independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Conservative Kidney takes a punt stripping O'Driscoll of captaincy

Captain Brian O'Driscoll in action against England at Lansdowne Road in the 2011 Six Nations Championship

FOR a man notoriously shy of the poker table, Declan Kidney all but threw the deeds of his house on a pair of twos.

Removing the captaincy from Brian O'Driscoll isn't just the biggest gamble of his tenure as Irish coach, it is a jolting switch-back on the gospel he has tended to espouse in rugby management.

Kidney has the name of an inveterate conservative.

But in demoting Ireland's greatest player from a formal leadership role little more than two weeks before the commencement of the Six Nations, he has taken a cudgel to that stereotype.

It is known that the Clontarf man is currently on Lions coach Warren Gatland's short-list of potential captains for the summer tour of Australia.

Remarkably, Jamie Heaslip even declared less than 24 hours before the announcement that he expected to hand the Irish captaincy back to O'Driscoll now that the Six Nations' record try-scorer is fit again after an injury-marred year.

O'Driscoll's gracious acceptance of the decision and, indeed, his praise of Heaslip's performances during the November series were to be expected, given he has long since established himself as one of the more statesman-like figures in northern hemisphere rugby.

But those two words "very disappointed" carry most purchase out of all the gentle politesse.

For Kidney's declaration that Ireland needs "Brian the player just as much as we need Brian the captain" sounds like a veiled challenge to a man whose last game in an Ireland shirt was the 0-60 third test humiliation against New Zealand in Hamilton last June.

In a subsequent interview for this newspaper, O'Driscoll alluded to some confusion on the coaching side of Ireland's preparation for the All Blacks.

"I think we just need to get clarity on who the point of reference is for our attacking game," he said. "In New Zealand I think we could just have gotten our detail a little bit better."

Those comments were taken by former colleagues as a distinct shot across the bow of the Irish management, though it is inconceivable that they would now be a factor in Kidney's decision to keep the captaincy from a man voted by Rugby World magazine in 2010 as World Rugby Player of the Decade.

O'Driscoll turns 34 next Monday and, on his own admission, is unlikely to be still playing top-rank rugby come the next World Cup in 2015.

Plans are well advanced for star-studded testimonial functions in both Dublin and London and he is working on an autobiography due for publication on his retirement.

Not for the first time, it is tempting to anticipate a sudden deceleration in the career of one of the greatest players the world has seen.

Unconventional

But that was the story as far back as 2005 after an infamous 'spear-tackle' ended his Lions tour in New Zealand. O'Driscoll – incredibly – was voted Six Nations Player of the Year in three of the next four seasons.

His mental and physical strength essentially change the rules of conventional endurance. And, despite impending fatherhood, it is known that he is now fiercely driven to make the Lions squad for Australia this summer.

He will have been stung by his demotion, but it would not be O'Driscoll's way to be either precious or disruptive through self-interest. Kidney knows that.

Yesterday, Kidney went to an unfamiliar place. In doing so, he took the biggest punt of his professional life.

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