Monday 19 February 2018

David Kelly:No alternative to fill O'Driscoll's boots

It must be so tempting to juxtapose the sight of Brian O'Driscoll wearing a white bandage with the image of him waving the white flag of defeat.

It must be so tempting to juxtapose the sight of Brian O'Driscoll wearing a white bandage with the image of him waving the white flag of defeat.

As if the defiance of an ageing warrior must always summon up the spectre of decay.

The great Kerry footballer Darragh O Se was always wont to say that it took him a few games to emit the "dirty petrol". His greatness never diminished, although there were some days when his genius didn't light the skies as it so often did in high summer.

Similarly, O'Driscoll has demonstrated already this season that he is possessed of sublime skills that not a single one of his predecessors in green were capable of; it would be a miraculous discovery in our lifetime to welcome a successor who could boast the same.

Last Saturday, along with most of his colleagues, including garlanded Lions, international and provincial captains, he performed well below the standards that he lays down for himself.

But just as it would have been farcical to suggest that the previous week's series of genius flicks and passes against Samoa were worthy of prolonging his career, so it would be fatuous in the extreme to suggest that he be sent to stud forthwith on the basis of one performance.

"Of course he's undercooked," pointed out his Leinster coach Matt O'Connor. "That's his third game for the year. He's still finding his feet. It wasn't a great night for him. He didn't get too many opportunities. But that wasn't his doing. That was just the way the game went."

DISQUIET

It is not the presence of O'Driscoll that should cause disquiet but the ramifications of his absence.

Irish rugby's inability to construct a coherent player development strategy – admittedly combined with some ill luck – means that there is no realistic alternative to fill his boots.

Following the sad retirement of Eoin O'Malley, who Joe Schmidt had seemingly groomed as O'Driscoll's long-term provincial replacement, the alternative candidates remain unconvincing.

Robbie Henshaw may be a prospect, but not immediately so. Keith Earls and Fergus McFadden, after needless dithering throughout their careers, are now presumably flagged as wingers.

Both, in any event, are now injured. Darren Cave cannot establish himself at Ulster, who also remain unconvinced by the prospect of Tommy Bowe in the midfield.

There is only one alternative to O'Driscoll, and even then only fractionally possessed of the brilliance that glitters in the Clontarf man's fingertips. Ironically, he is not an Irishman.

Jared Payne becomes Irish-qualified next season and he is deputed as O'Driscoll's long-term successor. It is indicative of the underwhelming skill-set of our players in contrast to the world's leading nations that the prime candidate to succeed an Irishman is a New Zealander.

It is not sentiment that forces one to concede that O'Driscoll should remain in the side next Sunday – it is a reality. Schmidt is such a ruthless coach that he would be the first to ditch O'Driscoll if he thought there was a better option. At the moment, there isn't.

O'Driscoll's tragedy is certainly not in staying on too long. The real tragedy is that Irish rugby has not done enough during his gilded and glittering career to ensure that, even if such genius may be utterly irreplaceable, there were at least identifiable and realistic contenders prepared to competently succeed him.

That we must look to New Zealand to do so is a damning indictment of the game in this country.

Irish Independent

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