Wednesday 18 September 2019

Despite deficiencies, O'Driscoll a shoo-in for captaincy

IN the coming weeks, Irish coach Eddie O'Sullivan will finalise his team for the difficult opening match of this year's Six Nations Championship. Travelling to Paris and facing France would not be O'Sullivan's ideal choice, but first time out might prove to be the best chance of getting a result against many people's favourites for the competition, given that the crunch matc

IN the coming weeks, Irish coach Eddie O'Sullivan will finalise his team for the difficult opening match of this year's Six Nations Championship. Travelling to Paris and facing France would not be O'Sullivan's ideal choice, but first time out might prove to be the best chance of getting a result against many people's favourites for the competition, given that the crunch match against England takes place in the French capital on the final Saturday.

Selection apart, O'Sullivan is faced with one certainty: he must replace the retired Keith Wood as captain. The charismatic hooker has retired and although Brian O'Driscoll may seem a certainty - injury permitting - the player and coach are sure to have lengthy discussions on the value to the team and the pressures on the player if O'Driscoll should become leader of the national team.

History has some interesting lessons on leadership. When he was younger than O'Driscoll, Alexander the Great had conquered most of the known world; shorter in stature than the Irish captain, Napoleon twice persuaded the French to flock to his colours in an attempt to dominate Europe; and a lot older and with more failures behind him than Ireland's centre, Winston Churchill saved his country from annihilation and paved the way the way for modern Europe.

The current Irish coach has some innovative views on the Irish captaincy. Uniquely, in world rugby he nominated four vice-captains in his squad. People like Anthony Foley and David Humphreys were singled out from their peers as players who would lead the team in the absence of the nominated captain through injury or substitution.

There was another unstated reason. Wood was a larger than life figure. He dominated the media, the tactical discussions and, with drop goals, chip kicks and storming runs, he was a huge presence on the pitch.

Analysis of the hooker's captaincy might conclude that he was not the best tactical mind on the field. In the early days, and particularly under Warren Gatland when he was given a free hand, he made poor decisions at the lineout and wandered the field from full back to fly half in astonishing feats of individual brilliance, but the team and the captain's own performance suffered. His career flowered under O'Sullivan's organisation. The coach gave him a template to work with and, by sub-contracting some of the decisions, Ireland's onfield decision-making was vastly improved.

O'Sullivan's decision to appoint vice-captains formalised the organisation which exists in all great teams. The 'senior pros' invariably contribute and there is little doubt that Martin Johnson hears from Neil Back, Mike Catt or Jason Leonard during the critical moments of a game.

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O'Sullivan's decision was to have crucial impact when O'Driscoll took over when Wood was injured. What initially was just for the autumn internationals was extended to the Championship, and when the hooker returned he took over from the most successful captain in Irish rugby history, as the centre had led Ireland to seven wins out of eight.

It is incomprehensible that the current contract negotiations between O'Driscoll and the IRFU will break down, which will leave him in prime position to lead Ireland in Paris and beyond. The stakes are high for the player. He has a keen awareness of his commercial value and the captain's armband increases his visibility and asking price.

Equally, it would put him in prime position to lead the next Lions' tour party to New Zealand. If he accepts the job now, in two years' time he will be the most experienced captain in the four home nations and his candidacy would be near unstoppable. It would, coincidentally, help his coach's chances of being part of the coaching team.

Ireland's success and the quality of its captains have always been inextricably linked. Youth has not necessarily been a barrier. Karl Mullen was a mere 21-year-old medical student when asked to captain Ireland and he led his country to two Triple Crowns and was also captain of the Lions.

Three decades later, Ciarán Fitzgerald did likewise, following the success of another hooker and Lions captain, Ronnie Dawson. There should have been a fourth in that august band had Ray McLoughlin not been shamefully treated by the selectors: they cost him the captaincy of Ireland and ultimately the Lions. The prop forward may well have been the greatest leader of them all given the team he inherited and the organisation that went with it.

Dawson and McLoughlin were cerebral leaders of men, dominating teams with their intellect and tactical appreciation; Mullen for all his tender years was a leader of men who knew how to use the talents of the great men around him; while Fitzgerald was the old fashioned cavalry officer whom men followed with a will.

The Irish selectors did not always get it right. Infamously, Jim Ritchie and Rob Saunders were appointed captain on their first appearances for Ireland. There was some excuse for Ritchie, who was appointed in an era when provincial bias was rife, but Saunders had come through the Irish system and his weaknesses as a captain should have been well known. Neither lasted long in charge nor were their periods in office successful.

O'Driscoll brings everything to the position. He is the best player on the team, with vast experience despite his relative youth. He is part of a squad where organisation and planning is the watchword under a coach who has formally set up a support system for the leader. The centre does not possess the tactical awareness or the charisma of his great predecessors, but the modern professional game requires different skills and talents of its leaders.

O'Driscoll is must-choice as captain, but it will have effects on the resultant selection decisions. It will help Anthony Foley as leader of the pack . . . or may open the way for Paul O'Connell to make his first move as a future captain by becoming the senior forward.

Ultimately, O'Driscoll's role may be to ensure that the team retains third place in the championship standings rather than preside over a Triple Crown-winning team in the immediate future.

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