He will surpass Keith Wood as Ireland’s most capped hooker, winning his 58th cap and he will also assume the responsibility of the Irish captaincy for the first time in a Six Nations’ match.
Surpassing your predecessors is a nice little feather in the cap. Becoming captain of a side for the first time in a major international is far more challenging.
Since Declan Kidney’s first year in charge of Ireland, it was clear, even to the outside observer, there was an alteration in leadership in the Irish camp. O’Driscoll had been captaining the team for several years but there were always rumblings that maybe O’Connell or Best should be given the title. In the amateur era, players were selected for Ireland from club sides and didn’t really have any loyalty to their provincial compatriots. A player from Cork was less likely to back his Limerick rival than any player from Dublin. This changed with professionalism.
Since the birth of Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht as professional units, all club boundaries within the provinces have been broken down. When Ireland was dominated by Munster and Leinster, there was always a feeling amongst the players that the strong man from their province should be the leader. Keith Wood was seen as a neutral, having been domiciled in London. But when he retired in 2003, the vacancy was going to be filled by a partisan from one of the provinces.
In Munster, it is almost compulsory the team leader is a forward. Mick Galwey, Anthony Foley, Paul O’Connell and even of late, Peter O’Mahony, have been given the captaincy. They all have the trait of being abrasive, tough players. They lead from the front, are very physical and regularly carry ball aggressively at the opposition.
Each one had a different style. Galwey led with his heart. You knew nobody loved and cared about the team as much as he did. Tears would always well up in his eyes in the meeting before a big match as he gave an impassioned plea for our maximum efforts. Every one of us would have followed him into any battle after those meetings. He also had the killer punch. Galwey could sense when an opponent was on the ropes and was ready for the knockout.
Anthony Foley led more with his head. He was so aware tactically as a player and always knew the right call for any situation. Foley read games excellently both as an individual and a leader. Even though he wasn’t much older than most of his team-mates, he was wise on the pitch and Kidney trusted him to call plays. His team-mates would buy into his plan.
Paul O’Connell’s captaincy is all about standards. He had no fear of announcing his goals prior to a big match. Before a European Cup quarter-final, he once declared he would carry more ball than any other forward that day. There was no shirking for O’Connell. Of course he reached his target, but it was brave to set yourself up in front of your team-mates.
When O’Connell led, you felt a responsibility to live up to the standards he set. This was not just on game-day but in every aspect of your rugby career. Whether it was fitness, nutrition, analysis or rehabilitation, O’Connell was the leader. His intensity was almost intimidating.
O’Driscoll is a more measured captain. Being a back, he doesn’t have the same intensity as the forward leaders from Munster. But he has high personal standards and a work ethic unlike any other player. He was always seeking to improve himself and his team. And he is willing to put himself through more punishment than the toughest forwards.
Kidney’s greatest strength has always been his ability to create a unique bond within a team. O’Driscoll has always been a fantastic player and he has grown to be a great Irish captain. But it was notable in Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning year, Kidney publicly acknowledged Rory Best and Paul O’Connell as leaders of the team along with O’Driscoll. They even jointly paraded the trophy.
This is no slur on O’Driscoll’s ability as a leader. Rather it was an astute move by Kidney in bringing together three disparate provincial units, by promoting each of the provincial leaders as co-captains. It was a necessary move to unite an Irish squad that hadn’t bonded in the professional era because of provincial rivalries.
A side-effect is that there are now three qualified candidates for the Irish captaincy. O’Connell seamlessly transitioned into the lead role when O’Driscoll was ruled out for the Six Nations. Best will just as easily slot in as captain today.