Ireland hope loss of captaincy lifts O'Driscoll
Declan Kidney has overseen some notable decisions during his five years as Ireland coach but denying Brian O’Driscoll the captaincy ahead of this Six Nations definitely stands out.
O’Driscoll has been captain in 84 of his 120 Tests for Ireland, an astonishingly high ratio, but missed the 2012 end-of-year-series because of an ankle injury.
However, the 34-year-old centre is fit for Ireland’s Six Nations opener away to Wales in Cardiff next weekend.
Nevertheless, Kidney has decided to stick with No 8 Jamie Heaslip, Ireland’s captain in November, as skipper.
Kidney believes that in returning O’Driscoll to the ranks he is extending rather than curtailing his brilliant career.
The midfielder’s more recent Test displays have been notable for immense defence rather than the blistering attacking play that caught the eye of world rugby over a decade ago.
“This is not Brian’s last Six Nations, not at all,” Kidney told the Irish Independent. “Brian will play on as long as he is able to and maybe this will help extend that period.
“Anyone who knows me would know it is not a decision I would make lightly. I’m just trying to look after Brian here and, if I am wrong, I’m wrong for trying to look after a player.” When it comes to the mental and physical demands of modern Test rugby, few men are more experienced than O’Driscoll.
But there are limits to even how many times the Leinster star drags his battered body through another major series in the cause of Irish rugby, given he has already ruled himself out of playing at the 2015 World Cup in England.
Ireland, a middling third in last season’s Six Nations but who ended 2012 with a win over Argentina, will be without another stalwart in Paul O’Connell for the whole of this Six Nations as he recovers from back surgery.
And wing Tommy Bowe, who has scored 26 tries in 51 Tests, will also be sidelined from this Six Nations, in his case with a knee problem.
Up front Donnacha Ryan, a lock who has spent much of his Test career as back-up to the second row combination of O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan, will be expected to fill the hole left by his Munster team-mate.
Meanwhile in the backs, 21-year-old wing Craig Gilroy will want to prove his try-scoring debut against against Argentina was no flash in the pan Between them Leinster and Munster have won five out of the last seven European Cups.
Yet apart from Ireland’s 2009 Six Nations Grand Slam, that talent has not always been to the fore on the international stage.
That has led to former Munster boss Kidney, whose Ireland contract reportedly finishes at the end of this Six Nations, facing accusations of failing to make the most of his resources.
Getting the balance right between short-term considerations and developing a squad for a subsequent World Cup can be difficult to strike, and there is a sense of Kidney being caught between the two objectives in recent times.
Not that the typically enigmatic coach was giving much away ahead of the Wales game.
“Right now I’m loving what I’m doing,” Kidney said. “I never look too far ahead. As long as I’m enjoying it, well, let’s see what happens.” Player to watch Conor Murray The 14-times capped scrum-half appears to have won a battle with Eoin Reddan for Ireland’s No 9 shirt.
Now no longer a Test novice, his decision-making, in what is always a key position in any side, could play a big role in Ireland’s Six Nations fortunes.