The retirement of Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll at the end of last season left fans from all over the world heart-broken. BOD was quite simply a legend of the game, no matter where you come from, and was the epitome of everything that has been great about Irish rugby in recent years.
O’Driscoll’s retirement may have left a nation in mourning, but not it is up to Joe Schmidt to find a player capable of stepping into BOD’s shoes and making the number 13 shirt their own. It can not simply be a case of trying to replace O’Driscoll, Schmidt must find someone who can truly step into the role and make Irish fans forget about the loss of one of the games true greats.
Since O’Driscoll’s retirement at the end of last season a number of names have been mentioned as Ireland’s next 13, some of whom have had a shot at the shirt, others who will be desperate for a chance in the upcoming internationals. Just a year out from the World Cup this leaves Schmidt with the difficult decision of whether to go with a more established name as a stopgap or look to the future with one eye on 2019 when the World Cup will be hosted in Japan.
Here are the candidates to wear the iconic number 13 jersey in the build up to next year’s World Cup;
The Kiwi born Ulster-man looks to be in pole position for the Ireland 13 shirt with the Northern Irish provence moving him from his preferred position of fullback to outside centre to get him better acquainted with the role. Payne is still yet to pull on an Irish jersey but seems to be a fan favourite already, whilst his ability to play across the back three or at 13 will be seen as a bonus by the Ireland coaching team.
Fitzgerald has had plenty of opportunity to study BOD having played alongside him for both Leinster and Ireland in recent years. Although he has spent a good deal of his time out on the wings, he has seen his opportunities at 13 increasing in recent years and definitely sees it as his best position. Fitzgerald is as capable as anyone of fitting into the outside centre position but does he provide the X Factor that some of the other options offer?
It seems now that it is only a matter of time before Henshaw claims the number 13 jersey for his own. The one thing counting against him will be his age and therefore lack of experience at the top level, however there is no doubt that he is more than capable of becoming a top international. Given the chance he’s sure to help provide the Irish midfield with a bit of spark and given time to grow into the role could hold it down much like BOD did.
D’Arcy has spent most of his career playing in the Leinster and Ireland midfield alongside BOD so is well accustomed to the teams lines and plays. His experience would also be invaluable during a World Cup season whilst he has also proven over the years he’s a top class centre. The biggest concern would be that he is far from a long-term option as he is almost guaranteed to be retiring after the World Cup.
Earls has been known to step into the 13 shirt when injuries have required it, although many would consider him a better winger than centre. There’s no doubt he’s a capable outside centre however and it certainly seems to be the position he would prefer. His experience of filling in for BOD over the years could also fall in his favour as he’s spent more time in the shirt than any of the other contenders.
McFadden already has 27 caps to his name (including 9 tries) and was one of the men to don the 13 shirt during Ireland’s tour earlier this year. The Leinsterman would certainly bring experience to the role, whilst his ability to cover the wing would also be considered a bonus in a slimmed down World Cup squad. McFadden may however miss out after picking up an injury which could keep him out of the Autumn International series.
Cave now looks like a long-shot for the 13 shirt given Ulster’s preference of Payne at 13, but he mustn’t be discounted completely. Over the years Cave has proven himself to be a more than competent operator at outside centre and has been given several opportunities by Ireland in the past. Although it seems unlikely, Cave is maybe only a couple of injuries away from a start for Ireland depending on Schmidt’s preferences.
Griffin is possibly the longest shot out of the entire list, but he should not be entirely discounted. The former-Connacht man is one of the few players on the list who has consistently held down a position at outside centre and has already been involved with the Emerging Ireland squad. His move to London Irish over the summer could dampen his hopes but a decent season for the Premiership side could soon change that.
Sheridan is another long-shot having spent the couple of years playing in England, however a stand-out season for London Irish last-time around means he should at least be considered. There’s no doubt Sheridan would need a stormer of a season to be considered, however his size and power could be an asset to the Irish backline, although he is probably more accustomed to playing 12 than 13.
Who would you select for the number 13 shirt?