News that Brian O’Driscoll is to undergo surgery on a long-standing shoulder injury, and thus most likely miss the entire 2012 Six Nations as well as Leinster’s Heineken Cup defence is a cruel blow to all Irish rugby fans. Both Ireland and Leinster will greatly miss the legendary centre. However, the rest of this season will offer rugby fans in this country a glimpse of life after BOD. The question of who will replace O’Driscoll when the Six Nations kicks off in February is an intriguing one. Here, we look at some of the options Declan Kidney has in filling the 13 jersey.
The loyal Kidney will almost certainly look within his current squad for options. Keith Earls is the most obvious in this regard. He will miss the next six weeks due to the knee injury suffered against Leinster. He will hope to be back in Heineken Cup action as soon as possible. If Earls can get some game time at 13 for Munster this season, it will obviously increase his chances of replacing O’Driscoll in the centre. Many supporters have always seen Earls as the long-term heir to O’Driscoll.
However, most of his provincial and international rugby has been played on the wing and at full-back. Earls will need more exposure to the outside centre role with Munster to convince Kidney. With Earls’ pace, evasiveness and finishing ability, he is an attacking threat no matter where he togs out. It will be hard for any player to match O’Driscoll in terms of his defence, and this is where Earls will have to prove himself. The 13 channel can be particularly difficult to defend, something which hasn’t been too obvious with O’Driscoll’s supremacy there.
Earls’ fellow World Cup winger, Tommy Bowe, has played at 13 for the Ospreys, and once for the Lions in 2009. While these appearances in the centre have been limited, Bowe has shown that he is more than capable of holding his own there. Kidney will certainly consider unleashing Bowe’s powerful running game from further infield.
Similarly to Earls, Bowe has not been consistently tested in the position at the top-level, making only fleeting appearances there. If Bowe were to get an extended run in the centre for the Ospreys then it would offer Kidney a taste of his ability there. However, Bowe’s natural position is on the wing and he remains a lethal threat from there. The Ospreys will not be inclined to move Bowe into the centre merely to serve the Irish management’s interests.
Andrew Trimble is another member of Kidney’s squad who may be considered in the centre positions. Trimble has played most of his rugby for Ireland on the wing. Once again, Trimble may have limited chances playing in the centre for his province, and so, little chance to convince Declan Kidney that he is a viable option here. Earls or Bowe would be the more obvious candidates to move inside, with Trimble replacing either of them on the wing.
Kidney must also look at players with less international experience. One of these players is Fergus McFadden, who will see himself as favourite to become Leinster’s outside centre with O’Driscoll out injured. This opportunity of an extended run in Leinster’s first 15 is one that McFadden’s potential has been crying out for. The Kilkenny-born centre is now 25 and will relish this chance.
McFadden has had even more limited exposure at international level but has acquitted himself well at every chance. He was voted MVP (Most Valuable Player) of the 2009 Churchill Cup after some highly impressive performances during Ireland ‘A’s victory at that tournament. McFadden now has six full Irish caps after appearing, and scoring a try, against Russia at the Rugby World Cup. A try-scoring appearance on the wing against France in the 2011 Six Nations also marked McFadden’s ability to step up to international level.
The 92kg centre will be eager to impress for Leinster in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup, starting with next Saturday’s trip to Montpellier. McFadden offers defensive solidity, a surprising turn of pace and is a viable goal kicking option behind Jonny Sexton or Ronan O’Gara. As things stand, he is surely the favourite to take O’Driscoll’s place on February 5th against Wales at the Aviva.
Ulster’s Darren Cave is another candidate and a player who has shown rich promise in the past. Cave was a member of the Irish U-20 Grand Slam winning team of 2007. He was voted Ulster’s Young Player of the Year in 2009. Cave suffered an injury-disrupted 2010/2011 season so he will be raring to go for Ulster’s Heineken Cup campaign. If the outside centre can return to form in the coming months then he will hope to add to his single Irish cap.
The fact that Cave had such an injury-ravaged year last season allowed young Nevin Spence to showcase his talents in the 13 jersey for Ulster. The 21-year-old had a fantastic season culminating in being voted the IRUPA Young Player of the Year. His good form led to two caps for the Irish Wolfhounds where he showed his ability with a devastating break to set up a Denis Hurley try in the 20-11 win over the English Saxons.
Other young centres such as Munster’s Danny Barnes, Ulster’s Luke Marshall and Leinster’s Eoin O’Malley most likely fall into this category too. The youngsters, 22, 20 and 23 respectively, have all shown up well for their provinces when given the opportunity. However, like Spence, they all face a battle for a starting place in their provinces’ first-choice 15.
Barnes and O’Malley are better placed than Marshall, who is currently out injured. Barnes will hope to stave off the competition of Munster’s new signing, Will Chambers, for the 13 shirt. The New-Zealand born Kerryman will look to build on a confident, try-scoring start to his Munster career.
Meanwhile, O’Malley will probably be in competition with McFadden for Leinster’s outside centre berth, but he has shown exciting talent when given the opportunity. An elusive player with ball in hand as well as an intelligent defender, he is a dark horse right now but as we have seen with the likes of Conor Murray things can change quickly in professional rugby.
For the time being, all of these players will be engrossed on their provinces’ RaboDirect PRO12 and Heineken Cup campaigns. However, with the news on O’Driscoll, these players will surely keep the vacant Irish 13 jersey at the back of their minds. With Gordon D’Arcy’s form in the past year or so appearing to wane, perhaps Declan Kidney will even consider a completely new centre pairing. Clearly, the motivation is there for these young Irish centres to fulfill their potential and attempt to step their careers up to the next level.
Photos courtesy: MD+D