‘This is not Brian’s last Six Nations – he will play on as long as he is able to and maybe this will extend that period’
Published 18/01/2013 | 05:00
JAMIE HEASLIP'S task is not an easy one. He is replacing a true icon of Irish sport as captain of the national rugby team.
Brian O'Driscoll is one of this country's national resources, if not national treasures. He will not be easily followed. And, the fact that he is continuing his playing career, cannot but place even more pressure on Heaslip's broad shoulders.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney, though, believes that the decision to retain Heaslip as captain from the November series is in the best long-term interests of the team and the short/medium-term interests of O'Driscoll himself.
"Sometimes, as a coach, that's what your job is, to make the calls you feel are at the right time for the player, even though the player mightn't agree with you," Kidney said. "That's basically the job, there are not too many ways of saying it, but it is very tough."
O'Driscoll has already all but ruled out playing in the 2015 World Cup and, for that reason alone, it makes sense for a new captain to be blooded, even while his predecessor is still around to lean on. And, from O'Driscoll's perspective, there is no harm affording him the latitude to be a little more selfish.
The theory is that if he is not encumbered by the captaincy, and all the extras that go with the armband, he will be able to concentrate on playing and sharpening his form.
And Ireland desperately need O'Driscoll on top form if they are to make a serious assault on the Six Nations Championship.
The announcement of the Ireland squad to play in this season's Championship was always going to be the source of huge debate. Not least, as it was so crudely put to him, because there is a possibility it will be Kidney's last squad announcement.
The Ireland coach's contract – and those of his lieutenants Gert Smal and Les Kiss – is up for renewal at the end of the Six Nations and there is a sense that this campaign is another audition for contract extensions.
Kidney, though, true to form, kicked for touch when the issue of his future was raised. "Right now I'm loving what I'm doing," he said. "It's a huge honour to do it. I never look too far ahead.
"I'm really just looking forward to the Welsh game and the Saxons game. As long as I'm enjoying it, well, let's see what happens."
Ireland's sparkling win and devastating performance that crucified Argentina made a mockery of Kidney's noisy critics.
The excitement and effectiveness of Ireland's most noteworthy performance of the November series proved the players were willing and, crucially, able to raise the soft-spoken coach's message to a lofty decibel level.
The result was the knives that had been sharpened in anticipation of a coup had to be quickly sheathed again as the obviously prepared obituaries underwent hasty rewrites.
The mood in the Ireland set-up is one of optimism and excitement as the start of the Six Nations campaign edges closer.
The squad announced will be supplemented over the coming days and weeks, but it is one Kidney and his coaches clearly believe capable of mounting a serious challenge for the Six Nations.
Indeed, the likelihood is that a first or second-place finish will be enough for the head coach's position to be extended until, at least, after the 2015 World Cup.
1 Why has Declan Kidney chosen Jamie Heaslip as captain?
He is looking ahead to the 2015 Rugby World Cup when Brian O'Driscoll will no longer be playing international rugby. O'Driscoll stated at the time of the RWC draw in December that the tournament will be "18 months" too late for him.
The generally held belief is that O'Driscoll will retire from international rugby after this summer's Lions' tour to Australia, although Kidney clearly disagrees.
It is incumbent on the coach to plan for the future. By selecting Heaslip now he is affording the 29-year-old the chance to further grow into the role while having the benefit of O'Driscoll's experience as a crutch should the need be there.
The captain must be somebody who is guaranteed his place in the team. Even when he has been below his best in terms of form, Heaslip has been a mainstay in the Ireland team.
He also matured hugely in terms of the captaincy in November and it is fitting that he be allowed to build on the momentum earned during the great Argentina victory.
If this move frees up O'Driscoll to extend his international career then it's happy days surely?
2 Is this the beginning of the end for Brian O'Driscoll?
When asked if he believed this was going to be O'Driscoll's final Six Nations Championship Kidney replied with an unequivocal "absolutely not."
When he stepped down as Leinster's captain, there was actually an upsurge in his performances for the side. And Leinster went on to win three Heineken Cups under Leo Cullen's captaincy and with O'Driscoll in scintillating form during those seasons.
O'Driscoll has a lot of mileage on the clock. He made his international debut in 1999 and has shouldered the expectations of a nation on his shoulders since then. When he does walk away from the international scene, he will do so with the gratitude of that nation. If there is any way to extend his career, though, then Kidney is absolutely correct to explore that avenue.
"This is not Brian's last Six Nations, not at all. Brian will play on as long as he is able to and maybe this will help extend that period," Kidney said.
3 Is the squad the best possible pick by Declan Kidney?
It is hard to pick holes in the squad as is. There are six uncapped newcomers and they will bring a vibrancy and optimism to the set-up that should permeate through the squad.
Paddy Wallace has his critics, but he has been playing some of his best rugby for Ulster this season and there would have been few eyebrows raised had he been selected on the basis of that form.
And, in Luke Marshall's absence through injury, perhaps room might have been found for him, although Kidney did suggest he could yet receive a call-up.
Munster's James Coughlan has huge cause to be disappointed. He has been the form No 8 at Heineken Cup level in Ireland for the past two seasons and is certainly deserving of international recognition.
He, as referenced by Kidney, had a taste of it in the Barbarians game last June. That he is 32 years of age has come against him, although Kidney did select Mike McCarthy (31) for just his fourth international cap in November.
Coughlan is on standby, as is Leinster's Kevin McLaughlin.
There is a possibility one or both will get the nod after this weekend's series of matches.
Stephen Ferris, Stephen Archer and Dan Tuohy are also likely to be called up at some stage during the Championship, although Kidney did close the door on Paul O'Connell's likely chances of playing some part in the campaign.
4 Who are the new faces?
There are six uncapped players included and a host of players with just a handful of caps. The uncapped are: Paddy Jackson, Paul Marshall, Lewis Stevenson, Dave McSharry, Ian Madigan and Robbie Henshaw. They are all more likely to see action in the Wolfhounds game next week than during the Six Nations, but their inclusion is hugely positive.
Henshaw, in particular, is a very exciting talent. He has shown his versatility by covering at full-back, but, judging by Kiss' comments, he is seen as a possible successor to O'Driscoll at outside-centre.
"I wouldn't like bracketing him into one, but he is a genuine No 13, he can play there, but I think he's done exceptionally well at No 15 for Connacht in circumstances that aren't always easy," said Kiss of the youngster.
5 Is the publicity regarding Jonathan Sexton's situation a distraction for player or group?
It would probably be best to let Kidney answer that one: "Not really. There's always going to be some story about something. I'd much prefer a story about a contract negotiation than a plethora of injuries, so I think he'll deal with it and the sooner for everybody that it can be brought to a conclusion the better, because you don't like things like that.
"Nobody likes their private life dragged out in public, but, at the same time, I presume they need to take time to deliberate over the decision he has to make and then announce it when he does it."
6 Will Declan Kidney offer an opinion to Sexton vis-a-vis his contract situation?
"If he asks me for one, yes I will."
7 What are Ireland's chances in the Six Nations?
They are quite good, actually and there is a real cause for optimism. The squad has evolved over the years and while there is no suggestion Kidney has "lost the dressing-room," there is a very real sense that this is a new beginning for Ireland.
Only four of the team that won the Grand Slam in 2009, for example, are likely to start the game against Wales on February 2: namely Heaslip, O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Rob Kearney.
A new generation have started to come through and the victory over Argentina will have imbued them with a confidence that Kidney – and Ireland – will be hoping can be built upon as the Championship starts and progresses.
Ireland can look forward to the February 2 date against Wales with confidence.