WHEN BRIAN O’DRISCOLL was weighing up the pros and cons of playing for another year, having another stab at beating New Zealand was enough to make the rest of the list irrelevant.
He is expected to be fit for the November series, but his calf strain is hanging around for a lot longer than was originally expected, forcing the IRFU to take a long look at those much vaunted succession plans of theirs.
No doubt Joe Schmidt and Les Kiss will do everything in their power to ensure he starts against the All Blacks, but in the meantime they will be looking at their options. No matter what sort of recovery he makes, he will not play all 80 minutes of all three tests and at the moment the 13 shirt is looking as thin on back-up as the days when John Hayes was the only choice to lock down the Irish scrum.
Ireland’s new head coach hasn’t picked a particularly adventurous squad – no Luke Fitzgerald, no Kieran Marmion, no Dave Kilcoyne – but he will have to be adventurous when it comes to grooming O’Driscoll’s back-up. It won’t serve Gordon Darcy or Ireland well to move him to 13 when O’Driscoll isn’t available.
Of the players chosen by Schmidt, only Robbie Henshaw, Fergus McFadden, and, at a push, Luke Marshall and Keith Earls, could be considered realistic options. Luke Marshall is seen as an inside centre, McFadden almost never got picked in the centre under Schmidt, Keith Earls is clearly now far happier and far more effective on the wing, and Robbie Henshaw is inexperienced and only just converted from fullback.
We spoke to Shane Horgan and Eddie O’Sullivan on Second Captains and they feel the search won’t start properly until the end of the season, but Joe Schmidt is a ruthlessly thorough coach and will already be sizing up his second, third and fourth choice options, even if he doesn’t play them.
At the moment Henshaw looks the most exciting prospect, and it would be fun to see Ireland play with a bit of beef in there for once, but at the moment that excitement is based on his physical attributes and his mentality, and the fact that Pat Lam has seen fit to try him at centre for Connacht.
Its no huge surprise we’re struggling to find alternatives, outside centre is becoming the hardest position to fill in top level rugby. To make it as a thirteen at international level you have to have the speed of a winger, the hands of an out-half, the tackling technique of a flanker, and the brain of a defence coach. There is a huge rate of attrition so if you have skinny ankles, forget about it.
Everything that happens in that channel happens at high speed too, so instincts and reflexes have to be top notch. Wingers and fullbacks only have a certain number of variables to deal with, scrum-halves rely on technique and speed of movement, out-halves on their decision making, but outside centres have to do a bit of everything. If you look at the major rugby playing nations, no one currently has a 13 that ticks all the boxes, though on his day Wesley Fofana can be magical.
O’Driscoll, as we know, has all those attributes, plus that rarest of things, natural creativity. For now though, the search is on for someone who won’t let the rest of the team down. Whoever subs for him in the November internationals and the Six Nations will be told to stick to the basics, make their tackles, with Johnny Sexton likely to take on even more of the decision-making duties.
Brendan Macken is a good example of that at provincial level – he has done a good job of following orders at Leinster, not trying too hard, and staying focused. He has also benefited hugely from working under O’Driscoll. There is a good argument for Schmidt to pick O’Driscoll’s probable successors as soon as possible so they at least have a season of watching, listening to and playing alongside the greatest player Ireland has ever produced.
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