by Brendan Cole
The announcement that Brian O’Driscoll will miss the Guinness November International Series gives head coach Declan Kidney an unwelcome chance to examine what life will be like for Ireland once his captain does exit international rugby for good.
What impact will O’Driscoll’s absence have?
While some continue to focus on age and a perceived lack of pace, it should be remembered that O’Driscoll’s ability to do the extraordinary has never been based on pure speed. Acceleration, timing and supreme reading of the game at close quarters are what make him special and those qualities have not diminished.
In any case, Kidney is now in the uncomfortable position of having to plan for the future while at the same time needing to protect Ireland’s position in the World Rankings, something he must do to ensure a seeding in the second group of nations for the Rugby World Cup in 2015.
Kidney must also fill the huge void left by the injuries to Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien, and hope that the back trouble which has kept Stephen Ferris out of Ulster’s recent matches does not develop into anything more serious.
Ireland retain a strong core group in the shape of Mike Ross, Paul O’Connell, Ferris and Jonathan Sexton. But the margins are likely to be very tight this November and getting it right in the centres could ultimately be the difference between success and disaster in these vital games.
Here, we examine 10 of the options in the centres ahead of the November Series:
1. Keith Earls (age 25, caps 32)
Earls’ long-term goal has been to establish himself as an outside-centre with both province and country and he has had significant strides in that direction this season. The Limerick man would bring huge pace to the position, but must allay concerns about his defence to nail it down in the short and long term. Earls orchestrated a superb try for Munster during their narrow defeat at Ravenhill which highlighted the qualities he can bring as a 13 and has generally looked comfortable on the dry days when the ball is zipping about quickly. But there is an argument that in winter conditions against direct and physically powerful opponents, he might be best suited to the wing. The strong favourite to directly replace O’Driscoll against South Africa.
Earls orchestrates from the centre:
2. Gordon D’Arcy (age 32, caps 69)
D’Arcy is virtually certain to play but the question is whether he will remain at 12 or shift out one to outside centre. He has rarely featured in the 13 jersey since coming to prominence there on the international stage during O’Driscoll’s injury enforced absence from the 2004 Six Nations Championship and the pair have forged an effective partnership. But the 32-year-old was voted Player of the Tournament on that occasion and remains a highly effective broken field runner. There is still a suspicion that he could even prosper with a bit more space. He is not as effective at linking with team-mates as the man he would replace, but if Ireland do decide on a more radical overhaul a shift is not out of the question. Most likely, D’Arcy will start alongside Earls.
3. Tommy Bowe (age 28, caps 49)
Bowe played at outside-centre on occasions for Welsh club the Ospreys before returning to Ulster last year and showed his versatility by lining out at full-back for his native province last week. The Monaghan man brings plenty of size and speed to any position, and can time a run as well as anyone. But his defensive decision making, along with balance and footwork, would be severely tested in the outside centre spot. Could he do a job for Ireland at 12 some day (see video)?
Bowe and O'Driscoll link up for the Lions:
4. Jonathan Sexton (age 27, caps 32)
Ireland have experimented with Sexton at inside-centre in the past and moving him over one, with D’Arcy shifting out, Big and physically powerful, Sexton would not weaken the defence and would give Ireland additional kicking options. His excellent passing would change Ireland’s threat in the centres for the first time in many years.
5. Darren Cave (age 25, caps 3)
A centre in the O’Driscoll mould, at least as far as size and style go, Cave has tenaciously established himself at an Ulster side that has been in excellent form this season. At 25, his elevation could be presented as a legitimate piece of planning for the long term.
6. Fergus McFadden (age 26, caps 14)
Despite his impressive haul of caps, McFadden is not guaranteed to start for either Leinster or Ireland, though O’Driscoll’s injury will result in more game time at provincial level. Blessed with pace, his style in the centre is direct, but less subtle and elusive than some other contenders, and it may be that Kidney sees him as a better option on the wing. Versatility gives him excellent prospects of getting on the bench.
7. James Downey (age 31, caps 0)
Not in the current Ireland squad having been underused in attack even when on the pitch at Munster, who have favoured a touchline-to-touchline style instead of using his trademark crash ball. Could potentially bring a direct quality to the Irish midfield in a backline that has lacked size for quite some time and the nature of the opposition in this series - South Africa and Argentina – mean Ireland could benefit from a hard edge in defence.
Downey hits Shontayne Hape:
8. Andrew Trimble (age 28, caps 48)
First emerged as a centre but long established as a physically confrontational winger for both club and country. If pressed into service, Trimble might well make a more effective 12 than 13 at this stage.
9. Luke Marshall (age 21, caps 0)
A bright young talent who flashed into the national consciousness with an outstanding performance in the under-19 clash between Munster/Connacht and Ulster/Leinster, Marshall is not yet fully established for Ulster. More of a 10 or 12 than a slashing outside break merchant and remains one for the future.
10. Paddy Wallace (age 33, caps 30)
Disastrously called up from holiday in Portugal and dropped into the starting team for the third Test thrashing against the All Blacks in June, Wallace was left out of the initial Ireland November squad. A contemporary of O’Driscoll’s, another call up would be a surprise and it looks like his distinguished Ireland career is at an end.