Competition keen for that green 13
Will it be Payne? Henshaw? Fitzgerald? Cave? Earls? Who? It’ll be interesting
Brian O’Driscoll’s number 13 jersey hanging in the changing room – waiting for a new owner. But who will it be? The search is on. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Will there be life after Brian? Yes, of course, life will move on, even if it will never be quite the same, simply because we will never see his like again. Though it might seem fairer to retire the jersey with the great man, players will rapidly emerge to wear the now famous green number 13 jersey. Once a no-go area for young Irish players, now there actually is quite a tussle to assume the position.
As things stand, Joe Schmidt and co have only 10 Tests and up to four World Cup warm-up matches to first locate and then develop a successor. Yet the value in having had O’Driscoll play on has paid off.
Not alone did he pass on advice to Robbie Henshaw and Darren Cave in camp, his presence off and on the pitch must have been inspiring, and another part of his legacy is a second Six Nations title.
On foot of watching O’Driscoll’s bag of tricks in creating three tries against Italy, ex-Leinster coach Michael Cheika, who fervently believes O’Driscoll could have played on until the World Cup, texted him. ‘Mate, can you just remind me, why are you retiring?’
“But the importance of Ireland winning the championship is huge and with the quality of people like Joe (Schmidt), (John) Plumtree and Les Kiss involved, Ireland have gone up a level,” says the now NSW Waratahs coach.
“Not just winning the Championship, but the way they won it – it was a difficult series for them and they had to go and win in Paris – is more important to the confidence in the side than you would have had from blooding a new guy and perhaps running in the middle of the table.”
“You’ve got to take winning. Screw development,” adds Cheika with a laugh, and as for what winning the title combined with O’Driscoll’s presence provided, “that stuff you can’t pay for. And I think he (Schmidt) will more than comfortably settle on somebody and get them ready for the World Cup, and especially if “Darce” is there because they’ll have good experience around them. No drama.”
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe echoes Cheika’s view that there will be no like-for-like replacement.
“No matter where you come from in the world, he’s got to be recognised as one of the greatest rugby players that ever played the game. We’ve had some good ones over my lifetime in New Zealand, and this one is right up there with all of them, and when they do go, you think ‘what is life going to be like afterwards?’ It’s such a big void to fill.”
“So it would be unfair for the country to, game after game, compare that person with Brian O’Driscoll. He’s a one-off. But it doesn’t mean the guy who fills that spot won’t be a good footballer and worthy of the jersey. He’ll be his own man and you’ve got to allow him to be that.”
It’s a point echoed by Anthony Foley, who will move up from assistant coach to head coach with Munster next season.
“It is a very tough, pivotal position, and it’s a position where we’ve been blessed with Brian. But as they say: ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is taken’. Somebody else will step in there and do a great job, and they will create opportunities and they will finish off scoring moves.”
Luke Fitzgerald occasionally played at 13 for Leinster under Cheika’s watch and the latter says: “I think that’s where he should play, because he’s got the physicality to manage it. There’s such a precedent around the way Brian and Gordon have played in the centre for Ireland. It’s like a part of Ireland’s identity the way they play, it’s almost like having four flankers.
“Both Fitzgerald and probably Fergus McFadden, from that point of view, but possibly Fitzgerald has got the edge in the physicality to deliver in that position,” says Cheika, to which could be added Fitzgerald’s incomparable footwork.
“I’m out of the loop, obviously, and I don’t know the new kids on the block, but from my experience Luke has got the skills set and the possibility to go up another level if he was in good nick and started getting regular time at that level.
“The logical guy for me is Fitzgerald.”
Cheika, Anscombe, Foley and Connacht Academy manager Nigel Carolan all stress how outside centre is the most demanding position defensively on the pitch, given they have to read a 20-metre zone across the pitch, and how distribution skills, under pressure, are another pre-requisite.
Defensively, in closing down space or choosing when to drift, O’Driscoll was supreme, and as Cheika says “he made a lot of great tackles but a lot of the tackles that he never made were probably more telling.”
Yet, for one reason and another, virtually all the alternatives bar Cave have played a fair amount of time at wing or fullback. Hence, Schmidt’s decision will ultimately hinge on which player the provinces favour at 13.
Jared Payne is the bookies’ favourite to be the first-choice 13 for next season’s Six Nations opener, by which point there should be a level playing field, and with good reason, while another leading contender is his Ulster team-mate Darren Cave.
“Jared is keen to play there,” admits Anscombe. “In his last year or two in New Zealand he played 13 and got the interest of the All Blacks and that’s where he sees his future. And Darren is playing superbly this season so we’re fortunate in that we’ve got two good candidates.
