Injury concerns to key contenders means Joe Schmidt delays naming his Irish captain with little over a week before Ireland take on Samoa in the first of three autumn internationals. Here’s a look at the main contenders.
Jamie Heaslip, 57 caps
Declan Kidney controversially replaced Brian O’Driscoll and instated Jamie Heaslip in his place, in what turned out to be one of his final decisions as head coach. Heaslip subsequently lead Ireland through the toughest Championship of Kidneys tenure, his own form suffering with the weight of captaincy an obvious strain.
Putting that disappointment behind him, an impressive end of season run with Leinster to Amlin Cup glory bagged Heaslip a seat on the Lions tour where his continued good form saw him rewarded with starts in two tests before Gatland decided to trust his Welsh tourists in the decider. O’Driscoll’s omission for the final test dominated the column inches, and remarkably continues to make headlines, but it was Heaslip who might feel more aggrieved given his form on the tour.
Joe Schmidt will know Heaslip very well from his time with Leinster, and he’s in superb form. You’d also back him to learn the lessons from a disappointing Six Nations campaign, but it will take a great deal of courage for Schmidt to repeat a decision which contributed to the fall of his predecessor.
Brian O’Driscoll, 125 caps
That leads us to O’Driscoll again, and whether Joe Schmidt has the audacity to reverse Kidney’s decision to strip the captaincy from Drico. O’Driscoll previously admitted that the IRFU’s backing of Schmidt was a large factor in his decision to keep playing for one more year; he clearly has a lot of time for his former Leinster coach. You would expect that to be mutual.
There isn’t much more to add to what has already been published about O’Driscoll, but those who want a fairytale last season, might be hoping for O’Driscoll to lead Ireland to their first ever victory New Zealand and a second Grand Slam in five years. Neither of those scenarios are likely at this point, but it would be a fitting finale for Ireland’s greatest ever player.
O’Driscoll would be a popular choice amongst the wider public, and Schmidt has already stressed that he would be taking it one game at a time, forgetting about 2015 World Cup preparations for the time being which would help O’Driscoll’s cause. However, he faces a fitness race to be available for the series and would be selected having not played much rugby this term.
Paul O’Connell, 85 caps
A pillar of Irish rugby over the last decade, O’Connell’s reliability appeared to be waning at times last season as he struggled with a troublesome back injury. But the great Limerick lock’s return to fitness at the tail end of the season almost inspired Munster to reach a surprise Heineken Cup final, narrowly losing away to Clermont in a closely fought semi-final. Nevertheless, O’Connell’s influence in Munster’s end of season run was enough to convince Gatland to bring him to Australia where he continued to impress until another injury ended his tour.
Unlike O’Driscoll, O’Connell has set his sights on 2015. Does that automatically make him a better choice for captain? Schmidt insists it’s all about the here and now but you’d have to say that taking the longer view, it probably does. O’Connell too is currently on the sidelines struggling to shake off a calf injury which forced him to withdraw before Munster’s Pro12 game in Glasgow. He won’t train with the squad until next week at the earliest.
But providing O’Connell is physically capable of putting his body through the ringer for a further two seasons, leading up to the 2015 RWC, then Schmidt may still be swayed in his direction. The heartbeat of the Irish pack, O’Connell will not shy away from the heat of battle and greater access to the referee at breakdown scenarios, where so many internationals are won and lost, would undoubtedly be beneficial.
Other outside contenders include the relatively inexperienced Peter O’Mahony – the stand-in captain during the two-test summer tour of North America has long been touted as a future leader – but this vacancy probably comes a year or so too early for him. Another with previous experience of international captaincy is Ireland’s most capped hooker Rory Best. Off colour in the Six Nations and disappointing for the Lions in the summer, he’ll hold on to his Irish shirt but probably isn’t that strong a contender after a rollercoaster 2013. Jonathan Sexton might also have been considered, but his move to the Top 14 and the fall out over his IRFU contract negotiations would appear to make his selection unlikely.
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images