Wednesday 22 November 2017

Ireland captaincy 'up for debate'

BT Sport Ambassador Brian O’Driscoll jumps to it to promote the channel’s input to the eir Sport Pack
BT Sport Ambassador Brian O’Driscoll jumps to it to promote the channel’s input to the eir Sport Pack
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

This November represents the point at which the World Cup cycle pivots forward and Japan 2019 comes hurtling into view.

There are five international windows remaining between now and that tournament and while November success, Six Nations Championships and summer series wins will be the primary motivations at the time, the bigger picture will all be about the Webb Ellis Cup.

Joe Schmidt has been meticulously planning his route to that tournament ever since he committed himself to leading Ireland to his second World Cup and his focus has been on building depth and introducing new faces to the rigours and standards of the Test arena.

That process will continue in November, but this is also the moment when Schmidt must decide who will lead his team to Japan.

Rory Best has done a fine job to date, captaining the country to a series of historic victories in the post-Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll era.

Wagging

The Ulster man is 35 now and will be 37 when the tournament kicks off, but his performances as the Lions' midweek captain indicated he is showing little sign of slowing down just yet.

He has re-assumed the captaincy at provincial level, however, and his appointment by Les Kiss as Ulster skipper has set tongues wagging as to whether it might signal a change at international level.

"I do think that there is a big workload in being captain of both and so I was interested during the week to see Rory taking up the Ulster captaincy again," O'Driscoll said yesterday.

"But I don't envisage... he's not the sort of guy to give up a captaincy, considering how good a job he's done with Ireland.

"So, I think he'd have to have it prised off him if that is the case.

"I think Rory's the only one who knows how he feels, he's still the No 1 hooker in Ireland, he's done a phenomenal job since he took up the captaincy.

"He's someone who encourages pressure on himself, there was a void in Ulster and he's stepped up to the plate, he's the sort of person to do that.

"If his body is good enough, should he be captain for the World Cup? I do think he'll get there and he'll be No 1 choice hooker, on current form.

"So there's not a need to change a whole lot, the only time someone will get an opportunity is if he's injured, and you need to have a contingency anyhow.

"Rory is the only one who knows how he feels and if he'll get to Japan in two years anyhow."

If there was to be a change, then Peter O'Mahony would be the front-runner for the job. O'Driscoll had the honour of handing the Munster man his Lions jersey on the eve of the first Test in Eden Park when he led the tourists against the All Blacks last June.

The pride became a fall, however, and having been subbed off early the 27-year-old Corkman was dropped for the second and third Tests.

He has nursed his disappointment all summer and O'Driscoll reckons he'll be able to channel it into performances and will soon be over the omission.

"Listen Peter is a very old head on still relatively young shoulders, and he's very popular," he said. "I think you can see in any team that he embeds himself into, particularly in a Munster set-up, but with Ireland how he takes his opportunity, and he has done.

"He's going to be a huge player for Ireland come the World Cup in 2019.

"It's an incredibly competitive back-row, and again Joe will be picking on form. It would be a silly man who'd bet against Pete being one of those in the 6 or 7 jersey, likely 6.

"He's got a serious bloody-mindedness and I'm sure the disappointment of what happened during the summer will pump him up for the season to make sure that he can prove a few people wrong."

However, the competition for places at the back-row and the fact that O'Mahony has been edged out by his clubmate CJ Stander when everyone is fit in selection calls thus far could work against him when it comes to the long-term captaincy call.

"I think Pete is the obvious choice because of how much he is respected," the BT Sport analyst said.

"But you have to guarantee your captain a starting berth and can you guarantee him that in that back-row right now? 100pc? Probably not, but there is a good likelihood that he'd be there.

"Other than that, Johnny (Sexton) has really matured in the last few years, again you look at how good he was for the Lions and the cool head, I've said it over the last couple of years watching, it looks as though he's mellowed out an awful lot, and he's better captaincy material (now).

"Conor Murray, he doesn't need to be captain because he just leads the way with his performance anyway, he's a world-class No 9.

"I do think it's probably Pete, Johnny or Rory if you're not picking the holder."

The other step on the World Cup road that is likely to come in November is the introduction of the latest batch of 'Special Project' players, of whom Bundee Aki is the most high profile.

With injury concerns over Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne and Garry Ringrose definitely out of the Tests against South Africa, Fiji and Argentina, the door is open for the New Zealander to make his debut this autumn.

Whatever your thoughts on the residency laws, the prospect is an exciting one in pure playing terms.

"If I was a young up-and-coming player and I saw Bundee Aki playing centre I'd be worried because he's a good player and he'll do a good job when he does put on a green jersey," O'Driscoll conceded.

"Joe is someone who always rewards guys who are in form, so if he continues to play well... he's obviously not getting Champions Cup exposure, which helps, but the best thing for any player trying to get into international rugby is for the provincial team to go well, then the knock-on effect is they're going to go well in a team that's thriving.

"Don't worry about what Joe is thinking, to use one of Joe's terms; control what you're in control of.

"Organically, you'll manage to get yourself picked.

"The people in situ, that he'll want to displace, you'd imagine Robbie, who went on the Lions tour, will remain the number one in the 12 jersey, unless something changes between now and November."

Irish Independent

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