Brian O’ Driscoll hung up the green jersey on Saturday in Paris, bringing an end to an exceptional career and leaving a gaping hole in the Irish midfield. Who are the favourites to step up and make the number 13 jersey their own?
Ireland’s Six Nations’ victory in Paris last Saturday provided Brian O’ Driscoll with the fairytale ending to his career in a green jersey, one that he so richly deserved. Along with his brother-in-arms Gordon D’Arcy, the two Dubliners have enjoyed a phenomenal centre partnership for both club and country for well over a decade, appearing in over 50 games alongside one another at Test level as well as winning three Heineken Cups with Leinster. Yet following O’ Driscoll’s international retirement, head coach Joe Schmidt must now begin the difficult task of finding a suitable replacement to partner D’Arcy in the centre of Ireland’s team ahead of the World Cup in 2015. Here are five potential candidates who could be given O’ Driscoll’s iconic number 13 shirt for the tour to Argentina in the summer.
1) Robbie Henshaw
The 20-year-old Connacht man has already been hotly tipped as a future star for Ireland and his development in the West has seen him gain plenty of game-time at outside centre in both the RaboDirect Pro 12 and the Heineken Cup. Henshaw has been capped three times for the national side and has been praised by O’ Driscoll in the past – “Robbie is a very, very talented young lad, who is a great listener, a really good young talent, and really good lad too. I think he has all the attributes to be a seasoned campaigner for Ireland for many, many years.”
2) Fergus McFadden
The Kilkenny man has been the natural stand-in at outside centre for Leinster whenever O’ Driscoll has been absent in recent years. This was best seen last season when the 27-year-old gave an excellent performance in the 34-13 victory over Stade Francais in the 2013 Amlin Challenge Cup Final following O’ Driscoll’s withdrawal with a back injury. He has won 25 caps for Ireland since making his debut in the 2011 Six Nations against Italy, playing the majority of the games on the wing but perhaps it is time for him to be placed more centrally at international level.
3) Luke Fitzgerald
Like McFadden, Luke Fitzgerald plies his trade alongside O’ Driscoll at Leinster. Having burst on to the scene as an exciting young winger in 2009 – which saw him win a Grand Slam with Ireland, a Heineken Cup with Leinster and tour South Africa with the British and Irish Lions – Fitzgerald has seen his progress cruelly disrupted with a long list of luckless injuries.
Difficulties with his legs, groin and knees have prevented Fitzgerald from staking a claim at outside centre – a role he would no doubt flourish in due to his exciting runs and sidesteps from broken play. Nevertheless, he is a firm Schmidt favourite and if he can remain fit he will certainly be part of the New Zealander’s future plans with Ireland.
4) Keith Earls
Munster’s Keith Earls has long since harboured ambitions for the 13 shirt with both province and country but the presence of Lifeimi Mafi at Munster and Brian O’ Driscoll with Ireland has limited his chances over the years. However, both players have now left Earls’ teams and maybe it is finally time for the Limerick native to showcase his skills in the centre role.
Similarly to Fitzgerald, this injury-ravaged 26-year-old would have plenty more than his 39 caps had he not suffered so many stints on the sidelines in the past. Former Munster and Ireland legend Ronan O’Gara speaks very highly of Earls and firmly believes he can make it as a number 13, “He’s the one fella that troubles Brian everytime in training when he plays there and I haven’t seen anyone else do that….Watch Earlsy under Joe Schmidt and we will see what I saw every day in training. This guy will be a superstar.”
5) Tommy Bowe
The Ulsterman was experimented at outside centre by Declan Kidney during his time as Ireland head coach and also played in that position for the British and Irish Lions during their third Test victory over South Africa in 2009. Bowe is a superb athlete and is still a first choice for Ireland on the wing when he is fit but perhaps he could be developed in to a modern centre á la Luther Burrell for England or Jonathan Davies for Wales. He certainly has the physicality and the pace required to compete in that position while he is also the most experienced candidate out of the five mentioned in this list, having amassed over 50 caps for the national team.
All five of the above players would be interesting alternatives to the great Brian O’ Driscoll and while Robbie Henshaw may be the long-term option, it will most probably be Tommy Bowe who will be slotted in alongside Gordon D’Arcy in Ireland’s midfield during the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England. His strength, speed and experience make him the ideal player to take on the mantle of the number 13 jersey that O’ Driscoll made his own during his remarkable 15-year career.
Pundit Arena, Adam Davern.