Gordon D’Arcy: Ireland’s next main influence will emerge during this Six Nations
Rory Best is correct choice in current circumstances to lead - he has earned this honour
“With Paul O’Connell gone, Ireland’s next main influence will emerge during this Six Nations. He has to and he doesn’t necessarily have to be the captain.” File photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
It’s hard to see the wood through the trees at the moment. But it’s there. The great unknown can worry Irish rugby supporters but glance back through our recent history and the antidote has always been right before our eyes.
I think we saw it at the Millennium Stadium on October 11th 2015, the 49th minute to be exact, when a 22-year-old sidestepped Mathieu Bastareaud and sprinted 25 metres before his basketball-shot-pass found Tommy Bowe. The very next phase the same green number 12 was at first receiver where it needed two blue jerseys to drag him down.
In a time when Ireland need leaders to rise we may not have to dig too deep to find them.
With Paul O’Connell gone, Ireland’s next main influence will emerge during this Six Nations. He has to and he doesn’t necessarily have to be the captain.
Rory Best is the correct choice in the current circumstances to lead Ireland. He has earned this honour.
History repeatedly shows us that when our greatest player departs another man immediately fills the void. O’Connell remained our most influential man, unbelievably at 35, until that bitter end in Cardiff.
You could see new elements had been added to his game during last season’s Six Nations; a dashing break against Wales and vastly improved ball handling skills too.
Who will climb up above his peers next? Robbie Henshaw or Sean O’Brien perhaps. Or both. Johnny Sexton would hardly surprise us if he hits his best form.
Conor Murray needs to have an influence on games comparable to Ruan Pienaar for Ulster but there’s no doubt about the dominant scrumhalf in Ireland. He can be the dominant Northern Hemisphere No 9 if his career trajectory continues its current upward curve.
Second comingGarry Ringrose is still to come, just probably not until the South Africa tour in June or the November internationals, while CJ Stander, judging from his Munster performances, is doing a decent impression of Keith Wood in a red jersey on his second coming with the province in 1999.
I was lucky to have trained with and even darkened the one Test match alongside Keith, when we both came off the bench against Romania at Lansdowne Road during the 1999 World Cup. He was an amazing player who led by sheer will, and kamikaze carries, fuelled by amazing levels of self-belief. At the time I knew of nobody else who backed themselves as much and I thought, like many, that we’d never see his like again.
How would Ireland survive without this talisman? We had the answer in the second half of Keith’s last ever game. Despite the heaviest of beatings to France in the 2003 World Cup quarter-final, Brian O’Driscoll scored two superb tries.
Then came Paulie, not to mention Ronan O’Gara entering his prime, and all of a sudden we captured a Triple Crown with Ireland’s greatest ever leadership core.
Eddie O’Sullivan made what became his best decision as Ireland coach in November 2002 by naming Brian as captain against Australia when Woody was injured. He had already show us all a limitless potential with the hat-trick in Paris but after the 2003 World Cup the era of Brian the leader was firmly upon us.
He brought the same utter conviction in his own ability as Keith Wood but his brilliance brought the best out of everyone around him. That was his captaincy style, mainly because he knew no other way to play.
O’Driscoll is proof that great leaders can be created, providing they possess one essential raw material: that ‘come follow me attitude,’ be it a heading fearlessly into an English ruck or halting Fabien Pelous dead in his tracks (the 46 tries also helped).
Robbie Henshaw has shown signs of a similar, deep well of inner resolve. We saw it against England last year and when he made a break from nothing off a scrum near halfway against France. Then got up and carried again.
Ireland need to start giving him six to seven front-foot possessions off the lineout so he can make four or five top- quality attacking contributions in every game. He can definitely do that.
Direct ball to the big centre moving at pace is the simplest yet most effective way to bust the gainline. That was New Zealand’s primary move throughout the World Cup. And we saw plenty of it from Toulon against Leinster in December.
There is precedence down through the history of Irish rugby, in my lifetime anyway, when a great leader has passed for a similar type of animal to fill the void.
I’ve seen it happen from the best possible vantage point so can confirm whoever he is he will automatically make those around him better players. It becomes about reaching a certain standard so you can justify your presence on the field. You follow the leader up to his higher plain of performance.
Phenomenal levelNot that I have any concerns about Rory Best leading Ireland. He has been playing at a phenomenal level for Ireland, looking more flanker than hooker, since the 2011 World Cup. Before that he was in a constant, healthily competitive duel with Jerry Flannery. So our captain is a battle- hardened, 33-year-old with 89 Test matches over 11 years, and a Lions tour and he’s part of the leadership group for longer than anyone else.
