By David Blair
WHEN DECLAN Kidney named his extended 39-man training squad for the Six Nations, there’s no doubt the announcement was overshadowed by, perhaps, his boldest decision of his five-year tenure as Irish head coach.
The news that Jamie Heaslip would continue to captain Ireland, having led them through the Autumn Series, raised eyebrows from Limerick to Donegal. That Brian O’Driscoll, who had been captain of the national side since 2003, was relieved of his captaincy duties in Ireland provoked a suitably divisive debate, with the decision praised and derided in equal measure, with unexpectedly strong criticism from former internationals. The latter of which is both surprising and, to my mind, inappropriate.
No-one can doubt the O’Driscoll legacy. He was the pick of a golden generation in Ireland, arguably their greatest ever. But those critical of Kidney’s decision appear to suggest that their talisman has been deprived of an opportunity to decide how and when he would relinquish those duties.
Surely, though, it’s the sole responsibility of the head coach to select his captain, especially when his own role may be decided in the coming months. You cannot take that decision away from him, and contrary to Declan Kidney’s previously conservative approach, Heaslip would appear to be the logical, forward-thinking choice.
By his own admission, O’Driscoll, 34, knows the 2015 World Cup is too far down the line, this may even prove to be his last Six Nations. He’s only played in three competitive fixtures since returning from an injury suffered in November. And although he will start the opener against Wales, it would be surprising if injury doesn’t rule him out of at least one of the five championship fixtures.
Declan Kidney stated that he wants his former captain to concentrate on his own game, removing the burden of leadership, in an official capacity at least. But O’Driscoll’s influence goes beyond the armband. His captaincy style was to lead by example, inspiring those around him to play over and above their potential. It’s absurd to think that’s going to change because of this recent decision.
O’Driscoll’s unrivalled experience, a record 83 of his 120 international caps have been as captain, will be an invaluable asset to Heaslip as he carries on from where he left off in the autumn. Ireland benefited from his fresh approach, and an influx of new faces end a hitherto disappointing 2012 with a resurgent victory over Argentina.
While it’s tempting to be swept away by the potential significance of that November victory over an Argentine squad physically and mentally fatigued after their exploits in the inaugural Rugby Championship, there is a sense Ireland turned a corner in that last fixture of 2012. Led by Heaslip, a new generation were beginning to show glimpses of a promising future.
Moving forward, Declan Kidney should hope to avoid a repeat situation where O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell were expected to carry the burden of leadership in the Irish camp. Within this Six Nations training squad there are twelve players with 30 international caps or more, such as Rory Best and Jonny Sexton, who need to share the responsibility of leadership with Heaslip as Ireland look towards the future, sans O’Driscoll.
There was a danger that this captaincy debate could undermine an otherwise positive build-up to the championship. But sense appears to have prevailed in large part to O’Driscoll himself, stressing that Heaslip would receive his full support in the coming weeks and months, regardless of any personal disappointment. You wouldn’t expect any less but it seems to have hushed the critics somewhat.
Looking ahead, there’s good reason to be positive about Irish hopes. There’s a healthy balance in the squad of relative newcomers keen to kick on from the autumn supported by a core group of experienced internationals bolstered by those returning from long-term injury.
Other reasons to be hopeful are the form of Jonny Sexton, Paris-bound in the summer, but an integral cog in the Irish backs division, and Cian Healy. In his current state of mind, no object, opponent or otherwise, looks immovable. Rob Kearney too will hope for a strong showing.
The one glaring weakness is a desperate lack of depth at tight-head beyond the presumably bubble-wrapped Mike Ross, hardly a shocking revelation. Ireland’s ongoing problems in this position are no secret yet they look no closer to a solution despite an apparent global search for props with Irish grannies, which yielded only further embarrassment.
Nevertheless Jamie Heaslip leads a strong squad with more than enough ammunition to mount a serious challenge. Should it be O’Driscoll’s final swansong, I don’t believe it matters a jot that he’s not captain, he’ll be as determined as ever to win.