Filling Brian O’Driscoll void is a tough ask for Irish rugby

Let’s rewind two weeks.

A team with momentum pitches up at the home of a rival and fails to deliver a performance of the standard required. Cue reams of paper and hours of air time devoted to the emotive yet central question as to whether the coach — and his squad — are up to the job at hand.

Joe Schmidt won’t have to withstand the same buffeting Stuart Lancaster took on the back of England’s defeat in Dublin. The Ireland coach has banked too much credit for that to be an issue after a first defeat in eleven outings.

So, too, his team.

Schmidt wouldn’t ever look at it this way, but the fact is that Ireland were just a converted try – and a questionable Wayne Barnes scrum penalty — away from a very good Welsh side despite allowing their opponents a twelve-point head start and playing below their best.

That could, and maybe should, be viewed as comforting.

Outshone in the air, both from open play and lineouts, Ireland bludgeoned away at the Welsh defensive line once their early torpor was put behind them and yet they could manage nothing more than two penalties and a converted penalty try.

The failure to use an overlap containing Tommy Bowe and Jared Payne during that astonishing siege on the Welsh line after half-time has harvested considerable comment already, less so the fact that Dan Biggar was the lone sentry on the same side minutes earlier, when he had just one good arm.

Ireland’s inability to score a single try against 15 men to date in this tournament – all three claimed have been earned with an opponent in the sin bin – ranks as a significant concern as the title chase approaches the wire.

Both moments singled out above will grate this week as the focus turns away from Cardiff towards Edinburgh and yet it’s worth lingering a bit longer on events in the Welsh capital at the weekend and comparing them to Ireland’s previous trip 24 months before.

That, too, was a game rated as the championship’s best and, while it was immortalised by Simon Zebo’s gorgeous back flick, the input of Brian O’Driscoll deserves to stand the test of time every bit as much.

“Mercurial,” was the word the IRFU website’s match report used to describe the now retired outside-centre who showed his adaptability in filling in at scrum-half when Conor Murray was directed toward the sin bin in the second-half.

It was his creation of the first try for Zebo that day that came to mind after Ireland’s defeat two days ago, when the Leinster centre received possession, used what pace he had left to inject some urgency into the move, drew two defenders and sent the Munster wing free.

Watch the pass that the then 34-year old delivered at that moment and marvel again at how it seemed to defy the law of physics. O’Driscoll made it blind, around the back of the last defender and in a manner that meant Zebo never had to break stride.

Robbie Henshaw and Payne have filled the void left by O’Driscoll and the ageing Gordon D’Arcy better than anyone could have imagined this season and yet Saturday demonstrated more than ever the magnitude of the void that still exists.

You think of the countless times Ireland pressed on the opposition try line during O’Driscoll’s time and the frequency with which he found himself at the base of the ruck, deputising for a nine sucked into the maelstrom.

His eyesight may have been famously compromised, but you would be hard pressed to argue he would not have had the nous to spot Payne or Bowe flailing their arms before that pop pass was spilled by Cian Healy and the momentum died.

More than that was his ability to see an inch and grab two. No player in world rugby could match O’Driscoll’s impossibly low centre of gravity which allowed him scuttle under the barricades time and again and plant the ball over a try line marshalled by a platoon of beefy forwards.

Replacing that predatory and creative input is perhaps the single greatest task facing an Irish side that has the vast majority of boxes ticked under Schmidt. It will also go some way to deciding how much further the squad can go in the World Cup.


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