Who will be the bearer the #13 shirt?

For 12 years there has been no interest in any Irish No 13 bar Brian O’Driscoll. All of a sudden, with O’Driscoll facing six months out after shoulder surgery, a successor – if only a temporary one – is needed for the great man.

The Irish provinces have talented young players to vie for the role. O’Driscoll’s stand-in at Leinster – Fergus McFadden – would appear the front runner. He possesses the same physicality in his hard line running, tackling and clearing of the breakdown. A similar size to O’Driscoll, he also contains that deceptive power, though he lacks O’Driscoll’s touches.

Then there’s Darren Cave in Ulster, who more than contained Aurélien Rougerie in the Heineken Cup. Cave fell off the radar last season with the emergence of Nevin Spence at Ulster, but he has the class to make it as a Test centre. He runs great lines and has the rare gift of an outside-centre to seemingly drift outside the defender into space.

Connacht and Munster each have a quality centre for the future in the shape of Eoin Griffin and Danny Barnes. But both need more top-class game time before they can come into the reckoning. That puts the smart money on a two-horse race between McFadden and Cave.

I’d look at the ‘replacing O’Driscoll’ dilemma as an opportunity to correct an imbalance in the Irish XV. Although the most-capped midfield partnership in history, O’Driscoll and D’Arcy are tiny compared to most modern-day centres. Think Tuilagi, Rougerie, Nonu, Fourie, Roberts.

Ireland need to address this imbalance. That’s why I’d go for Northampton’s James Downey. This would entail moving Gordon D’Arcy to 13 and Downey starting at 12. It would also mean selecting an overseas player, which is not the preference of all in the IRFU. However, the benefits would be huge as Ireland would have a player with physical attributes to take a hard running line, get past the tackle and be tall enough to get his hands free over the tackler to make an offload. Simple stuff but effective.

D’Arcy would become the support runner instead of the battering ram and his game would be rejuvenated. Downey’s power in the tackle would also add another bow to the side.

Critics of Downey speak of his inability to pass wide and sometimes being slow on his feet in defence, but these weaknesses can be worked around. Just look at Jamie Roberts, who was sensational in the World Cup. Not too many cut-out passes from him but lots of front-foot ball and a defensive powerhouse.

Defensive lines are so well organised these days that often you waste your time trying to go around them and are better off reverting to the crash centre of old with an added offloading touch. Just look how O’Driscoll himself played on Lions tours with big powerful centres inside him, like Rob Henderson and Roberts. A Downey and D’Arcy pairing should have that same effect.

This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of Rugby World Magazine.

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