DONAL LENIHAN: Sean O’Brien an obvious captain in Irish rugby's changing of the guard

It almost passed unnoticed. Some who attended may have played no hand, act or part in Ireland’s ultimately disappointing World Cup experience three months ago but were in attendance when the book was finally closed on the 2015 event by the Irish players and management at Carton House on Sunday.

With fresh young faces in attendance for the first time, the likes of Stuart McCloskey, Ultan Dillane, Garry Ringrose, CJ Stander, Luke McGrath and Josh van Der Flier, it won’t have gone unnoticed to seasoned veterans like Johnny Sexton, Rory Best, Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Sean O Brien that we are about to see a changing of the guard.

The biggest vacuum has been left by the squad’s spiritual leader and captain Paul O’Connell who himself turned the final leaf of his spectacular career by moving his family to Toulon over the weekend. 

I would be surprised if Paul’s thoughts didn’t stray to Carton House at least once over the weekend but, as with all opening weeks of a new year come the opportunity for new beginnings. 

O’Connell and his new teammates are set to travel entirely different roads over the next five months.

At the other end of the scale sits Ringrose. 

Last Sunday marked his first official attendance as a member of the Irish senior squad. 

He had better get used to it as it is a journey he will be undertaking for a long time to come.

Joe Schmidt has become accustomed to dealing with a confident and sprightly bunch of players bouncing into national camp just after Christmas but the dynamics must have been slightly different this time out.

At least the Munster contingent are entitled to smile a little after all the doom and gloom perched at their dressing room door in recent weeks. 

That win over Ulster could not have been better timed.

Leinster were after enjoying an even better festive period with fully merited wins over Munster and Connacht. They really look to have turned a corner.

If those two can retain that winning habit over the next three weeks, the mood will be even better heading into the Six Nations.

Despite a badly needed win over Toulouse last Sunday night Munster’s next opponents, Stade Francais, look eminently beatable even at the Stade Jean-Bouin.

That would signal a brilliant start to 2016 for Anthony Foley and company.

With an exciting number of new faces on board in a squad stretching towards 50 players, one can imagine a sense of quiet nervousness the first time that gathering assembled and faced Schmidt over the weekend.

The World Cup is gone for another four years and all talk of building towards the next event in Japan in 2019 can be put on hold for a while yet.

The task facing Schmidt and his management team over the next 11 months is far too challenging to contemplate anything beyond 2016.

As defending Six Nations champions seeking to become the first side to win the tournament on three consecutive occasions, there is plenty to occupy Schmidt’s thoughts between now and the end of March alone.

It he chooses to peer beyond that Six Nations window, a pretty daunting three test tour of South Africa looms in June encompassing a trio of magnificent test venues in Newlands Stadium, Cape Town, Johannesburg’s Ellis Park and the spanking new Nelson Mandela Bay arena in Port Elizabeth.

While there are sure to be some new faces exposed to those challenging environments, for the experienced nucleus of Schmidt’s squad it will mark the culmination, almost to the day, of 12 months of continuous activity since they assembled at Carton House on June 29th, 2015 for the start of their World Cup preparations.

Thereafter the challenges keep coming in 2016. After 111 years of toil and effort, encompassing 28 encounters that has failed to yield a single win, Ireland look set to get two cracks at registering a frustratingly elusive, first ever test victory over New Zealand. 

The fact that one of those is provisionally set to take place at Soldier Field, Chicago on November 5 has sparked the imagination of the huge Irish emigrant population in America even before the fixture is officially confirmed. 

Here’s hoping it comes to pass.

The World champions are definitely set to appear at the Aviva Stadium two weeks later so Schmidt has another crack at making Irish rugby history. 

The New Zealander is not accustomed to failure on the rugby stage and a cherished win over his native country must rank as a major goal for him this year.

Then again there is a distinct possibility that he may not even be at the helm when New Zealand, Canada and Australia arrive for that November series.

The head coach to the British and Irish Lions is due to be confirmed after the Six Nations championship and right now there are only two names in the hat.

Warren Gatland will certainly be pressing his claims to lead a second successive tour and after winning the series in Australia in 2013 the feeling within the Lions appointments committee will be that it is his job to turn down.

Then again should Ireland succeed in winning a hat trick of Six Nations championships, how could the claims of Schmidt be ignored?

If he is successful, will the Lions committee insist on him stepping down for national duty in advance of that November series along with the 2017 Six Nations tournament?

How are Ireland fixed, with Les Kiss now no longer part of the national set-up, to cope with such an eventuality? 

As of now Kiss hasn’t even been replaced, with the word being that Schmidt is set to cover the defensive responsibilities undertaken so capably by Kiss in recent times.

Is Schmidt stretching himself too much? The first question he has to address is who takes over the captaincy role vacated by O’Connell. 

There appears to be three standout candidates in Sexton, Best, and Heaslip, with the latter two having already carried out the role on a number of occasions.

Not only would I extend that list of candidates to four but I am already on record as to where my vote lies. 

I would opt, without hesitation, for Sean O’Brien. He is an inspirational figure and despite having little game time recently, displayed enough in Leinster’s win over Munster to suggest he is back to his best. 

He backed that up with a crucial contribution, off the bench, against Connacht at the RDS.

Interviewed as man of the match immediately after that harrowing defeat to New Zealand in 2013, O’Brien was not seeking comfort in any false platitudes. 

He immediately focused on the key mistakes Ireland made in attempting to close out that game and the areas that required improvement in order to beat the very best.

He is a leader and a driver of standards. 

In the absence of O’Connell, he is the one that players will now turn to when times get tough. 

With half of Ireland’s first choice pack from the World Cup either injured or retired, those challenges may come thick and fast in the no to distant future.

Sometimes you need to look beyond the obvious and Schmidt has entrusted O’Brien with the captaincy once before, the recent World Cup warm up game against Scotland. 

In what promises to be — for a variety of reasons — a very demanding year on the test front, Ireland require a strong, resilient character at the helm. 

The Carlow man ticks that box perfectly for me.


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