Who will be lucky number 13 for Ireland?
Ireland’s squad for the Six Nations Championship is due to be announced next week and while there will be several areas of contention in terms of its composition from a personnel perspective, the issue of who will fill the number 13 jersey in the absence of the injured Brian O’Driscoll has arguably commandeered the most headlines; or at the very least exercised the most debate.
So to the contenders! Leinster’s Fergus McFadden and Keith Earls of Munster are the front runners based on Ireland coach Declan Kidney’s previous selection dynamics. The credentials of Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster) and Tommy Bowe (Ospreys) can be argued persuasively while the respective qualities of Darren Cave (Ulster), Eoin O’Malley (Leinster) and Eoin Griffin (Connacht) also merit discussion.
It should also be recorded that the last occasion that Gordon D’Arcy was given an extended run at outside centre for Ireland – O’Driscoll was injured – he was voted the Six Nations Player of the Championship (2004) and shortlisted for the IRB World Player of the Year award.
In deciding on the likely lad for the Irish number 13 jersey, it’s important to examine the role that he will be asked to play within the team. O’Driscoll was responsible for marshalling Ireland’s defence out wide and that requires an appreciation of the difference between tackling and defending. He’s also Ireland’s creative fulcrum in wider channels, whether distributing or running those late, slanting trail lines off a ball carrier.
He’s pretty tasty from close range too as the Grand Slam season demonstrated! Assuming that D’Arcy is chosen at inside centre then the list of contenders can be whittled down courtesy of a variety of factors. Griffin is currently injured (hamstring) while O’Malley and Cave may find that their next representative assignment is playing for the Ireland Wolfhounds who take on the England Saxons at Exeter Chief’s home ground, Sandy Park, on January 28th.
Cave is the closest to O’Driscoll in terms of game playing style. He runs very good lines, has excellent peripheral vision in terms of his distribution, is a good defender, is strong on the ball and links well. When Ireland won a Grand Slam at Under 20 level in 2007 he played at outside centre and Earls was on the wing. Based on having watched all five matches in that campaign, the then Irish coach Eric Elwood got that selection spot on.
Cave’s progression has been stilted somewhat by injury – he suffered a particularly bad hamstring tear at one point – and also by the simple fact that Ulster have been nowhere near as successful in Europe as Munster and Leinster and the knock-on effect is that the 24-year-old hasn’t been exposed to the diet of high profile occasions that his rivals have enjoyed.
Bowe would be an interesting choice at 13. In the modern game where centres have gotten ever bigger, he has the physique to complement his many other qualities. Kidney must decide on what he wants from the player in the number 13 jersey and whether he’d be content with Fitzgerald or Andrew Trimble taking over Bowe’s right wing role.
Earls appears more comfortable on the wing and doesn’t have to be used in an orthodox fashion. The most likely successor though is McFadden. He has risen to every challenge and if he is given time to mature in the role both with Leinster and Ireland, he possesses the raw ingredients to make the desired impact.
First though Kidney must decide on how Ireland’s back play should evolve before alighting on the man to wear the number 13 jersey.