Regardless of whether Rory’s body holds up or he maintains current standards for another four and a half seasons (it was “the half” that got Paul O’Connell), other leaders must be developed behind him. This is not just the beginning of a World Cup cycle it is a new age in Irish rugby. By the end of the Keith Wood cycle, O’Driscoll had already filled the best player, leadership void. When Rog departed Johnny Sexton had unquestionably nailed down the 10 jersey.
Henshaw, Jared Payne, Luke Fitzgerald even Stuart McCloskey and eventually Ringrose are making Brian’s retirement not seem so grim anymore.
Rory will bring his own form of leadership to the team but who will reach Paulie’s levels of inspiration remains unclear. It needs to be a combination of players from Best to Dev Toner’s lineout to someone to carry all that dirty ball O’Connell always showed up for.
I do believe we will see a new, outstanding Irish performer during this Six Nations. The way a Joe Schmidt team can play will provide opportunities for that player to be Henshaw, be it running from 12 or 13. Yes, there will be plenty of tactical kicking, when there is a need to get into opposition territory or simply exit our own, but Robbie can improve on his World Cup performance against France.
The leadership qualities of Wood and O’Connell were evident as soon as they walked into a room. O’Driscoll wasn’t like that at all. Due to his abilities on the field, he was chosen and moulded into a complete leader over time. The 2001 Lions Tour under Martin Johnson helped.
Right callServing under Wood helped. The 2005 Lions tour helped him enormously thereafter, I’d say. Anyone can learn to give a team talk but only a certain type of character can make the right call under immense pressure during a game.
But that’s not all it takes. More than anything what made Brian the right choice to captain Ireland for so long was the way he performed on the pitch.
Looking at Chris Robshaw’s captaincy of England, he made poor decisions to kick to touch rather than take three points against South Africa a few years ago and, again, at the end of England’s World Cup defeat to Wales. But Robshaw has all the requirements needed to be a captain; first in (be it to training, a tackle or a ruck) and last out. The problem with his captaincy centred around constant concerns about his ability as an international openside flanker (especially with Steffon Armitage establishing himself as the best No 7 in Europe). I don’t think it was about his ability to lead.
A captain needs to be whiter than white and his place must be guaranteed. Eddie Jones’s decision to go with Dylan Hartley might just solve the second problem while creating the first.
Maybe, like what Ireland might also be doing, Hartley is a solution for the Six Nations until someone like Joe Launchbury grows into the role.
Considering Best’s age and mileage on the clock it might be wise to rest him for the South Africa tour. Peter O’Mahony could have returned from injury by then and it would be no harm to keep giving Henshaw or Murray more responsibility.
That could help to mould a longer-term leader while also keeping the option open for Best to be fully primed when Ireland face the All Blacks in November (in Chicago and Dublin).
Sustained periodIrish people seem to like the idea of a captain for a sustained period of time. There was Dion O’Cuinneagain, Keith, Brian, Paulie and now Rory. I think it’s a traditional attitude, possibly about having one figure we can all rally around. It’s the same with Wales and Sam Warburton who has been captain since he was 22.
The competition by competition basis, used by Declan Kidney, is not something I’d like to see us getting used to. What I’m saying is, the captaincy is in safe hands but a key performer has to stand out from the others in the next two months. That’s what we need to see during the Six Nations.
We should know who he is when Wales put the squeeze on or in Paris a week later or Twickenham. I think we can beat England – Jones has much work to do – but I see a French revival under Guy Noves.
Noves reminds me of Joe in many ways but mainly because his players have always wanted to play for him. That’s the secret for any successful coach; he inspires them to be better. Michael Cheika had it during those last two years at Leinster and you could see it from the Wallabies at the World Cup.
Toulouse teams always seemed to play for Noves. I can see him cutting the French loose, finally letting them play the way they were born to play. There’s no need for any tactical masterclass. From talking to Aidan McCullen and Trevor Brennan during their time under Noves, there isn’t a strict game plan, just a dominant set piece and high -tempo attacking that showcases their handling skills. The way they were coached as boys.
French clubs have been playing this way in Europe all season so the transition shouldn’t be difficult. France might just play for the man who was at the heart of Toulouse capturing four European Cups over 15 years. Like the way a team collectively improves when their greatest player leads them over the gainline or into the darkest ruck. This Spring tradition can be a good thing for Ireland and France.