Kidney's vision of the future not the complete picture
Irish coach can point to a new team and a new captain as his legacy, says Brendan Fanning
The conversation between coach and outgoing captain could be measured better in seconds than minutes, seemingly.
"Very disappointed," was the terminology used in the official statement issued at the squad announcement last Thursday.
"Gutted," was how a close friend of Brian O'Driscoll's described it a day later.
On last Wednesday evening, the night before Declan Kidney announced his 39-man squad, a colleague in England emailed to ask who the coach would be bringing as captain to the Six Nations launch in London this week.
"Heaslip, I'm afraid," was the reply. The rationale was as follows: O'Driscoll's return from injury was being managed carefully by Leinster – who only gave him 20 minutes against the Scarlets last weekend – and it wasn't clear if he would be fit.
Moreover, Heaslip had got a leg up in the November series and come out of the experience with a turbo-boosting win over Argentina, a performance and result that carried the brand of the next generation. No O'Driscoll, no Ronan O'Gara, no Paul O'Connell, no Rory Best. Remember the giddy reaction to Craig Gilroy's opening try? It was like a bunch of young fellas starting out on an exciting journey together.
So I figured Kidney would go to O'Driscoll, who, when the decision was being made, had played 100 minutes of rugby since coming back. And he would say something along the lines of: 'I know you're quicker than most at getting back up to speed, but how are you fixed this time?'
You reckoned the issue of the captaincy might be a collaborative one, given the massive experience of the individual involved. So if O'Driscoll was happy to hang onto the arm band then that's what he would do. And if he was struggling to get fit and lead at the same time, then the responsibility would pass to Heaslip. It wasn't like that however.
"It was not something Brian was ever going to give up, or felt he should give it up," Kidney said last week. "Maybe some time in the future but he wouldn't have felt that the time would be right now. Sometimes as a coach that's what your job is, to make the calls you feel are at the right time for the player even though the player mightn't agree with you. That's basically the job, there's not too many ways of saying it, but it is very tough."
You'd have to respect Kidney for making a call that was sure to bring a torrent of abuse to his door. O'Driscoll's old comrades were quick to pick up their weapons and unload them on the coach.
Where Kidney began to lose it a bit was when he said that there was nothing to prevent Brian O'Driscoll coming back as captain in the future. Well, there is actually. And his name is Jamie Heaslip.
When I replied to my colleague, "Heaslip, I'm afraid", it was partly down to the suspicion that O'Driscoll would not be fit, and partly down to Heaslip getting the gig in any case. This was a selfish reaction, for dealing with the No 8 is like asking a tired patient to recount his symptoms for the umpteenth time. While he's eating an apple and examining his finger nails. You don't have to enjoy the process, but without it the system doesn't work.
Jamie Heaslip has a heap of talent and a first-class work ethic. Seemingly there is a country mile between the man in the changing room and the one who comes out front to represent those in the changing room. Closing the gap would be a good idea.
In the aftermath of the defeat by Wales in the World Cup in 2011, Heaslip arrived to the mixed zone with a beer in his hand and escape on his mind. We felt the same, but brought no refreshments. Asked by a colleague if there was a moment in the game when he felt there was no way back for Ireland, he said: "Yeah, the final whistle." Priceless!
He was withdrawn at that point and replaced by Rory Best, who had played injured, was equally disappointed with the result, and surely wanted to be anywhere other than right there at that time. He handled it with dignity and professionalism, and we went out the door thinking we had just spoken to a future Ireland captain.
Maybe if he was sure of his place Best would have the gig, but I doubt it. The hooker's problem is more than Richardt Strauss, and O'Driscoll's is more than fitness or form. They are on the wrong side of the street now.
Kidney was really taken with the Argentina game, when the new brigade had rattled off seven tries to secure Ireland's World Cup seeding. And how appropriate that this was the reward, for these are the players who will live to enjoy it.
Moving Heaslip centre stage is the coach presenting his legacy. Even if he is gone at the end of the season, Kidney can point to a new team with a new captain and two more seasons for them to bed in together before the world cup. That is his vision and he's had it for a while now. His problem is that the old captain hasn't gone away. And it's unlikely he will do so without a fight.
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