Best man for the job
Ulster's hooker ticks more boxes than any of the other contenders for the Irish captaincy - for now
Published 17/01/2016 | 14:02
It was late enough on the evening of November 9, 2003, when Eddie O'Sullivan and Keith Wood walked into the press conference room in Melbourne's Docklands Stadium to bring down the curtain on Ireland's World Cup campaign. Ireland had just been emptied by France, but the events of the night were relegated by the departure of the captain, a legend of the game.
Wood is an emotional character who had been through the mill to be fit for the tournament. So despite the fact that it had ended in humiliation by France, it was impossible not to feel some satisfaction that at least a world class player had gone out on the world stage.
The issue of his successor was about as big a deal as whether or not O'Sullivan would continue as coach. Brian O'Driscoll had stepped into the breach for almost 12 months while Wood was getting his neck fixed. He had been sufficiently impressive for Wood, on his return just in time for the World Cup warm-ups, to say to O'Sullivan that if the coach wanted to leave well enough alone with the captaincy, he would understand.
O'Driscoll himself didn't understand it too well when in similar circumstances he returned to find his own seat had been taken. In January 2013, he came back from injury - Jamie Heaslip had been given the gig for the 2012 November series - only to be told by Declan Kidney that the number eight would be continuing to lead the team out.
Three years on, Joe Schmidt finds himself with a captaincy dilemma on his hands. The crater left by Paul O'Connell is deeper than the hole left by Keith Wood. And there is no ideal candidate to see Ireland over the horizon - O'Driscoll was 24 leading the team into the Six Nations after Wood's retirement, and he was already a world star.
This is as big a problem as Schmidt wants to make it, however. The World Cup has taken on a life cycle of its own, but it doesn't make sense that you should start filling in all the pieces four years out from the big event. So we don't need the leader for Japan 2019 to be fitted up now. Which is just as well, as the odds are long enough on any or all of the five contenders making it that far. For Rory Best (33), Jamie Heaslip (32), and Johnny Sexton (30), their age makes it hard to plan for a sporting event that far away. Sexton will point to the fact that Dan Carter, at the age of 33, was the star turn in the World Cup just gone, so that will keep his fires burning.
As for the other pair - Sean O'Brien (28) and Peter O'Mahony (26) - their age is not an issue, rather the wear and tear on their joints makes them season-to-season players at best. In which case Schmidt will look as far as the eye can see: November 26, 2016, when his team wrap up a 12-Test season against the Wallabies in Dublin. That's far enough.
Given that the summer tour to South Africa is the best case scenario for O'Mahony to get back on the field, that takes him out of the equation. Of the remainder, Heaslip has the most experience, even if it's been bad. The fifth place finish in the 2013 Championship campaign, under his leadership, was Ireland's worst in 16 years of Six Nations rugby. Nevertheless, Schmidt has a lot of time for his number eight, and not just as a rugby player. The good points about Heaslip are obvious: he's a very accomplished rugby player, an automatic pick for his position - critical for captaincy - and he has a freakish ability to report for duty week after week.
Perhaps less well recognised is his on-field management of referees, which is good. It's a central role in the job, and there's a fine balance between getting your point across and being a pain in the ass. One top referee we spoke to put Heaslip in the same category as Rory Best. "They're both excellent, in fairness," he said. "I wouldn't want to be choosing between the two."
For Heaslip, the really painful bit starts after the game, when he has to represent the team to the media. He's got a fair bit of flak recently for his shortcomings in this area, so it's worth putting it into context. For most of us, the relationship between hack and player is not about being mates, on nickname terms, and high fiving when we meet. The majority on our side of the fence are secure enough in our social circle not to want to add players to it. So it's not that Heaslip doesn't come across as one of the lads, it's that he is so pained by the process, he couldn't be bothered to see it for what it is: a responsibility to use the media constructively to communicate with the people who pay his wages - the supporters. Given the soundbite world we live in, that's a pretty important part of the job.
Schmidt is acutely aware of the issue here, so if he runs with Heaslip, then either it's small beer for him - a mistake - or he thinks it's fixable. That may be a mistake, too. So that leaves Best, Sexton and O'Brien. It's typical of the outhalf that he is hungry for the job, for his savagely competitive nature drives him in that direction. Equally, it seems to us he could do without being saddled with the extra responsibility. Goal kicking in Test rugby is a frightening burden. Leading the team when that goal kicking is off target must be like struggling to breathe.
Ideally, you want your captain in your forward pack, and both of the remaining candidates earn their corn there. When Sean O'Brien was given the captaincy against Scotland in the World Cup warm-up, you wondered did he look on it as an opportunity to lay down a marker, or more like a privileged experience from which he hoped to emerge unscathed. We suspect the former. O'Brien is forthright and ambitious and perfectly represents the side of the house who came to prominence not through the schools game, but its less glamorous cousin: the clubs.
Rory Best, too, is of farming stock. By next season, he may not be first choice hooker, for we reckon that if Munster's Mike Sherry can get a sustained run without injury, he will make a compelling case to Schmidt. But for now, Best ticks more boxes than any of the other contenders.
On Wednesday, when the coach announces his circa 35-man panel to see Ireland through the first couple of rounds of the Championship, no big deal will be made in the press release about the man designated as captain. It will be a long way from the press conference at which Keith Wood signed off. This time it's Ulster's hooker who is the best man for the job.
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