JOE SCHMIDT has revealed that Brian O'Driscoll ruled himself out of the race to captain Ireland, leaving the door open for Paul O'Connell to assume the mantle.
The Munster icon has been handed the job on a long-term basis, while Jamie Heaslip will lead the side out against Samoa tomorrow and will be vice-captain in the new regime.
The New Zealander kept Ireland fans guessing right up to the last minute at the team announcement, explaining that it was a decision that was "really tough to make and that's why it's happened so late."
O'Connell is among the replacements for tomorrow's clash at the Aviva Stadium, having overcome the calf injury that has hampered his preparation, which allows Heaslip to continue as skipper for one more game.
There were a number of surprises in Schmidt's first team as Ireland coach as he opted to keep O'Connell, Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy in reserve after they missed last week's preparation through injury.
Jack McGrath wins his first cap at loosehead in Healy's place, while Chris Henry starts at openside and Devin Toner covers for O'Connell in the second-row. Dave Kearney could also make his debut off the bench.
Paddy Jackson starts at out-half in the absence of Johnny Sexton, but Schmidt said he was "absolutely confident" that the Lions No 10 would come back into the shake-up for next week's meeting with Australia.
Despite the unexpected selections, it was the decision over the captaincy that caused most discussion at Carton House.
O'Connell had overtaken Heaslip as favourite over the past number of months, while O'Driscoll was also believed to be under consideration for a return to the job he held with distinction from 2002-12 before losing out to his fellow Leinster man last season, but Schmidt revealed that the 125-cap international removed himself from the equation ahead of his final season.
"Brian ruled himself out. He thinks a lot more widely than just about himself," Schmidt said. "I know Brian would love to be captain because he loves to take on any challenge. But he also, I think, believes it's important there's some sort of continuity going forward."
Schmidt said he had agonised over picking his key leader before opting for O'Connell with Heaslip as his deputy. The 2009 Lions captain has led Ireland on eight occasions, as cover for O'Driscoll, but this is the first time he has been handed the job full-time, after he committed to playing on until at least the 2015 World Cup.
"It's one of those decisions that was really tough to make and that's why it's happened so late," Schmidt said. "Not just Paul, but another couple of guys who were under injury clouds were also potential leaders and involved in leading the team.
"Paul has massive respect from the other players. As does Jamie, and that's why, for us, those two were a good fit.
"Paul is incredibly passionate. He's iconic in rugby in Ireland. He's committed to continuing beyond this season and that was part of the equation for us as well. To make sure that there was some sort of connection between this season and next."
Schmidt added that he sees Heaslip as O'Connell's natural successor. "It's also about having an heir apparent. He's a leader of men."