Brian O’Driscoll’s illustrious career came to an end over the weekend and the focus now turns to his potential successor, writes Jonathan Fitzpatrick.
Fears and phobias are commonplace throughout society. We experience them, see them, and live them. Both rational, and irrational. Irish coach Joe Schmidt has one fear burning inside him that is growing as the days go by. This palpable fear is infectious, and is running rampant throughout not only Irish management, but Irish rugby players and supporters alike. That fear, is triskaidekaphobia.
For years we did not know the meaning of this word, but it’s been thrown around quite a bit recently. We never used to have an issue with the number 13. Simply put, it was a constant equation that 13 = Brian O’Driscoll.
However, with the Leinster centre set to hang up his boots at the end of this season, the latter end of 2014 will see the famed 13 jersey move across another pair of shoulders. After all the discussions regarding potential future centres, we are getting close to the time where someone is going to have to step up and seize this jersey and opportunity.
Payne has emerged as one of the favourites to succeed Brian O’Driscoll when he qualifies for Ireland towards the end of 2014. He plies his trade at full back for Ulster for the most part, but has shown he has no problem lining out at midfield where he is becoming increasingly effective.
The problem is that given Ulster’s squad, there is a lack of options at 15 and a lot of options in the midfield. This restricts his game time at thirteen which is an irritating issue. A strikerunner from deep, Payne can devastate opponents with ball in hand, the lines he runs, his sidestep and offloading add hugely to his repertoire. The creative flair he brings to the midfield makes him an extremely enticing option, and it’s likely he will be given a shot at making that 13 jersey his own.
One of the brightest prospects in Irish rugby, Henshaw has exploded onto the rugby scene. He has already been Connacht’s player of the season at fullback and been capped for Ireland, all at the tender age of 20. It is a rarity for players of this age to make it into the Irish set-up. That in itself indicates not only Henshaw’s ability, but also how he is perceived by coaches and managers alike.
Warren Gatland continued his quest to become Irish rugby’s public enemy number one after admitting he tried to poach Henshaw for the Welsh set-up. However, this was as fruitless as Gatland’s own international career.
Again Henshaw faces a plight similar to that of Jared Payne – he plays his club rugby at fullback. Although in saying this, much like Payne, it seems like he will still get a chance to become Ireland’s next midfield stalwart. His size and versatility add to his CV with his skill set growing with each game he plays. Youth is on Henshaw’s side here, he is in a great position to learn from the best and come into his own in the Irish set-up. The future is bright.
Once a forgotten man of Irish rugby, Fitzgerald is almost as injury prone as Stephen Ferris. he entered the Irish set-up causing a huge commotion. His natural ball-in-hand instincts, side stepping, dynamic running lines and speed were a revelation. The youngster won a Heineken Cup, Grand Slam, Triple Crown and a Lions’ starting test spot before he hit the age of 23.
Injuries and form took the shine from his star, but if his recent form is anything to go by – it seems Fitzgerald didn’t peak too early as some had feared. He has been in fantastic form, and his defensive game has improved hugely. He most definitely possesses the skill set to play in the centre, and he will likely fill the void left by O’Driscoll’s departure at club level. Fitzgerald is by no means out of this race, and if he stays fit while keeping up his form it will be hard to leave him out of any team.
This experiment seems to have run its course. Earls was Munster’s brightest young back coming through, an excellent winger who was the surprise pick of the 2009 British and Irish Lions. He has been given a few chances in the centre, but never cemented himself there. He has a strong cutting edge and finishing ability, but it seems that he is best suited on the wing.
His defensive liabilities were shown up hugely by Manu Tuilagi on the international stage, and it seemed Keith Earl’s aspirations to become Ireland’s next 13 never recovered. Time to leave Earls on the wing and let him hone his skills as a winger lest he becomes a jack of all trades, master of none.
