Fears and phobias are commonplace throughout society. We experience them, see them, and live them. Both rational, and irrational. Stepping into 2014, 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 didn’t 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 talking of potential future centres, we’re 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 O’Driscoll when he qualifies for Ireland towards the end of 2014. He plies his trade at fullback for Ulster for the most part, but he has shown he has no problem lining out at midfield where he’s 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 gametime 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’ll 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’s already been Connacht’s player of the season at fullback, and he’s been capped for Ireland, all at the tender age of 20. It’s rare that players of this age will 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 be public enemy number 1 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 similiar to that of Jared Payne – he plays his club rugby at fullback. Although saying this, much like Payne, it seems like he’ll still get a chance at becoming Ireland’s next midfield stalwart. His size and versatility add to his CV with his skill set growing by each game he plays. Youth is on Henshaw’s side here, he’s 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. Fitzgerald 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 off his star, but his recent form is anything to go by – Fitzgerald hasn’t peaked too early. He’s 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’ll likely fill the void after O’Driscoll calls it a day at club level. Fitzgerald is by no means out of this race, and if he stays fit while keeping up his form, it’s hard to leave him out of a 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 has never cemented himself there. He has a strong cutting edge and finishing ability, but it seems that he is best suited on the left 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 before he becomes a jack of all trades, master of none.
We will not see much of Olding in 2014 after he injured his cruciate ligament, which is extremely unlucky for the Ulster man. Only 3 months older than Henshaw, Olding also debuted for Ireland in the summer against the USA. He’s been used as inside centre for most of his early career, but his versatility can see easily see him switch into the outside berth. His versatility also means he can play 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 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’s played in the centre on numerous occasiobs, he 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’s plausible that he’ll 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, either of which have yet to be fully realised. He has a long way to come, but Macken does have a lot of skill and talent. You can only do so much as a centre in Leinster given O’Driscoll’s presence. However, he has the great chance to learn from the former Irish skipper. Once O’Driscoll retires, it’s his 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 broached.
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 regard. His kicking game makes him useful on the wing for clearance situations, and it seems he’s most useful on the wing. He doesn’t have the passing game to be in the centre, and can come across as a headless chicken. 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. Well, we can all dream..
There’s no shortage of possible contenders with potential, the question remains as to which of them will fill their potential. With Payne, Henshaw and Fitzgerald all being touted as possible contenders, it looks to be a shoot between the three men providing they can get the game time at their province. That leaves Munster as the only Irish province without a potential heir to O’Driscoll’s throne, but with Casey Laulala departing, it’ll be interesting to see who fills that midfield niche. On paper, life after O’Driscoll may not be as daunting as we once though. But a lot of things look great on paper, and it’s up to these players to try carry on from the legacy left by one of rugby’s greatest.