Sport Rugby

Wednesday 29 March 2017

Brian, it's time to move inside and hand over the armband

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Despite the doom and gloom that hung in the air in the aftermath of the loss to Wales, if you were to pick an Irish team for, say, a November International at this point in time, I suspect you'd select pretty much the same 22 that played in that ill-fated game in Wellington.

The reason for that is very simple: we do not have the resources to contemplate wholesale change. A complete overhaul of the Irish side is not a realistic option for a rugby-playing nation that is still developing professionally.

What changes we do make must be gradual and calculated. The process of change for Declan Kidney should begin now. Our next game of consequence is on Sunday, February 5 at the Aviva when, coincidentally, the Welsh come to town.

Shane Williams is retiring, but after that Warren Gatland will be picking from a full and exciting hand. As for Kidney, I suspect that Geordan Murphy will be the only major World Cup retiree ahead of the Six Nations.

Bear in mind there's nearly a four-month gap between the quarter-final exit and the Welsh rematch. That's enough time for those who were centrally involved to recharge their batteries and sharpen up again through Pro12 and Heineken Cup involvement.

Save for injuries, I will be surprised if any of those who were involved Down Under are not available and putting up their hands for selection come February.

There's also the factor of our professional elite being centrally contracted with the governing body. Murphy, for example, is one of the few Ireland players whose major paymaster is located beyond these shores.

How wise would it be for any IRFU-contracted player to tell his direct employer he is calling it a day to concentrate solely on his province? How long do you think that player, irrespective of his previous status, will be holding down a regular slot in the provincial franchise?

Players aren't stupid. They know the score. Calling time on a Test career in order to concentrate on provincial rugby is not really an option, and I suspect it will be a foolish or misguided individual who bucks that trend.

We will deal with team selection based on time and need for change allied to Pro12 and Heineken Cup form over the coming months.

In the meantime, the overall message from Kidney must be clear, making it clear to his troops that it's all to play for in the Ireland set-up. The World Cup slate has been wiped clean. That message needs to go out to everyone, even the talismanic Brian O'Driscoll.

The Irish captain made it abundantly clear in an interview in these pages on Thursday that retirement is not on his agenda. I support that stance to the full, although I would take issue with certain reasons our greatest ever player offers for continuing.

Consider this quote. "He is almost 33 and has obviously lost the yard of pace he had five years ago and he has to tailor his game a different way. He cannot rely on his pace anymore. We have all faced that decisive moment in your career when you have to realise that you have to change your game."

Is it Kidney or Joe Schmidt commenting on O'Driscoll? No, but it could be. In fact, it is Alex Ferguson giving central defender Rio Ferdinand a harsh dose of reality.

Time stands still for no man and while I fully appreciate O'Driscoll's irritation at all the talk of his age (he will be 33 in January), he must be sensible enough to tap into the experience of others and recognise the need for modification.

To borrow Ferguson's turn of phrase, it's time for him to tailor his game in a different way. I worry when I hear the current Ireland skipper highlighting part of his motivation as "proving critics wrong".

This I can identify with. I felt the same at a comparable age and sadly the older you get, the more sensitive and angry you get at criticism.

But O'Driscoll has nothing to prove to anybody. Yet as much as we all hate to say it, it is the critics who will eventually be proved right. How could it be any other way?

O'Driscoll, at this point in his wonderful career, should simply concentrate on the reason he took up the game in the first place: enjoyment.

If I was Ireland's head coach, O'Driscoll would still be central to my immediate plans. He possesses that magical ability to turn a match in a moment, and is also a serious presence on the training field and in the dressing-room; a precious trait that is difficult to quantify and pretty much impossible to replicate.

He has an incredible charisma that makes him a leader on the field and a role model off of it. At times he might not appreciate it himself, but O'Driscoll is the type of man who commands utter respect from both his team-mates and his opponents.

But there are subtle changes O'Driscoll can now make to his game that can benefit both himself and, by extension, his team.

challenge

I sincerely believe the time is now right for him to move to inside-centre. It would make for a different playmaking role, but one to which he would be ideally suited at this stage of his career. And what better challenge than helping his outside-channel apprentice learn the ropes alongside the master in the midst of the action?

Think of the benefit to Fergus McFadden, Eoin O'Malley, Nevin Spence, Luke Fitzgerald, Eoin Griffin, Keith Earls or whoever it is to be. Imagine the focus O'Driscoll at inside-centre would demand, thereby creating time and space for the trainee alongside.

There is also the captaincy issue, and here again I would urge that a mature approach should be taken.

The role of captain in the professional age is not as demanding as it once was, but in saying that if passing on the armband lightens the on-field load for O'Driscoll, then it is a decision well worth considering.

Here Kidney must assess what he believes to be in the best interests of the player and the team moving forward.

In the aftermath of the World Cup, the time seems right (and mutually beneficial) to pass the baton from one Lions captain (O'Driscoll) to another (Paul O'Connell).

The leadership issue is important, but nowhere near as crucial as having the man who has been the heart and soul of the national team for the past dozen or so years, in the side.

Age is only a number, so once O'Driscoll's buzz and hunger for training and playing remains, then to hell with the critics, whoever they are.

One thing's for sure, when the day comes that he does retire, we'll never see the like of Brian Gerard O'Driscoll again.

Irish Independent

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