Less is more for O'Driscoll in build-up to world cup
Published 08/01/2011 | 05:00
Whatever your take on professional rugby -- and I have very mixed views -- there is no denying that, in terms of success and the growth of the sport over the first 15 years of pay-for-play, we have seen the game change beyond recognition.
Ireland may not have made it into the semi-finals of a World Cup, but we are now respected by every other nation as a serious competitive force.
In 2009, by common consent, the golden generation of Irish players reached the zenith of our achievements to date. The Six Nations Grand Slam in '09 surpassed everything achieved by Jack Kyle and the immortals of '48.
In fact, if any of those centrally involved in '09 were to hang up their boots now, they would do so reasonably happy with their lot. Four Triple Crowns, plus Grand Slam, Six Nations, Celtic League and Heineken Cup titles provided a golden hoard from a rich and fertile period for Irish rugby.
And yet there is a void, a final chapter for many of these great players still to be written. Sporting careers and the greatest exponents live in the here and now, but when you reach a certain age the body begins to talk and tell you things you don't want to hear.
This generation is now at that stage. A dozen or so of those likely to be involved will not see 30 again. I am not suggesting that the 'Big Three Oh' is the cut-off point, but I am saying definitively that the time has come to take stock, draw on previous experience and move forward accordingly.
Gordon D'Arcy, Shane Horgan, Brian O'Driscoll, Jerry Flannery, Marcus Horan, Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell, Ronan O'Gara, Mick O'Driscoll, John Hayes, Peter Stringer and David Wallace have all passed the 30 mark, while the likes of Shane Jennings and Denis Leamy will be approaching it when the World Cup starts.
On the plus side, Declan Kidney will be bringing with him probably the most experienced squad in the entire tournament (think England in Australia in '03 for a positive parallel), but equally, he will be planning ahead well aware of the need for measured game management.
To be fair to Kidney and his conditioning advisors, he is sticking rigidly to his contact plan. The problem is -- and here as a former player I can identify with the dilemma -- all the players want to do is play.
The mind works in funny ways. They know the advice they are getting in relation to rest is well-intentioned and in their best interests, but human nature being what it is and with the end game in sight, they want to squeeze in as much playing time as they can.
Kidney has three totemic figures in his squad -- O'Driscoll, O'Connell and Jamie Heaslip. Heaslip is now the 'go to' figure that the other two have been for so long. The Irish coach needs all three on board in tip-top mental and physical shape for the big games.
If pushed to highlight one particular trait that makes these three different -- apart from the obvious skills in their respective positions -- I would say it is honesty.
Each operates off that fundamental principle and the rest of the squad know and respect it. Much like Ciaran Fitzgerald, the most influential and best captain I played under, it is a trust based on a leader who asks nothing of his players he would not ask of himself -- a leader who leads by example.
All three fit that bill. Initially, I underestimated O'Driscoll's worth in this key respect, based primarily on his relative isolation (positionally) from the action compared specifically with O'Connell in the second-row. I was wrong. The Irish skipper has been a revelation, combining captaincy from the front with brilliance as a centre as only he is capable of. He is a national treasure and is finally being recognised as such.
There are four critical segments leading up to the World Cup -- the Six Nations (which is wide open), the Heineken Cup knockout stages, the Magners League play-offs and the warm-ups in August.
With this in mind, I would urge O'Driscoll to listen more attentively to his body and to the professional advice of those charged with his physical and mental wellbeing. He will be 32 in less than a fortnight and, natural though it is to want to appear like the same spring chicken who first ran out for Ireland in Brisbane a dozen years ago, wise council dictates otherwise.
It will be a delicate balancing act for Kidney. O'Connell, by contrast, needs as much game time as he can get and yet, as with O'Driscoll, the workings of Father Time must be factored in.
For Heaslip, it's a matter of taking each selection, be it for Leinster or Ireland, as it comes. The key element is a healthy, working relationship between national and provincial coaches. Whatever else, the own goals of France '07 must never be repeated.
On the evidence of the November Internationals, the gap between the northern and southern hemispheres is as wide as ever. As to whether we have it within our powers to launch a serious semi-final assault, I'm not so sure. But we must give ourselves the best fighting chance.
To that end, the welfare of our big three -- and most of all, our greatest player -- is essential.
The onus is on the 'great one' to recognise that on the lead-in to what will be his last World Cup, less is undoubtedly best. And here he must trust in others to make that call.