Wednesday 7 December 2016

Tony Ward: Sean O'Brien can be a new Paul O'Connell

Published 09/01/2016 | 02:30

On the assumption he is over the worst of his injury issues then the 41-times capped O'Brien at 28 is the most logical way to a new beginning (SPORTSFILE)
On the assumption he is over the worst of his injury issues then the 41-times capped O'Brien at 28 is the most logical way to a new beginning (SPORTSFILE)

Just how important is the role of captain in modern-day rugby? Still very, I would suggest. Nowhere near what it once was but still vital in inspirational terms.

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Naturally captains differ according to personality traits but the best leaders are those with whom players feel comfortable when approaching. No more than great players make great coaches do great players make great captains.

I always cite Ciaran Fitzgerald as the best captain I played under. I do so for a number of reasons. What Fitzy had was special in that he was a naturally aggressive front-row forward who followed the ball like a magnet. By dint of positional demand he led from the front. Where he went the rest followed.

But because that came naturally, when he spoke EVERYONE listened. You could hear a pin drop in changing-rooms or team rooms when Fitzy was in full flow.

Paul O'Connell and Joe Schmidt
Paul O'Connell and Joe Schmidt

You knew he would never ask anything of you he didn't demand of himself. In addition he was a great listener. He made it his business to talk to players - all players - in the build up to a big game. You knew when you were in conversation with him he was listening and more to the point was hearing what you were saying.

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So when it came to match day and those final motivational moments special to dressing rooms everywhere, what Fitzgerald possessed over and above the ordinary was an innate ability to strike at individual chords through a collective button.

That takes some doing without trampling on madcap egos or precious sensitivities in one room. Communicator, mediator, motivator, facilitator, psychoanalyst. . . the best captains of old were of necessity all of those things. Oh yeah and they needed to be able to play a bit too.

Today it is a different game entirely, with the load nowhere near the same. Now between head coaches, assistant coaches, attacking coaches, defensive coaches, kicking coaches, scrum coaches, psychologists and whatever you're having yourself, there is little time for the captain to take overall control other than on the field.

There are exceptions and, as everyone who played with him will tell you, Paul O'Connell was one.

So for Joe Schmidt in having to replace him, while not quite mission impossible (the king is dead, long live the king) it's still a huge ask. For me there are six, possibly seven candidates.

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In no particular order other than position they are Rory Best, Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and possibly Rob Kearney. With Munster captain O'Mahony recovering from injury and Murray still not back to full fitness (or by extension form) that reduces the list to five.

Add to that Kearney the elder and Sexton still taking small steps back to effective Test impact and in leaving the first-choice half-backs and full-back to get their own houses in order, it reduces that list further still.

I know Schmidt has a special working relationship with his out-half but for the most logical of reasons - form and confidence - I believe his playmaker in chief should be given time and space to look after himself.

Heaslip has already had a shot at the role, leading his country on a dozen occasions to date. As a player he is under-appreciated and as one who advocated him for the role I feel that as a communicator he sells himself short. But he is still an onfield leader along with Murray, Sexton, Kearney, O'Mahony et al, irrespective of who wears the armband.

That leaves two, with one appearing a little out of left-field.

If it is to be a short-term appointment - as in the upcoming Six Nations - then at 33 and with 89 caps Rory Best is the man, and I for one have no problem with that.

Obviously I haven't been privy to experiencing him up close in that role but in almost every other way he mirrors Fitzgerald, quite apart from sharing the same position.

Should Schmidt choose that route in the short term I doubt there will be a dissenting voice.

But if I do have a bias it is in relation to the ideal position for captaincy on a rugby field.

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All things being equal - and with respect to Fitzgerald, O'Connell, Keith Wood, Brian O'Driscoll, Karl Mullen and all the great leaders who have gone before - it would be for one with leadership qualities positioned at six, seven, eight or nine. That is the fulcrum of the side and if you can pull a leader from there you're in bonus territory.

On the assumption he is over the worst of his injury issues then the 41-times capped O'Brien at 28 is the most logical way to a new beginning.

Whether he has what it takes to become a Fitzgerald or an O'Connell only time will tell but there is only one sure way to find out.

Joe is not afraid to take a punt and in O'Brien he would at least be taking a calculated one.

The safe call would be to go with the Ulster captain; the bold would be to back the Tullow Tank.

As regards Andy Farrell's appointment as new defensive coach to replace Les Kiss, I like most was surprised but equally as an avid follower of rugby League fully appreciate what he, like Shaun Edwards, Mike Ford, Kiss and many others, brings to the cross-code move.

That union is a more complex game is a given hence the difficulty for league players making the transition.

Defensively, however, league has tightened up union dramatically. I hate what it's brought but the expertise and organisation in implementing systems is beyond dispute.

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So when players of the calibre of O'Driscoll, O'Connell and Keith Earls comment in such a positive way about Farrell's appointment then that's good enough for me.

That said I draw the line when our greatest ever player tweets we can expect "line speed and a great kick chase".

If I have one wish for the upcoming Six Nations defence (and yes even if it means losing that title) it is that we move beyond a "great kick and chase". There was a time when we were content to win ugly, given our lesser playing resources relative to England, France etc, but professionalism has levelled that playing field to a large extent and we are a much more formidable opponent and stronger rugby playing nation on the back of it.

I repeat we are not looking for a reinvention of the wheel but just a little more risk-taking. Off-loading in the tackle is not a dirty word but when executed at pace a la Leinster under Schmidt is a thing of beauty.

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