O'Driscoll named as Ireland captain

 

Leadership on a rugby pitch is more about what you do than what you say. Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan is clearly of this mind, and accordingly has elevated one talisman to the captaincy in place of another by nominating Brian O'Driscoll to lead Ireland against Australia in the absence of the injured Keith Wood.

And few do it better than O'Driscoll.

At 23, O'Driscoll becomes the youngest Irish captain since Rob Saunders led Ireland against France in 1991. A prime difference, however, was that the then 22-year-old Saunders was one of six debutants on the Irish side, whereas O'Driscoll is rather more proven, with 30 caps and a Lions tour to his name.

O'Driscoll will captain a side which shows two changes in the starting line-up from the last outing against Georgia. Shane Horgan replaces John Kelly on the right wing, though a vacancy has been left on the other wing pending further examination of Denis Hickie's injured wrist, while Victor Costello rather than Alan Quinlan replaces the injured Simon Easterby. These calls suggests O'Sullivan and co are mindful of the Wallabies' physical presence across the pitch and are bracing the Irish team accordingly.

O'Driscoll's elevation to captaincy is a natural progression and, presuming he takes to the role with his customary sang-froid, he'll probably become Wood's long-term successor, as well as captain of Leinster one day. The appointment has echoes of Will Carling's initial captaincy of England and with Wood missing his seventh of Ireland's last 11 matches on Saturday, O'Sullivan has been compelled to think of the longer-term.

"First and foremost we believe he's up for the job," said O'Sullivan. "He has the respect of the players, he has a fair bit of experience at this stage and he's played at the highest level."

O'Sullivan pointed out that (in the absence of Wood and Rob Henderson) O'Driscoll is the only member of the squad to have experienced a win over the Wallabies, on the Lions tour two summers ago. Furthermore, it's remarkable to think that he's one of only three players on this XV who started the last meeting between the countries, at the 1999 World Cup - the others being Kevin Maggs and Malcolm O'Kelly. "We didn't make this decision overnight. This is something we've been working on since the summer," said O'Sullivan.

O'Driscoll admitted he'd only captained UCD under-20s before and hadn't expected the honour this soon into his career. "I had a few talks with Eddie about it, and whether I was comfortable about it or not. Essentially I thought about it over the weekend and spoke to my father about it, and I thought it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Certainly I'm very excited about it."

Effortless now in the face of media scrums, O'Driscoll discussed the influence of captains such as Martin Johnson and Keith Wood. "Keith, in the three years I've been involved, has become a much better captain in my opinion. The real role of a captain is to talk when you need to, not to talk for the sake of it, and I'll certainly be adopting that approach."

Wood could return for Harlequins this weekend or next, and might come into the reckoning for the Argentinian game. In any case, O'Driscoll admitted that he was "very much filling in for Keith", who he has spoken to at length this week and will do so again.

"Rock boys are we" is likely to get a few extra renditions down Stradbrook way, where Costello is still regarded as one of their own. Nonetheless, the word on the Blackrock grapevine and beyond would have lengthened the odds on Big Vic relaunching his career when O'Sullivan took over as Irish coach to Lazarus-like proportions, but his recall is a reward for the 32-year-old playing as well as ever this season.

It's also, perhaps, recognition that without Wood, and David Wallace, not to mention Paul O'Connell and the recuperating Eric Miller, the number of dynamic ball carriers up front has been diminished.

"We feel that Victor is on a good run of form at the moment," said O'Sullivan. "I suppose people will ask 'why (number) six?' I don't think it's a major issue whether you play six or eight in the modern game. There's very few specialist positions left in rugby when you think about it, apart from two and nine."

That said, nominal blindside flankers tend to survive on the amount of ruck ball their team recycles, more so than number eights, and it would be a surprise if Costello's ball carrying abilities aren't at least occasionally used from the base of the scrum.

Hickie's chances of making it are rated as "probably 50-50" by O'Sullivan, though the winger's cast is emblazoned with the words: "it's not as bad at it looks". In any event, if he makes it Leinster would have nine players in the starting XV, compared to Munster's four and one each from Ulster and Bath. O'Sullivan, understandably, bridled at this being brought up.

A little unnervingly, the last time the Munster influence was diluted to this level was when Ireland lost 32-10 in Murrayfield over a year and 15 internationals ago.

But those were the days when the team seemingly weren't able to tie their bootlaces without Mick Galwey, and you'd like to think Ireland have moved on from there.

The Irish management also named a squad of 22 for the Fijian game on Sunday week, including one vacancy among the outside backs. Mindful of the Argentinian Test just six days' subsequently, O'Driscoll, Girvan Dempsey, Reggie Corrigan, Gary Longwell, Keith Gleeson and Costello have all been rested for that one, with Justin Bishop, Geordan Murphy, Marcus Horan, Mick O'Driscoll, Kieron Dawson and Eric Miller called in.

IRELAND (squad to play Fiji,on Sunday, November 17th). Backs: Justin Bishop (London Irish), Guy Easterby (Llanelli), Shane Horgan (Leinster/Lansdowne), David Humphreys (Ulster/Dungannon), John Kelly (Munster/Cork Constitution), Kevin Maggs (Bath), Geordan Murphy (Leicester), Ronan O'Gara (Munster/Cork Constitution), Peter Stringer (Munster/Shannon), AN Other.

Forwards: Shane Byrne (Leinster/Blackrock College), Leo Cullen (Leinster/Blackrock College), Kieron Dawson (London Irish), Anthony Foley (Munster/Shannon), John Hayes (Munster/Shannon), Marcus Horan (Munster/Shannon), Eric Miller (Leinster/Terenure), Mick O'Driscoll (Munster/Cork Constitution), Malcolm O'Kelly (Leinster/St. Mary's College), Alan Quinlan (Munster/Shannon), Frank Sheahan (Munster/Cork Constitution), Paul Wallace (Leinster/Blackrock College).

Not considered: Jonathan Bell (Ulster/Dungannon), Emmet Byrne (Leinster/St. Mary's College), Bob Casey (London Irish), Jeremy Davidson (Ulster/Dungannon), Simon Easterby (Llanelli), Rob Henderson (Munster/Young Munster), Anthony Horgan (Munster/ Cork Constitution), Donnacha O'Callaghan (Munster/Cork Constitution), Paul O'Connell (Munster/Young Munster), David Wallace (Munster/Garryowen), Andy Ward (Ulster/Ballynahinch), Keith Wood (Harlequins).