We will not see too much of Olding in 2014 after he injured his cruciate ligament, which is extremely unlucky for the Ulster man. Only three months older than Henshaw, Olding also debuted for Ireland in the summer against the USA. He has been used as inside centre for most of his early career but his versatility can see him easily switch into the outside berth, while he can also play at full back.
This is where the dilemma lies – with both him and Jared Payne vying for the same spot, one is set to lose out. It’s hard to know how much game time he will see at Ulster, given the quality options they have in the midfield, but Olding is another classy operator with a bucket of potential. Luke Marshall inside him is stepping up to take over from Gordon D’Arcy, and the Ulster duo would relish the opportunity to become fixed assets both for Ulster and Ireland.
It’s easy to forget that Darren Cave is still only 26. With this explosion of youth in Ulster, Cave isn’t collecting his pension just yet. He has shone over the past two years for the Irish province, yet has been stuck with the difficulty of being behind Brian O’Driscoll at international level.
A natural 13, he has at times been the most logical successor for O’Driscoll. However, in all of Cave’s play there seems to be something slight lacking. Perhaps this is why he hasn’t taken on more of a berth in the Irish set up. It’s hard to know what to make of his recent comments claiming his “face doesn’t fit”, but either way Cave does have a claim to the jersey. He just needs to find a way to outshine his more exciting colleagues.
With a lot of talk about Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw, Joe Schmidt may look to someone to temporarily fill the gap. Tommy Bowe could possibly do that with ease. He has played in the centre on numerous occasions and brings a physical presence to the midfield.
He runs great lines and is a proven international standard player. By no means is he O’Driscoll’s successor as such, but it is plausible that he will take a step into the midfield until some of the younger players are that bit more developed and ready to take up the slot.
Macken needs first team game time to stake his place in the 13 channel. A lot of promise and a lot of potential, neither of which have yet to be fully realised. He has a long way to go, but Macken does have a lot of skill and talent. You can only do so much as a centre in Leinster given Brian O’Driscoll’s presence.
However, he has the great chance to learn from the former Irish skipper. One gets the feeling that now that O’Driscoll has hung up his boots, it is now Macken’s time to shine. His opportunity to step into the team and fill that void, and his opportunity to make an impact at a level he has not yet breached.
McFadden has been shifted from the centre out to the wing and flourished out there. Extremely dedicated and hard working, the Clongowes man seems to have the tendency to run into situations without any sort of care for personal safety.
His kicking game makes him useful on the wing for clearance situations, and it seems he is most useful on the wing. He does not have the passing game to be in the centre, and can come across as a bit of a headless chicken at times. Not the man to step into Ireland’s next midfield partnership.
Quietly building up a reputation out West, Connacht have a strong foundation of Irish youth in their backline. Griffin is another young centre who has shown flashes of brilliance and potential. His problem?
We may question whether or not he is better than the other options available. With Henshaw coming through touted as a 13, this could hugely limit his gametime. He may have to move away from his solid partnership with Dave McSharry should he look to make a bigger impact. Youth on his side, he’s another with potential but further down the list.
As sarcastic as this, Cronin pops up in the midfield so often and his ability in broken play is strangely appropriate to the centre. And if Tom Youngs can make the move from centre to hooker, than maybe, just maybe, a hooker can make the switch to the midfield. Well, we can all dream..
There is no shortage of possible contenders with the ability, the question remains as to which of them will fulfil this potential. With Payne, Henshaw and Fitzgerald all being touted as possible contenders, it looks to be a shootout between the three men providing they can get the game time at their respective provinces.
That leaves Munster as the only Irish province without a potential heir to O’Driscoll’s throne, but with Casey Laulala departing, it will be interesting to see who fills that midfield niche.
On paper, life after Brian O’Driscoll may not be as daunting as we once thought. But a lot of things look great on paper, and it’s up to these players to try to carry on from the legacy left by one of rugby’s greatest.
Jonathan Fitzpatrick, Pundit Arena.