Gregan, Jonny Wilkinson, George Smith and his teammate and compatriot, Brian O'Driscoll. Most would readily admit that set of players is equally insane when compared to the Class of 2022.
Rugby turned professional in August 1995 and many of the players that became professionals, had moved from amateur status and having to give up jobs to play the game they loved. Heaslip makes a valid point that modern rugby is far advanced, in terms of strength, conditioning, diets, preparation and analysis, but the players from Woods' generation were no more or no less world-class than the current crop.
Just read out that five-man list from 2001, when Wood took the main prize home and it punctures a huge hole in the Heaslip contention.
On Josh van der Flier, who picked up the award last weekend, Jamie Heaslip says the Leinster and Ireland back-row is being rewarded for his high levels of consistency, for province and country, over the past few years.
"You play as you train," he said, "so if you train and play with this guy, this [accolade] makes sense. He's an unbelievable pro, and an unbelievably nice guy. He's always putting the work in, always looking to grow... he's even more relaxed in that pressure-cooking environment and the stuff he needs to do, within that."
WATCH HOUSE OF RUGBY HERE:
- Full Ireland player ratings as Ross Byrne's late penalty beats stubborn Aussies
- "It's testament to the guy himself" - Peter O'Mahony pays tribute to Michael Hooper after mental health break
- "It was a joy to watch" - Jamie Heaslip on his stand-out Ireland vs. Australia moments