For a full decade now, the Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy midfield axis has survived and thrived in the pell-mell that is international rugby but the durable duo are on borrowed time.
Their status as the most frequently used starting centre partnership in the Test arena was superseded by Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu last month when the All-Blacks trumped South Africa at Ellis Park.
The Irish pair may or may not catch up again over the course of the November internationals but, with O’Driscoll retiring this season and D’Arcy approaching his 34th birthday, their time together is clearly finite.
The question is if their partnership can survive until the summer?
Both men have succumbed to their fair share of injuries but the absence of Warren Gatland from the Irish coaching ticket would suggest that O’Driscoll will retain first claim on the 13 shirt as long as he is able to do so.
D’Arcy’s situation is less clearcut.
Luke Marshall stepped into the breach at inside centre during last season’s Six Nations, when the Wexford veteran was unavailable, and his candidacy is favoured by many ahead of Samoa tomorrow week.
The Islanders have seen off Wales, Scotland and Italy this last year and the expectation is that Joe Schmidt’s selection on November 9 will holdsignificant water for the Australian and All Black fixtures that follow.
Marshall accepted the first 15 which lines out the first day will indeed tell an important tale but is diplomatic to take heed of the suggestion that he is first in the queue to make that selection.
“I’m happy with my form but it is hard to see past what Gordon has done for Ireland in the past. He has been brilliant for 10 years and I am fresh on the scene so I wouldn’t say I expect to start. Definitely not.”
Whatever the names that trip off Schmidt’s tongue next week, Marshall appears to have a long international career ahead and he may even form one half of a partnership that is all-Ulster.
Jared Payne, the 28-year old Kiwi from Tauranga, will be Irish-qualified as of next season and his switch from full-back to outside-centre alongside Marshall for Cardiff’s visit to Ravenhill last week offered a tantalising glimpse of what could be.
“He is a pretty special player,” said Marshall when asked for an appraisal. “It’s his vision in attack and defence as well. He sees things so early and he is very easy to play with. His line running is exceptional as well.
“There have been a few times I have been able to get an easy shoulder just for walk-ins and he is good to play with. He is available (for Ireland) next season so he will be an option.”
Schmidt has mentioned Marshall himself as a possible answer to the conundrum as to who fills O’Driscoll’s boots but the 22-year-old has only played there three times and seems focused on building on last season’s breakthrough at 12.
He still looks back on that campaign with fond memories but the trio of concussions suffered towards its end overshadowed many of the positives and saw him miss the Pro12 final, as well as Ireland’s North American tour.
The four months off have at least allowed him to bulk up some, which is obviously useful for an inside-centre, and any lingering concerns over his own wellbeing have been dealt with.
“Initially, after the three concussions, it was about passing the tests and all. I had a couple of consultations with doctors and specialists and they were happy enough I wasn’t suffering any ill-effects, any sore heads or dizziness.
“They were happy with rest and to see what (would) happen next season. Obviously, this season has been fine.
“The first game (back for Ulster) I was a little bit nervous. It was in the back of my mind but, it wasn’t too bad. Ach, it was just a little thing, I was nervous about being knocked out again and what would happen. After I got the first few tackles out of the way, it was fine and I haven’t thought about it since. I’ve had no problems since.”
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