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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: January 9, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

    Who will be lucky number 13 for Ireland?

    John O'Sullivan

    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.

    • DonalP says:

      Quite a balanced article John, I agree with nearly all your points.
      First though Earls is not an international class centre. His distribution is horrific at times and has not got the natural rugby brain of someone like BOD. Also defensively he can be caught out of position and the outside centre channel is the lynchpin of the defensive line. In my opinion he is a fine winger and could possibly be compared to Hickey in his fantastic finishing skills. His international try tally can attest to this also.
      Bowe does not play centre for club regularly therefore should stick to wing, and having seen the Ospreys in Europe has looked to be in indifferent form at the moment. He could probably do a job though.
      Darcy is not a 13, end of (need to look to the future).
      Fitzgerald is a tricky one. If he improves his distribution possibly. When he got selected for the Lions I thought he was a very able replacement for the Bod alas a loss of confidence and stilted development have left me on the fence regarding this one. Not trusted with the role in Leinster therefore probably not worth risking at international level. Good winger though and hungry after world cup disappointment.
      Darren Cave was unlucky with injury and in my opinion was neck in neck with McFadden to make the plane to NZ. Agree with what you say John, no Bod but I think given a chance could really make a mark at international level. Solid for Ulster week in week out and if he had the Leinster backline playing alongside him could really make things happen. Deserves to be in the squad.
      This is all opinion and at the end of the day we can only judge on past performances. The coach will see the training sessions and also dependent on type of gameplan.

    • Cathal says:

      McFadden isn’t good enough to play outside centre at international level, whatever about other positions. Earls defence is suspect in the 13 channel and is a far better winger and possibly our greatest attacker from fullback. O’Malley should be given the nod; if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
      ps Tommy Bowe has all the credentials to be a quality inside centre; a position which I would consider a problem one for Ireland. D’Arcy errors have cost us severely in two huge games last year (France and Wales at the wc).

    • Alan D says:

      Perhaps it’s an over simplification but…I just wish Munster, Ulster and Connacht would learn how to play the Leinster way…. we’d be unstoppable.

    • William F says:

      I pretty much agree with most of John’s article. We need to look forward and on that note i would like to see O’Malley progressing in the Leinster shirt at 13 before we should look at him in the same position at international level. He may not have the full skill set that O’Driscoll has yet, but the future looks bright for him. Physically, he is big and strong and will develop further with age. As for this years starting 13, we may have to look sideways and not the future just yet and i think that McFadden would do a fine job here……

    • Finn says:

      What does James Downey need to do, other than move back to Ireland, to get a look at the Irish squad? He’s been playing well for Northampton for the last 18 months, but hasn’t had a chance – stick him at 12 and put D’Arcy at 13.

    • Andrew says:

      I’ve a feeling the position might not end up being fully nailed down just yet, with Kidney taking the chance to assess his options for the post-BOD future. McFadden would be my guess for the Wales game but unless he really excels we might well see Cave or O’Malley get a crack against Italy or Scotland. I definitely think O’Malley will get at least one start if he makes it as far as the squad. I’d also love to see us look beyond D’Arcy or Wallace at 12.

    • Johnie Eales says:

      The biggest selection error would be picking Darcy. Excluding that sparkling 1st season he is a crash ball merchant incapable of passing of his bad hand and and under pressure also he misses crucial tackles.

      We get ourselves bent up in a knot about our choice 10 for two years and now seem hell bent on focusing on replacing BOD (although he is due back). This would appear an ideal time to give two new players an opportunity to shine and develop an understanding.

      Alas the IRFU’s PATHETIC “always the next game” philosophy will prevent this.

      In closing anybody but Darcy.

    • Aran Holden says:

      Gordon D’Arcy should not be in the team. Last year 6 nations he cost Ireland the game against France and totally at fault for one of the Wales tries in last year RWC. In the Irish squad for this year 6 nation …..a no no no NO!

    • Ronan L says:

      Irish rugby blog Whiff of Cordite has been running a really good series called Thirteen Watch, which rates all the contenders out of 13 – latest instalment is here:
      Their money is on Cave or Earls but with a late push by McFadden.

    • Ah now lads says:

      It is instructive to note the balance of the comments here. How swiftly the contributions of stalwarts such as D’Arcy can be forgotten, notwithstanding his defensive failing in that fateful French encounter. It is also enlightening to see how many deride the proven skills of other players who comprise the attacking core of the three Irish provinces competing for quarter-final places in the Heineken Cup this weekend. Our support needs to move in tandem with our achievement, as opposed to being weighed down by a pervasive negativity. The first and fundamental aspect to realise is that O’Driscoll can and won’t ever be replaced. As the feature points out, the direction must lead and the selection will follow.

    • Gareth Moss says:

      The article definitely considers all the options – no matter how unviable. Earls is doing good things on the wing and should stay there. I’m not a fan of him in centre, and I don’t think he is a centre. Distribution and vision are lacking. He is a consumate winger and his finishing and try count testify to this. I would have said Bowe, last year, but he’s not playing centre anymore and that is important. O’Malley and F-mac aren’t there yet, but this is the time to get them there.

      I want to build for the future, but I don’t advocate throwing only a bunch of youngsters on the pitch. Hence I could find a role for D’arcy starting at 12, with Fmac outside him. But it is a tricky one wtih D’arcy, and I’m not convinced he should start, as mentioned in some of the reasons above. And if he doesn’t start, there is no room for him on the bench. I’d advocate Fmac at 12 and O’Malley at 13, only because Fmac is a better footballer and therefore can play 12 better than any of the other possiblities.

    • To me to you says:

      where in the world has the notion that o’malley will even make the ireland squad come from?? i think we need exceelent point ah now lads – o’driscoll cant just be replaced overnight! but we need a reality check here regarding o’malley – club wise he is not first choice centre, and at international he has 2 A caps! from an outside perspective it seems a leinster hype machine on overdrive to have one of their own in the ireland set up. i genuinely believe if that d’arcy is in fact picked at 12 (he does not deserve this but options limited) then you have to pick darren cave. Has performed superbly for Ireland A in the past at churchill cup tournaments and has performed strongly in this years heineken cup, notably keeping rougerie locked up – the same man who steam rolled d’arcy for that crucial french try last year. I am not convinced by mcfadden – makes a lot of mistakes for any good he does and was shockingly bad against scotland in the world cup warm up. my biggest fear is mr excitable declan kidney picks wallace at 12 and d’arcy at 13…

    • Stand Up For The Ulstermen says:

      If we are looking to the future, then consider Nevin Spence. Probably on Wolfhound duty this time around, but his first cap shouldn’t be too far away.

    • Simon Oliver says:

      Go for the future: Cave and D’Arcy with O’Malley on the bench. Earls and Bowe to stay on the wing. Wallace and McFadden not up to scratch. This season’s 6N must be used to experiment.

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