The news coming out of Ireland this afternoon was perhaps worse than people expected. The national captain, Brian O’Driscoll, is set to spend 6 months out of the game to recoup from a shoulder operation on a trapped nerve that needs repair, if he is to prolong the twilight years of his career.
To the immediate rugby fan outside of Ireland, this might seem like a disaster. O’Driscoll will miss the majority of the Heineken Cup group stages and also the Six Nations, a fair chunk of this season. At 32, O’Driscoll at best probably has two more full seasons ahead of him, depending on the outcome of his shoulder operation and the consequent recovery afterwards. The Lions tour to Australia in 2013 seems to be the apparent finish line, which would bring a appropriate ending to the career of the man people call the greatest outside centre of all time, as it was on that Lions tour to Australia in 2001 where O’Driscoll’s star took off.
Ireland and Leinster fans are now at the stage that all lovers of the game dread, when the stark realisation hits that a player has only so many matches left in him. It is not a question of hunger, but of physical limitations. Supporters savour every minute the player is on the pitch, the star every break and big hit. Given the way O’Driscoll has adapted his game over the last few years, sacrificing his dwindling pace and turning himself into all-action defensive jackal as well as one of the best close-range threats in the game, it is no surprise that the shoulder needs work.
For Ireland, it is not a question of scouring the land for a replica replacement; there is plenty of talent in the Emerald Isle but no regeneration of O’Driscoll. As will happen with the second row pairing of Paul O’Connell and Donnacha O’Callaghan, as has happened with Marcus Horan and John Hayes, Girvan Dempsey and Denis Hickie, Simon Easterby and Anthony Foley, new talent must come through. Ireland have options here that must now be tested out.
Of the crop who can cover the 13 shirt for Ireland, Keith Earls has been tried out there before, but without overwhelming success, Declan Kidney preferring to select him on the wing. Fergus McFadden impressed for the national side in the build-up to the Rugby World Cup, and has spent his game time at 13 for Leinster since returning back to Dublin, his searing pace an attractive quality for both coaches and fans. Eoin O’Malley at 22 is perhaps yet too young to feature on the national stage, but is strongly touted by former Ireland players such as Malcolm O’Kelly to go far. Other options include moving Luke Fitzgerald infield, not forgetting candidates from Ulster in the form of Nevin Spence and Darren Cave.
Of the six candidates above, McFadden seems like the best prospect, given that he plays alongside the incumbent Ireland inside centre Gordon D’Arcy and outside first choice fly-half Johnny Sexton. The trick will be to lower expectations. McFadden can grow into the role, but when Ireland fans are used to the man in the 13 shirt constantly producing magic, the effect of expectation could be stifling rather than inspiring. Whoever is chosen, it marks the first stage of a new chapter in Irish rugby. Whether success comes instantly is another matter.
by Ben Coles