“But they both can’t play there, so obviously next year is another year and we have to see what happens. But I’ve no doubt both are capable of playing at that level.”
Of Payne, Anscombe says: “His game smarts are as good as anyone’s. He reads the game so damn well. His knowledge of the game is outstanding. Defensively, he reads it well, so he’s a very strong defender and his attacking prowess is his timing and running lines.
Good angles and good lines
“I know it’s totally different at fullback, but at 13 he has good angles and good lines, and he beats a guy purely on that anticipation of lines and angles. You can’t train a lot of that. It’s a feel. He sees things a bit earlier than others.
“But Darren has other attributes. His great strength is his high work-rate, and he puts guys into space – that’s more his game – and his support play is superb. His strength is he stays involved in play. He doesn’t take himself out; he puts a guy through and he supports it; a lot of his tries are down to his support of outside backs.”
Anscombe also questions the wisdom of converting, or reconverting, wingers into centres, citing Tana Umaga as the only one who’s made a success of the switch.
“A good winger doesn’t automatically mean he’s going to be a good centre. It’s the hardest position on the park to defend, and what’s a great trait you want in a winger? His finishing. So if he’s been a great finisher, why do you want to take that away from him?”
Aside from indirectly questioning the candidature of others outside the province, that would also seem to rule out Tommy Bowe or Andrew Trimble, whom Cheika liked as a centre and says was the first of the bright new things to revive Ulster.
No-one has actually deputised more impressively for O’Driscoll than Keith Earls, although perhaps even more than Fitzgerald, you wonder if he has the physique for the additional number of collisions that invariably comes with playing in midfield.
“Keith is always an option,” says Foley. “When you looked at Keith coming through everybody would have assumed his position was 13. His speed, pace and anticipation is so good you just get him out on the pitch. He’s got that ability to beat people one-on-one, whether at 13, wing or fullback. Throughout his career he’s always had that ability to stand someone up one-on-one.”
Foley has no doubts about Earls’ oft-questioned passing skills. “There’s nothing wrong with his passing skills,” says Foley forcefully. “He’s played here since the 07-08 season. He’s been a long time in this system but probably the one thing that has affected his development as a 13 has been playing on the wing, so if we decide, and Keith decides, to let him have a crack at 13, you’ve got to invest in that every week.”
“If he’s going to be an Irish 13 it’s got to be Keith investing in it, it’s got to be Joe, it’s got to be me. I’d like to think Keith Earls can do it but if Keith Earls is to do it, he needs to be able to do it at Munster. Hopefully that will be the case, because we’d like to get more Munster players wearing the Irish jersey.”
Like Cave, Robbie Henshaw has been tutored and been inside the camp during the Six Nations, as well as the November Tests, and is perhaps the favourite to get the first crack in the summer tour to Argentina.
Like his fellow Connachtman, the London Irish-bound Eoin Griffin, Henshaw came through the Connacht Academy under Nigel Carolan, who believes 13 is his best position.
“I think he’s going to be a different type of 13 to Brian O’Driscoll. He’s going to bring a real element of physicality. Not that O’Driscoll didn’t, but Robbie has got the stature to match the current 13s. Brian was an exception. Robbie is going to be a big fella, and he’s going to be able to handle that physicality.”
“He’s direct. He’s got good ball skills. It’s going to come down to experience really for him and his ability to make decisions. Brian was like a wizard in there in his ability to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Robbie has the ability to do wonderful things but I think it’s going to come with experience as well.”
“Eoin Griff also came into our system at 15 years old, and we were only talking about it during the week. We had these passing tests and he was one of the best passers of a ball I had ever seen as a 15-year-old. He was also a glider, like Jeremy Guscott, as a young guy. His outside break was one of his strengths but then I think just a series of hamstring injuries seem to have taken that away from him a little bit. But I still think he’s a silky, silky player and we haven’t seen the best of him yet.”
“He’s so comfortable on the ball and he could also be an option at 12 that we haven’t seen yet, a distributing 12. Brian and Darce have been steppers, and there a lot of direct options, but I think Griff could be a distribution option and playmaker.”
“Both are excellent players and have the physicality to play at centre. Robbie is unbelievably durable and resilient, and they’re both good defenders as well, and Robbie is a particularly bone-crunching tackler. I think they could ultimately be contenders as an international partnership.”
In any event, with even natural outside centres having previously run a mile from 13 because of yer man’s presence there, it looks as if there may be a rush to take on the role henceforth. It should be fascinating.