independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Unlucky 13 as O’Driscoll leaves Ireland’s autumn plans in tatters

NOTHING summed up the importance of Brian O'Driscoll like the moment Ireland and Leinster lost him.

After 16 and a half minutes of Saturday night's Pro12 game against Cardiff, the 33-year-old received a pass from Eoin Reddan and turned on the magic.

He stepped inside Alex Cuthbert, handing off another Cardiff defender, before somehow stepping inside the covering tackler. He then handed off flanker Josh Navidi and was hauled down short of the line.

When the ball came back in his direction seconds later, he dusted himself down and went again -- picking Jonny Sexton's pass up at his bootlaces and shoving the giant Wales wing Cuthbert aside, before feeding Kevin McLaughlin with a sublime offload that led to Jamie Heaslip's try.

The RDS stood to salute the kind of moment we have been watching O'Driscoll produce for 13 years as a professional.

The problem was, the man himself stayed down.

After some treatment, he tried to hobble on and play through the pain as he has done so often in a rich career, but after two minutes of clear discomfort in the defensive line, he was replaced against his wishes.

Adversity

The fear that enveloped the Dublin 4 venue has now been realised. Ireland will go into battle against South Africa, Fiji and Argentina without their talisman and leader after it emerged that he needs surgery on the ankle ligament damage he sustained.

So often, he has bounced back from adversity. Now it is Ireland's turn.

Losing Rory Best is another hammer blow to Declan Kidney's leadership options as he prepares for the crucial trio of games. With the 2015 World Cup draw being made in December, the world ranking points available next month are vital to keep Ireland's seeding.

Recovering from the record 60-0 defeat in New Zealand in June was always going to be difficult, but without the captain, not to mention one of the men who usually covers in his absence, the task just got harder.

Those challenges are exacerbated by the fact that Paul O'Connell is struggling with a back injury.

It means that Kidney must look to the next generation of leaders and, with another contender in Rob Kearney among the casualties, it looks like being a shoot-out between Jamie Heaslip and Jonathan Sexton to lead their country for the first time.

The reality for Kidney is that, apart from O'Connell, who has led Ireland eight times and captained the Lions in South Africa, Gordon D'Arcy and perhaps Andrew Trimble, there are no players who played in the 2007 World Cup likely to start for Ireland next month.

Having admitted that being skipper could be too much of a burden on O'Connell, it looks like Kidney will have to turn to a new man to lead against the Springboks.

"There will be changes, but that is the excitement of it," he said. "People talked about a golden generation... There are good fellas coming through, so it will be a full Irish performance in November."

Heaslip has never lost when deputising as captain for Leo Cullen at Leinster. With 50 caps and three Test starts for the Lions, he has long been touted as a future Ireland skipper.

Sexton has a compelling case, but while his leadership credentials are well established, he is not experienced in the role.

Tommy Bowe is another option, but considering he could be played out of position at full-back and would be far removed from the referee in that location for most of the game, his candidacy looks unlikely.

Considering the age profile of their rivals, there is a need for Kidney to give the younger players some experience and responsibility.

O'Driscoll has led Ireland with distinction and the team do better with him at the helm, but with his future up in the air as his contract expires at the end of the season, and another injury now keeping him out, there is a need for some succession planning, and Heaslip looks to be top of the queue.

The same goes for the No 13 jersey, which has become synonymous with O'Driscoll since he made his debut in Australia in 1999.

His injury has ramifications throughout the backline, as two of his potential replacements at outside-centre, Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe, are already being earmarked as full-backs in the absence of Kearney.

Earls has filled the jersey in his captain's absence on the last four times he has been out, while Fergus McFadden and Darren Cave are also options.

Surprise

Kidney yesterday admitted that the news of O'Driscoll's injury had come as such a surprise, he and his coaches had yet to decide if any new names would be called up.

It looks more likely that those who could cover the positions will be left with their provinces, but could be called up next week if needed.

"At full-back, Earlsy is a good option, Tommy Bowe did a good job there at the weekend and Simon Zebo can play there too," said Kidney.

"In the centre, Earlsy can play there and we have Darren Cave as well. We would have good combinations within that and we'll assess it.

"We have had a few guys going well in the provinces. Ian Madigan has certainly been earning his corn there, Denis Hurley has been excellent with Munster and it was great to see Felix Jones back and Robbie Henshaw too. There are a good number of lads there.

"But, with a round of Pro12 games this weekend, it might be better to leave them at it, get some time under their belts. The provinces have been mixing and matching so we'll take a close look and see what happens."

Whoever Kidney chooses will have a serious pair of boots to fill and they only have to cast their minds back to last Saturday night to see just what they're supposed to live up to.

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