Sport Rugby

Thursday 19 October 2017

Schmidt can set tone with captaincy call

Ireland coach may overlook old warriors and focus on future

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Rob Kearney says Joe Schmidt will need time
Paul O'Connell
Jonathan Sexton
Jamie Heaslip will remain as Irish captain
Brian O'Driscoll
Rory Best
Conor George

Conor George

JOE SCHMIDT is faced with a classic dilemma ahead of Ireland's November Internationals: does he gamble on an unproven captain with an eye on the future, or does he hedge his bets by relying on a tried and trusted candidate?

It is not a small decision the Ireland coach faces and, allowing for some contentious squad selections, it's the first call on which he and his stewardship will be judged. The choice is not made easier because of doubts about the availability of some of the outstanding contenders for the first international of the season against Samoa.

Schmidt has favoured appointing a captain from amongst his forwards in the past and it is unlikely he will depart from that policy, and if you look to the forwards then Paul O'Connell is an obvious stand-out.

Schmidt must take a long-term view, however, and World Cup 2015 is clearly a primary target for him. He must also factor into his evaluation the reality that the modern game is so attritional that forwards cannot avoid injury and O'Connell has shipped more than his fair share in recent seasons.

The captain should really play in every match and O'Connell, like Brian O'Driscoll, may struggle to satisfy this demand. Schmidt might well take a pragmatic view and appoint a captain for this season only before looking at World Cup possibilities. Ideally, however, he will want to appoint a skipper now who will be there through to the 2015 tournament.

CANDIDATES

PAUL O'CONNELL

Age: 34 Caps: 85

He is the popular choice. His win ratio as Ireland captain is not fantastic, but O'Connell remains the outstanding choice if he is fit and if he is willing to accept the role.

O'Connell commands the respect of his team-mates and opponents alike and would certainly unify the squad during Schmidt's bedding-in phase.

Pros: He's a galvanising and unifying force. He lends an immediate gravitas to the post. He is also one of Ireland's few truly world-class players. He knows the job and what is needed – an inspiration to his team-mates.

Cons: Is he fit? O'Connell has spent much of the last two years injured and is currently struggling with a calf strain. The captain needs to be fit and available for at least 80pc of Ireland's matches. It's not certain he will play to the World Cup or that he wants the captaincy.

BRIAN O'DRISCOLL

Age: 34 Caps: 125

O'Driscoll would be a nostalgic choice in what is his final year as a professional. He is Ireland's greatest ever player and his appointment would be universally accepted.

That doesn't mean he'd be the right choice as the captain should certainly be signed on until the next World Cup at least. Schmidt needs to plan for the future, which will count against re-appointing O'Driscoll.

Pros: It's O'Driscoll, enough said. He is a legend and still the best player on the team. He is absolutely qualified. He is the brains of the on-field operation and the players still defer to him during matches. He would also be a popular choice among supporters.

Cons: This is his last season. The new captain should be at least playing to the World Cup. He's increasingly injury prone. How many matches will he actually be available for? Appointing him suggests Ireland have no credible alternative and could be construed as a sign of weakness.

JAMIE HEASLIP

Age: 29 Caps: 57

Heaslip learned on the job during a difficult 2012-13 season and certainly matured and grew into the role through November and the Six Nations.

His form did, however, suffer with the added responsibility and when relieved of that he excelled for the Lions. The Leinster man was accepted by the squad last season and would be again.

Pros: He will have learned an awful lot about the role last season and should be a better leader as a consequence. He's rarely injured and showed greater maturity as this year's Six Nations progressed.

Cons: He seemed burdened and over-awed by the responsibility initially and his form in green was not what it needed to be. He doesn't have the same unifying influence as O'Driscoll or O'Connell. He might not be playing his club rugby in Ireland next season.

RORY BEST

Age: 31 Caps: 67

It came as a surprise when he was overlooked by Declan Kidney last season and he is one of the leaders of the squad. He isn't guaranteed his place in the team, however, and his form wasn't as he would have hoped on the Lions tour.

Pros: He is experienced and immensely popular with the other players. He would be seen as a unifying force by players and supporters. His appointment would help Schmidt distance himself from his previous post at Leinster. He has experience of captaining Ireland, Ulster and the Lions.

Cons: He's not guaranteed his place in the team and the captain needs to be playing. There are bigger personalities within the squad who are possibly better suited to the role.

ROB KEARNEY

Age: 27 Caps: 46

He will certainly 'speak truth to power' as he did during that infamous meeting in Enfield in 2008 and is a popular member of the squad.

He is also a very experienced player, albeit not as captain. That said, Schmidt has shown a preference for investing the responsibility of captain in one of his warriors in the forwards.

Pros: He's well respected within the squad. When he's in-form he's guaranteed his place in the team and is popular among supporters. He is experienced after two Lions tours and will be playing beyond the 2015 World Cup.

Cons: He's a novice when it comes to captaining his country or province. He's had a few issues with injury and form of late and would probably benefit more without the captaincy, which can become a burden for some.

JONATHAN SEXTON

Age: 28 Caps: 36

Most boxes are ticked. He will start, he is a leader, he is inspirational and he is well regarded by friends and foes. There are a couple of issues, though, not least that he is now playing in France. The captain should be in Ireland.

Pros: He's already the team's on-field general and has a phenomenal relationship with the head coach. Sexton is a world-class player and is the undisputed first-choice out-half – and he will be for some time to come.

Cons: He's not playing in Ireland. He has enough responsibility as out-half without being landed with the captain's armband as well.

PETER O'MAHONY

Age: 24 Caps: 16

Appointing O'Mahony would be a leap of faith but also an investment in the future. His influence is growing within the group and he'll be one of the foundation stones of Schmidt's tenure.

Pros: He's part of the up-and-coming generation and is potentially one of the leaders of the side for years to come. He is highly regarded within the squad and has experience of captaincy with Ireland (underage) and Munster.

Cons: He is still learning his craft. He is in his first season as Munster's captain and would perhaps be a better pick for the armband after the 2015 World Cup.

Other possible candidates: Sean O'Brien (26 years old, 27 caps), Tommy Bowe (29, 51), Conor Murray (24, 19).

Irish Independent

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