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Generation Next: Ireland's rugby retirements

With a handful of Ireland’s Golden Generation having now slipped the wrong side of 30, how many have the appetite for another year of competitive international rugby?

Gordon D'Arcy, Ronan O'Gara and Brian O'Driscoll in training  last week.
Gordon D'Arcy, Ronan O'Gara and Brian O'Driscoll in training last week.
Image: David Davies/PA Wire/Press Association Images

THE NATIONAL SIDE’S loss to Wales on Saturday was made especially poignant by the knowledge that it was likely to be the last time a handful of Ireland’s most talented players, the core around which the squad has been fashioned for nearly a decade, shared the field in a Rugby World Cup.

Two quarter-final appearances and an ignominious group stage exit– the World Cup record the so-called “Golden Generation” will bequeath to posterity– stand in puzzling asymetry to the wealth of talent the national side has had at its disposal over the past three campaigns. Add to that a lone Six Nations Grand Slam (2009) and you have a misleadingly lightweight legacy against which the stars of this international generation will be judged.

That it simply wasn’t to be, that talent and ambition couldn’t reach the accommodation with destiny that appeared inevitable only two years ago, will be tough for many players to bear.

Retirements look unavoidable; but who are the players most likely to cede their place in Declan Kidney’s squad over the coming months?

Ronan O’Gara (age: 34): The fly-half’s temperament has become the stuff of Irish rugby legend, but the physical demands of international rugby are likely to prove an insurmountable barrier to his continued presence in the Irish set-up. He appears to have backed away from his stated intention to retire in the immediate wake of Ireland’s World Cup campaign, but the No10 is beginning to enter that period of his career where retirement rarely remains a matter of choice.

Brian O’Driscoll (age: 32): The finest Irish player of all-time and, arguably, the most consistently impressive international player of the last decade, O’Driscoll still possesses sufficient attacking threat to trouble the strongest defences in world rugby, even if it is one now defined more by his nearly unrivalled match intelligence than brute speed and agility. With his dream of leading Ireland to another major international victory effectively at an end, the longevity of his club career may well begin to take precedence.

Paddy Wallace (age: 32): A jack of all trades, the breadth of the Ulsterman’s skill-set has frequently proven more of a hindrance to his progress than a boon. Less intelligent a fly-half than Ronan O’Gara, less dynamic an inside-centre than Gordon D’Arcy, Wallace’s commitment to the cause has, nonetheless, been admirable. Now, with his hopes of ever sealing a place in the starting 15 fast retreating, is his patience finally wearing thin?

A career-ending injury? ©INPHO/James Crombie

David Wallace (age: 35): A rampaging Manu Tuilagi prevented Wallace from even taking his place on the plane to New Zealand and, at 35 years of age, the flanker’s days as an international No7 look numbered, particularly given the success of the slightly unorthodox back row partnership of Stephen Ferris and Sean O’Brien during the subsequent tournament. Wallace has defied expectation on numerous occasions in the past, but a return to the starting 15 would, given the circumstances, be nothing short of a miracle.

Paul O’Connell (age: 31): Only a few weeks shy of his 32nd birthday, O’Connell finds himself adrift in a sporting limbo similar to that of O’Driscoll and O’Gara. Injuries have taken their toll in recent years and the coming months will offer the lock a chance to happen upon some new goals and attempt to strike a balance between his provincial and international ambitions.

Jerry Flannery (age: 32): As the source of his recent internet celebrity can well attest, Flannery’s technical ability remains very much intact, but a series of debiliating calf injuries, the latest of which forced him to abandon Ireland’s World Cup campaign, have undoubtedly taken their toll. With Rory Best having distinguished himself in his place and Sean Cronin assuming the role of understudy, it looks unlikely that he’ll ever return to the fold.

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