“I KNOW WHEN when to read the papers and when not to,” Brian O’Driscoll begins before mulling over how Ireland conspired to lose to Scotland and, in the process, make a mockery of everything we thought statistics could teach us.
Knowing when to listen and when to shut out the noise is a lesson learned quickly by those at the top, one which O’Driscoll’s successor as captain will surely appreciate after the 12-8 defeat in Murrayfield.
As the team’s new point man, Jamie Heaslip has been hauled over the coals with no shortage of critics lining up to take aim. Sunday’s loss was only Heaslip’s sixth game since taking up the role but for some, we are already nearing the watershed moment in which the bosses must decide whether they will stick or twist.
Yesterday rugby legend Tony Ward went so far as to call on Declan Kidney to perform a quick about face and return to the captaincy to O’Driscoll, provided he would have it; failing that, Ward wrote, Rob Kearney may be the man for the job.
Ward is right in one respect: the character which allowed O’Driscoll to flourish as Ireland’s longest-serving captain in test history never leaves you. When it came to the crunch on Sunday, with Ireland four points down and the clock ticking away, the man with the number 13 on his back was front and centre in making sure the penalty was kicked to the corner.
To some his decisiveness may have come across as a little too much backseat driver, still smarting from Kidney’s decision to look to Heaslip and the future, but few can understand the challenges facing the new man quite like O’Driscoll can.
“I think some of the criticism by the sounds of things is pretty harsh,” he said yesterday, coming to the defence of his Leinster team-mate. “I think Jamie is doing a good job.
I was in a very lucky situation that I had some strong leaders around me, guys who had been in leadership roles themselves, when I came in. The likes of Paulie was invaluable to me, ROG likewise.
I found that when I had to say less and other people were doing the talking for me, we were in a great place. That’s what I’m trying to do with Jamie now: be as vocal and be another voice for people to try and listen to, to make points and try to take a little bit of pressure off him.
“No one cracks it at the first three or four games as captain,” he added. “You constantly get better the more you do it, and I have absolutely no concerns about him.”
Inevitably after a game of such tight margins — on the scoreboard at least — much of the post-mortem focused on Ireland’s penalties and on the performance of debutant out-half Paddy Jackson. More than once in the first half, Ireland went to the corner in search of a try, eschewing the old maxim that three in the hand is worth five in the bush. Wayward line-outs failed them and when Jackson was eventually afforded the opportunity to kick at goal, he made just one of his four attempts.
There’s no second-guessing calls made in the heat of the moment, O’Driscoll explained.
“The difference with decisions on field is, you have to have an understanding of what it feels like on the pitch. We have a different feeling from what everyone else sees, about how the momentum is going or whether you feel as though you have the opposition on the rack or whether there’s an opportunity for a seven-pointer.
You’ve got to go with your gut and that’s what Jamie did with a little bit of advice from a couple of people that he took on board. It didn’t work out at the weekend but on another day we would have scored a driven maul and everyone would have been slapping him on the back.
That’s the way it goes some times but I’m certainly not going to sit here and say that he’s not doing a good job because he absolutely is and he has everyone’s full backing.
On the decision to get Jackson to kick to the corners, he added: “It’s instinct. You can’t pre-plan things. A test match doesn’t work out exactly as you want it. Sure, the perfect scenario would be for a debutant to get a goal kick 10 metres out in front of the posts, slot the first one over, but it’s rarely that happens.
“We felt as though we had concerted pressure on them and the option was taken to go to the corner. It didn’t work out for whatever reason but you don’t second guess what’s happened because we all buy into it. Sometimes it works for you and sometimes it doesn’t.”
No matter how many times and how vociferously he comes out in support of the new regime, there will always be those who believe that O’Driscoll should be captain until that dark day comes and he finally hangs up his boots. Does the fact that he’s still in the team and in the set-up make the transition more difficult for Heaslip?
“I don’t know, you’d have to ask Jamie that. I’m not going to answer for him because I don’t know how he sees it.
“I’d say it would have been more difficult for me to captain the team with Keith [Wood] in it, yeah,” he reflects, remembering his first test as captain a decade ago.
I’ve been very open about saying yes, I was disappointed initially, but I’ve parked that and now I’m 100% able to be a senior player and be a helping hand to him in channeling everything towards trying to achieve success and trying to achieve a performance.
It’s not about the satisfaction or the disappointment that you get from being captain or not being captain. Now it’s about trying to look at the bigger picture of the team. 100% the team comes first and I’m just trying to weigh in behind Jamie and give him as much of a helping hand as I can.
One thing that’s not up for discussion is the manager’s future, with O’Driscoll refusing to be drawn on whether Kidney will stay, go or be pushed when his contract runs down this summer.
“We know that Declan is certainly contracted until the summer tour and all the management that are there are going to be involved for the next two games at the very least, so let’s go about trying to win both of them.
“Beyond that it’s not in my control. It’s not in any of the players’ control. It’s about now trying to stop this two-game rot and get back to consistency of performance. It’s as simple as that. I don’t have to answer that because I don’t have a say in it. It doesn’t matter what my opinion is one way or another.”
If Heaslip has felt the pressure intensify since Sunday, so too has Kidney, but as you might expect from a man who has built his career on his leadership, O’Driscoll is the first to put his hand up and take his share of the blame.
“I would say that the game at the weekend is 95%, no 100%, player responsibility. We can’t have our hands held through games.
“There’s only so much coaches can do. They can put you in a position, they can educate you as to where they feel opportunities are going to arise and then train you for that and put you out on the pitch. Beyond that, beyond what they say at half-time or the couple of messages that they pass on, the ball is in our court and we are responsible for what happens.
Clearly in that first half, with the amount of line breaks we made and the things we did, the information we got was pretty good. We just didn’t implement it very well.
Can we point fingers back at our coaching staff? Absolutely not. That’s not us.