Saturday 28 December 2013

End of a great '13

As 2013 draws to a close, it's with a tinge of sadness because one of our sport's greatest players will retire in the following year. Brian O'Driscoll's long and distinguished career is winding down, and he will be remembered as one of the best 13's, but it will be the Brian O'Driscoll from 2001 to 2010 that will be remembered, not the O'Driscoll of 2013.

Kieran Read has delivered exceptional performance after exceptional performance in 2013 to earn his IRB Player of the Year crown. Read has grown year after year, and when he retires, will be compared favourably to other No.8's when people talk about the best No.8's ever.

It's not just Read of the current players that will be compared favourably to other players in their positions from different eras. Dan Carter, Will Genia and Richie McCaw will forever be remembered as some of the best players to have ever played.

The same can not be said of the current Outside centres of the world. O'Driscoll is not the player he was, but the fact that he is still one of the best in the world, is more a reflection on the reduced standards of 13s available.

In his best, O'Driscoll displayed everything that is expected of an outside centre. The attacking lines, good passing skills and handling; pace and acceleration from the mark; spatial awareness, both in attack and defense, ferocious tackling, and defensive organisation. O'Driscoll had no fear, and often lead from the front doing the dirty work, as well as being able to produce the X factor in attack. He was also fantastic at the breakdown to boot.

Conrad Smith is the current best in the world. His defensive reading and support lines are what you'd expect from the best in the world, but he isn't what he was in terms of pace and attacking threat. No other current outside centre comes close. Jonathan Davies can't pass or defend to a high enough standard. Manu Tuilagi is close, but gets caught out too much in defense to be considered.

New Zealand have tended to try to convert wingers into the 13 channel, with Tim Nanai Williams and Rene Ranger having moved in there in last year's Super Rugby, and Ben Smith moving in for the November internationals. Nanai Williams and Ranger looked extremely dangerous in that channel, and while they surprised me defensively, they still got caught out more than you'd allow for a top class 13. Smith is doing well defensively so far, but his attacking influence has been significantly reduced, and his best position is definitely at full back.

So where will Ireland be left when O'Driscoll retires?

Will Ireland convert a winger like New Zealand, will they use the next best outside centre, will they invest in youth, or will they do something left field?

The next best outside centre is Darren Cave. At 26 years old, the Ulster centre is at the age where most international players become regulars. He hasn't got a huge amount of international experience, and four of his five caps have been against North American opposition. His recent form for Ulster has been good, and it's hard to understand why he hasn't been given a chance. He is sparkling around a very exciting Ulster backline at the moment, and certainly doesn't shirk his defensive responsibilities. Eoin Griffen is the only other Irish qualified centre that consistently gets game time there.

There are three contenders that might move in from the wing - Tommy Bowe replaced O'Driscoll when he was rule out of the third Lions test in 2009, his defense is always solid, and when given the chance has shown some creative spark. A replacement winger would be much easier to come by. Luke Fitzgerald has long been touted as a possibility, and impressed in his 30 minute cameo there against New Zealand in November. While talented, Fitzgerald offers more impact on the wing and should be left to string some uninjured seasons together playing there. Simon Zebo is another outside chance. Zebo flourishes when he comes off his wing, and and opportunity to get him more involved should be looked at.

Two Irish 13's that play outside of Ireland are Danny Barnes and Eamonn Sheridan, but neither are as talented as the indigenous options available to Schmidt.

There are also the overseas contenders that will be Ireland qualified in a few years, Connacht's Danie Poolman, and Jared Payne. Poolman started off his Connacht life in great form, and was a big reason why Connacht finished in their best position in the league yet. He has been sorely missed in Galway this season so far. Jared Payne is most people's favourite to get the starting outside centre berth for Ireland when he qualifies, what is certain is that he is capable, but in the times I've seen him there, I can't help but think, like Fitzgerald. his influence is greatly reduced compared to his impact in his normal position.

A stopgap solution could be the one used by Leinster in recent seasons, or by Ireland back in 2004, where Gordon D'Arcy moves out. While this has proven to be a successful option, it would be nothing more than a short term solution with D'Arcy also close to retirement.

Left field choices include shifting Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding, Chris Farrell or Ivan Dineen out one from inside centre. Marshall and Olding have shown great attacking promise in their short careers so far, but both should focus on nailing down their own positions, with Marshall at inside centre, and Olding either at outhalf or inside centre.

Other youngsters that have potential are Brendan Macken, whose finishing ability could be better suited to the wing, or Adam Byrne, who is a few years away from a finished product, but needs some work on his defensive abilities.

If all else fails, Michael Allen could move back into outside centre. His shift to the wing has been good, but the competition for wing spots in Ulster is very high with Bowe, Gilroy, Trimble already established and McIlwaine, Andrew and Scholes behind him.

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