Kidney retains Heaslip as Ireland captain

Fri, Jan 18, 2013, 00:00

This was always going to be a tricky one for Declan Kidney and the Irish management ticket. In the combined absence of Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Rory Best last November, a new leadership group, headed by Jamie Heaslip and featuring Jonny Sexton, Donnacha Ryan and others, assumed responsibility.

The infectious enthusiasm which we were informed of on an almost daily basis – one player recently described it as the most enjoyable month of his rugby career – manifested itself in that 46-24 win over Argentina.

The dilemma was to what extent Kidney and co would dip into that new zeitgeist come the Six Nations, and either way it would have to upset the more established or more recent leadership dynamic within the squad. In the event, despite the return of the man who had led Ireland for a decade, Heaslip’s leadership, and that of his lieutenants, has been endorsed.

In all of this we don’t know the inner dynamics of the squad. Kidney would assuredly have consulted his fellow coaches as well. It is a brave call in many ways, for the safer option would probably have been to re-instate O’Driscoll, but ultimately it’s one that will be judged, as ever, primarily on results. If Ireland have a good Six Nations, this decision will be vindicated. If not, then it will be probably another stick with which to beat the coach’s head.

Injury profile

O’Driscoll will be 34 on Monday, but whatever about looking ahead to 2015 and having a longer-term captain in place, another factor has assuredly been O’Driscoll’s injury profile and lack of game time this season. He has started only one match (away to Edinburgh in the Pro 12) since October. A minor injury in training denied him a start against the Scarlets and after coming on he also suffered a slight ankle sprain.

There is even the outside chance that he will play for the Wolfhounds against the Saxons in Galway next Friday, but presuming he is picked from the start and comes through unscathed for Leinster away to Exeter tomorrow, it shouldn’t come to that.

O’Driscoll was, by all accounts, very upset by the decision. Captaining Ireland has come to almost define him.

O’Driscoll’s status as Ireland’s greatest ever rugby player brooks no argument and no player in the history of the game has captained a side in Test rugby more than the great one.

In all, O’Driscoll has led Ireland on 83 occasions, as well as captaining the Lions once. Never say never but, sadly, it would appear that the 60-0 defeat to New Zealand in Hamilton last June may well now be the last time he has led his country.

He captained Ireland for the first time when winning his 31st cap against Australia in November 2002 and took over as skipper of the squad for the 2004 Six Nations after the retirement of Keith Wood, since when he has captained Ireland every time he has played.

Grand Slam

In addition to leading Ireland to the World Cups of 2007 and 2011, until being ruled out through injury last season, O’Driscoll also captained Ireland for nine successive Six Nations campaigns, missing only five of those 45 games through injury. As well as leading Ireland to the Grand Slam in 2009, he also led them to the Triple Crowns of 2004, ’06 and ’07.

It’s doubtful Heaslip or anyone else will even come close to matching O’Driscoll’s record of captaining Ireland 83 times. Next on the list is Wood on 36 occasions.

Verily, not only will O’Driscoll go down as Ireland’s greatest player of all time, but also Ireland’s greatest captain.

To demote him was probably Kidney’s toughest call, but the others have been suspended for later. Tom Court’s form has earned a deserved recall, but either he or the in-form David Kilcoyne will still have to miss out on the match-day 23 against Wales.

Perming two from up to six potential wingers – Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy, Andrew Trimble, Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls and Fergus McFadden – will be difficult, and that’s without Tommy Bowe. Likewise, the welcome return of Seán O’Brien (along with Rory Best, Rob Kearney and Fitzgerald) raises the backrow competition, while the belated inclusion of both Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan provided a contingency plan had Ronan O’Gara been suspended. Madigan’s selection, ahead of Ian Keatley suggests Jackson’s status as the next outhalf in line is under sharper threat.

It’s worth recalling Heaslip did a fine job in his own inimitably laidback way last November. Four years ago, after the last Lions tour, one Irish punter backed Heaslip to be captain in one match on next summer’s jaunt to Australia, at odds of 200 to 1. And those odds must have shortened considerably again yesterday.

Ireland Six Nations squad

Backs

Isaac Boss (Leinster)

Darren Cave (Ulster)

Gordon D’Arcy (Leinster)

Keith Earls (Munster)

Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster)

Craig Gilroy (Ulster)

Robbie Henshaw (Connacht)

Paddy Jackson (Ulster)

Rob Kearney (Leinster)

Ian Madigan (Leinster)

Paul Marshall (Ulster)

Fergus McFadden (Leinster)

David McSharry (Connacht)

Conor Murray (Munster)

Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster)

Ronan O’Gara (Munster)

Eoin Reddan (Leinster)

Jonathan Sexton (Leinster)

Andrew Trimble (Ulster)

Simon Zebo (Munster)

Forwards

Michael Bent (Leinster)

Rory Best (Ulster)

Sean Cronin (Leinster)

Tom Court (Ulster)

Declan Fitzpatrick (Ulster)

Cian Healy (Leinster)

Jamie Heaslip (Leinster, capt)

Iain Henderson (Ulster)

Chris Henry (Ulster)

David Kilcoyne (Munster)

Mike McCarthy (Connacht)

Seán O’Brien (Leinster)

Donncha O’Callaghan (Munster)

Peter O’Mahony (Munster)

Mike Ross (Leinster)

Donnacha Ryan (Munster)

Lewis Stevenson (Ulster)

Richardt Strauss (Leinster)

Devin Toner (Leinster)

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