Friday 19 January 2018

Tony Ward: O'Gara's fate gives O'Driscoll food for thought

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Even though he is 13 years on the go and well into his second century of caps, the course of events over the past few days may well have given Brian O'Driscoll some food for thought.

At 34, and having ruled himself out of the 2015 World Cup, it's not unreasonable to suggest that today's appearance against the French could be our greatest ever player's last in a green shirt at Lansdowne Road.

Obviously, I hope I am wrong because, like almost everybody else, I want this truly special career to stretch on forever.

He is two years younger than Ronan O'Gara, but I will be more than a little surprised if the most iconic figure in Irish rugby hasn't taken stock of the sad course of events that have surrounded our most capped player.

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Whether O'Driscoll is motivated by numbers I don't know. My gut instinct tells me he is not and, therefore, this could be the season that he decides to walk away from Test rugby, assuming that he gets one more opportunity to complete some unfinished Lions business Down Under.

To do so as captain would provide the icing on the cake and make for a fairytale ending to a fairytale career.

Naturally, he will play these issues down, but in the back of his mind the possibility of a last hurrah as Lions skipper must be there. He would not be human were such thoughts not triggered by the O'Gara demise.

There is no easy way for any player to exit when his time is up. The trick is bowing out when you're still at the pinnacle.

If O'Driscoll's form in Ireland's remaining two Six Nations games earns the nod from Warren Gatland, then to retire at the very top would represent the perfect way to go, whether or not it is as skipper. There is much still to be done before Gatland announces his squad. And far from hindering his chances, I believe O'Driscoll losing the Irish armband could help his case for Lions leadership for a second time.

What an achievement that would be, even by our own Special One's exalted standards.

But first it is a case of getting down and dirty at the Aviva. The French coming to Dublin, having lost three from three and facing the possibility of a first wooden spoon since 1957, is almost unbelievable. So, when Thierry Dusautoir says: "we must do whatever it takes to beat the Irish," you know he means it.

Philippe Saint-Andre has kept faith with the pack from Twickenham and that indicates a forward unit on a mission.

To that end, I would have expected Francois Trinh-Duc and Mathieu Bastareaud at out-half and centre, respectively. Freddie Michalak is an unpredictable talent and he can be got at. However, if there was confusion as to who would wear the French No 10, I think it pales into insignificance when compared to the furore surrounding the Irish pivot and playmaker-in-chief for this afternoon's showdown.

Paddy Jackson rightly gets the nod, but why we had to endure the nonsense surrounding Jonathan Sexton is beyond me. I don't care how advanced medical rehabilitation is – a torn hamstring is a torn hamstring.

Sexton was never going to make today's line-up and if he did, then Gatland – never mind a certain club in France – would have been apoplectic.

Even if Jackson had a problem, why not name him and declare Ian Madigan as the reserve out-half? Instead, the ambiguity over Jackson fuelled the O'Gara debate (which by then should have been put to rest for this game at least).

It was all so patently unnecessary, as, indeed, was the Ireland team update issued on Wednesday.

It read: "Jackson and Madigan both trained today as part of the Ireland squad's normal kicking routine in the Aviva Stadium.

"Jackson came through, as expected, and will train fully with the squad tomorrow (Thursday)".

All of which begs the question: if it was "as expected," why all the mystery and intrigue, heaping buckets of oil on an already raging out-half fire, at the team announcement in the first place?

Talk about needlessly making life difficult for everyone concerned.

The inclusion of Michalak and Florian Fritz hints at a French backline with ambition, but, given the midweek sound-bites, France's desperation to win plus an unchanged pack smacks of an English attritional repeat rather than another Welsh rollercoaster.

Weather allowing, we are looking to a far more efficient line-out and scrum, allied to much greater accuracy and precision in handling from Ireland.

If we can match that with the kind of finishing that deserted us in Murrayfield, we're in with a shout. In saying that, it looks like it could well be another frustrating day for Ireland in Dublin. France to win by six.

Irish Independent

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