Filling Brian's jersey
Replacing a rugby icon is no easy task but Leinster have youngsters capable of stepping up to the plate
PROFILING a piece of cloth rather than the man inside may be a little unusual, but, based on the hype that surrounds it, the Leinster No 13 jersey is no ordinary garment.
Graham Henry, four-time winner of world Coach of the Year, is known for his astuteness, but the New Zealander made a bizarre decision as coach of the Lions in 2001 when he selected Brian O'Driscoll at full-back for the opening tour match against Western Australia.
It was not that O'Driscoll played badly at 15 as the Lions cruised to a facile 116-10 victory over their amateur opponents, it was more a case of "what's the point?" -- why move the world's best outside centre away from his best position?
It didn't happen again and O'Driscoll went on to devastate the Wallabies midfield in the Test series, scoring one of the greatest individual tries in Lions history at The Gabba.
Nine years on, the aura surrounding O'Driscoll and the No 13 jersey is as powerful as ever. In 107 Tests for Ireland and six for the Lions, he has only failed to start in the No 13 jersey on one occasion -- against Romania in 1999, when Jonathan Bell and Kevin Maggs formed the midfield partnership and O'Driscoll came off the bench (along with Gordon D'Arcy and Alan Quinlan, who won their first caps that day).
It has been a similar story with Leinster. Only four players besides O'Driscoll have worn the No 13 shirt in the Heineken Cup (see panel) and it is no coincidence that when Leinster won the title in 2009, O'Driscoll started at outside centre in all nine games, scoring five tries along the way.
The Leinster branch marketing department recognised the iconic status of the jersey a couple of season's ago with their 'Triskaidekaphobia' campaign -- the clunky definition of 'a morbid fear of the number' -- which was used to decorate a range of merchandise.
There is an online petition among Leinster supporters to retire the No 13 jersey with O'Driscoll (not to mention a petition to rename Dublin Airport, George Best-style, after the Leinster star), which may not be the worst idea given the unenviable 'follow that' task awaiting the player handed the outside centre role when O'Driscoll does retire.
Leinster name their team today for Sunday's daunting assignment away to Top 14 champions Clermont. After injuring his jaw against Argentina two weekends ago, it was hoped O'Driscoll would be available to line out in the Stade Marcel-Michelin, but the chances of his name being read out today are remote in the extreme.
So, who steps in? With Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald out injured until the new year, coach Joe Schmidt does not have an array of options to choose from in his Heineken Cup squad. Shaun Berne is fit again and could slot in at inside centre with D'Arcy moving out one.
D'Arcy has played '13' very effectively in O'Driscoll's absence in the past, but it would be a big ask of Berne to come straight in to a match of this magnitude after his season's contribution has been limited to five minutes against Edinburgh in October and 75 against the Dragons three weeks ago.
Fergus McFadden could also switch to midfield. The 24-year-old has been excellent for Leinster over the past two seasons and has been featuring regularly, playing a full 80 minutes in each of Leinster's last five Magners League ties.
With his pace, stepping ability and eye for the try-line, McFadden has been attracting the attention of overseas clubs, with Leicester understood to be particularly keen and he would form a potent attacking partnership alongside D'Arcy.
The problem is, with no Fitzgerald or Kearney, Isa Nacewa is likely to start at full-back, which leaves a wing slot open and, with David Kearney still a bit inexperienced to be thrown in against the likes of Julien Malzieu, Napolioni Nalaga, Anthony Floch and Benoit Baby, McFadden could be asked to do a job on the left, where he made a try-scoring contribution against the Scarlets last week.
Which leaves Eoin O'Malley (opposite page). The 22-year-old's progress since he returned from an 11-month injury absence has been startling, second only to Munster hooker Damien Varley in terms of rapidity and effectiveness.
The promise that made O'Malley a schools stand-out with Belvedere College and a mainstay of the Ireland U-19 and U-20 teams a few years ago, is being realised now for Leinster where, like McFadden, he has started the last five league outings.
Easily identifiable with his penchant for rolling his socks down, O'Malley has good footballing instincts, linking skills and the ability to locate gaps in traffic. The worry ahead of Sunday's assignment is that he will be targeted by Clermont's big ball-carriers as, at 5' 11" and a little over 13 stone, O'Malley is not the biggest centre in the business.
However, although they would obviously prefer to have O'Driscoll fit and firing, Leinster have a lot of faith in their new No 13, as team manager Guy Easterby outlined this week.
"He's done well hasn't he? Eoin's come through a difficult time with injuries and he's really stepped to the plate this season," said Easterby.
"Eoin's only 22, but he's one of those players who doesn't let things faze him, he's got his head screwed on."
O'Malley will need that level-headed attitude when Clermont start to rumble and if he is assigned the honour of wearing the No 13 shirt on Sunday, it will constitute the biggest challenge of his fledging professional career.
You suspect that is one jersey he will not be swapping.