IRELAND coach Declan Kidney doesn’t have too many selection headaches this week – most of us could rattle off at least 13 of his starters against Wales on Sunday – but he does have a major call to make at outside centre, where he must somehow find a replacement for Brian O’Driscoll.
O’Driscoll will be missing for the entire campaign after shoulder surgery and not since 1999, the last season of the old Five Nations, have Ireland entered a campaign without their talisman shoring up the midfield.
During that time O’Driscoll has missed just five Six Nations games and helped himself to 24 tries, a championship record, many of them scored in tandem with Leinster team-mate Gordon D’Arcy, a midfield pairing that has played a world record 47 games together.
But this season the greatest midfield warrior of them all is hors de combat and while Kidney’s immediate concern will be rejigging his backline for this Championship, it won’t be long now before Ireland have to contemplate life without their greatest ever player.
O’Driscoll, 33, has set himself the target of touring Australia with the 2013 Lions, which means he should be available for one more Six Nations campaign, but don’t expect him to play beyond that and after such a major injury achieving that aim is going to present possibly the biggest challenge of his career.
“You don’t lose one of the best players in the world and ever think it will be the same,” says Kidney, who first encountered O’Driscoll when he coached the Ireland team that won the U19 World Cup in 1998. “And Brian hasn’t been too willing to give the jersey up. Everyone is wondering what does the jersey feel like because he has had it so long.
In terms of the captaincy, it is simple because we have Paul O’Connell to immediately step into his shoes, but as a centre we have many options. Keith Earls, Fergus McFadden, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble have all played well there in the past and another option could be playing Paddy Wallace with Gordon D’Arcy.”
The first thing Kidney has considered is the futility of trying to find a like-for-like replacement for O’Driscoll – that just isn’t going to happen – so his task now and in the not so distant future is to identify the player who moulds best with the talent he has available and that is where it becomes really interesting.
With a back three potentially of a rejuvenated Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble you fancy the new man’s first job should be as a facilitator for that world-class strike force. In the past everything has tended to revolve around the O’Driscoll-D’Arcy midfield axis but we could see a change in the modus operandi now, with more emphasis on bringing the back three into play as quickly as possible.
Keith Earls is marginally the front-runner, but Kidney has always been an admirer of Paddy Wallace’s role as a facilitator while Fergus McFadden is a long-term option and has already forged a strong partnership with D’Arcy in the Leinster midfield when O’Driscoll has been missing for his club side.
Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble have both been mentioned – both have starred in the centre before – but moving one of those would be a huge call. In the future possibly, but the Six Nations is about the here and now and that feels like one punt too many.
“Irish Rugby has been built on Brian’s shoulder for a long time now, he has been the foundation of the Ireland and Leinster team for over a decade,” says D’Arcy. “It’s a case of how do you replace the irreplaceable?” We shall soon see.