Brian O’Driscoll backs Conor Murray to hold off Cooney challenge
Former Ireland legend believes Farrell will initially stick to tried and trusted names
Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton: Brian O’Driscoll expects both players to feature in Ireland’s opening game against Scotland. Photograph: Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images
The former Irish captain names a backline of Jordon Larmour at fullback, Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls on the wings with Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw in the centre. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton he calls as the halfback partnership. No huge departures.
“I think you’ve got to be careful about how many people you blood at one time in the key positions and halfback is vital,” said O’Driscoll.
There has been strong opinion for scrumhalf John Cooney to be given an opportunity having taken up a central role in Ulster’s recent successful run of results. A kicker and driver of the team, Cooney was left out of the World Cup squad while Murray has struggled over the last year to be as impactful for the Irish team as he once was.
“He hasn’t been the Conor he’s been in the last seven or eight years this last year, 18 months,” said O’Driscoll. “A lot of the time his 70-80 per cent is most people’s 100 per cent and there’s a confidence and a calmness you get and an understanding that he knows how to work a team around the park.
“He knows how to take pressure off at outhalf. His box kicking is still unrivalled, that ability to relieve pressure. Defensively I think he’s the smartest at being able to understand where to plug the relevant holes. He’s got a wicked pass.
“It’s just his box kicking at times has been a little bit off, his passing hasn’t been as crisp. He hasn’t identified the breaks that he would have once done but it seems to be coming back.”
O’Driscoll believes Cooney has delivered for Ulster and deserves an outing and that the former Leinster player will be given an opportunity. But it will come as a squad member, not ousting Murray first game of the series.
“I think he’ll find himself in the substitutes to begin with and get some game time over the course of the next seven weeks,” said O’Driscoll speaking at the launch of the Guinness Six Nations.
He is confident that new faces will turn up in a green shirt but believes Farrell won’t be swayed by what changes the public might want to see. Despite the implosion in Japan at the World Cup, the former Rugby League and Union international will initially go to who he knows can deliver.
“I know he [Farrell] thinks very highly of Conor. He’s been on two Lions tours with him. He’s been coach with Ireland for a number of years and seen how he’s delivered. Also you’ve got to look back to the players who have delivered for these coaches in the past. Conor has done that.”
That faith also stands for 32-year-old Earls on the right wing. The Munster stalwart has 82 Irish caps and has been a constant with his province for 13 years. He has played for Ireland since 2008 and many of those years alongside O’Driscoll. But the 41-year-old remains faithful.
“Yeah, for me he’s still number one winger and it’s not just his playing ability, I think there is a real leadership to what he brings now. I’ve always been a huge Keith Earls fan because I’ve seen him make me look silly at training and others look silly at training,” says O’Driscoll.
The moot point is and, with no disrespect to Earls, that was almost six years ago before the most capped Irish player retired from rugby. But Andrew Conway is also on O’Driscoll’s radar and another player whose form and try-scoring has been eye-catching enough to put on a hard squeeze.
“He’s been playing his best rugby and although he is close he is still third-choice behind Stockdale and Earls. Just,” says O’Driscoll. “He’s better defensively than Stockdale. It’s just the firepower that Stockdale delivers in attack. He always looks as if he will beat people one on one.
“You can see Ulster constantly trying to get him into that action, even against Clermont and Damien Penaud. The feeling is that if you can isolate him against an individual, he can beat them.”
Nor has O’Driscoll closed the door on Ulster’s Will Addison at fullback with Rob Kearney out of favour with Farrell. There is also likely to be consideration given to Larmour’s foot, last observed in a moonboot after Leinster’s Champions Cup win over Benetton.
“It a close thing with Addison,” he says of the Ulster back. “Maybe he has one or two big mistakes in his game that he needs to eradicate. But for the most part, I think it’s very exciting that you have two full backs of that calibre.”
O’Driscoll on playing golf with Tiger
Brian O’Driscoll has called hitting an 8-iron into the 170 yard par-3 seventh hole at the 2019 Challenge Japan Skins – with Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy watching – the most nervous he has ever been.
The former Irish captain, teamed up with the two golfers during last year’s Rugby World Cup along with former Wallaby scrumhalf George Gregan.
“It was one hole. It was the first time I played with him [Tiger],” said O’Driscoll. “I didn’t really talk with him very much. I was talking to Rory on the way up. It was only a par-3. It was an 8 iron in, possibly should have hit 9, I was fairly pumped. Mine went over the back, even though I hit it okay.
“To be honest with you I was only really concentrating on getting the ball airborne, it’s the most nervous I’ve ever been in my entire life.”
O’Driscoll then played McIlroy’s better ball with the Major champion advising him to putt it three balls outside where he was going to and O’Driscoll sank the 25-foot putt for birdie.
And Tiger did know about rugby.
“He did, yeah. He knew about the All Blacks. That’s the connector for people, the All Blacks and the haka.”
Golf aside, O’Driscoll’s most nerve-wracking rugby moment was closer to home in Cardiff.
“Waiting for Stephen Jones’ kick,” he said of the 2009 kick that fell short handing Ireland a Grand Slam.