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O'Driscoll: Ireland need a 'thug' who will throw their weight around

The former Ireland captain also warned it will be difficult for Andy Farrell to experiment during the Six Nations.

Guinness ambassador Brian O'Driscoll.
Guinness ambassador Brian O'Driscoll.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

ON SATURDAY, WE’LL finally get a first glimpse at the Andy Farrell era.

As Ireland supporters came to terms with another World Cup quarter-final defeat in Japan, it didn’t take long for attention to turn to the opening Guinness Six Nations game against Scotland this Saturday.

Those criticisms that were aimed at the team in the final weeks and months of Joe Schmidt’s tenure burned away over the winter months.

The style of play was too limited.

There was too much reliance on senior players.

A crippling lack of creativity.

Now, a new start, with a new head coach, but what can we expect?

According to Brian O’Driscoll, it may be more of the same.

“It’s so important from a coach’s perspective to have a good Six Nations because if you have a poor one straight away you’re on the back foot, particularly if you’re new to the job,” O’Driscoll says.

“In this context, I think it’s difficult for Andy [Farrell] to be experimental with his squad. That said – he will still have an opportunity to bring in some new blood. I think you’d be foolish to think he’s got to go with the old guard because the tried and tested over the last year hasn’t properly worked. 

andy-farrell-ahead-of-the-game Andy Farrell is preparing for his first game as Ireland head coach. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“You’ve got to pick some players on form. So I don’t think there’s no opportunity, you’ve just got to be careful with getting the balance right between winning games, using experience to guide you through tricky Six Nations games but also being able to incorporate those new players that can fit into a system seamlessly.” 

After a 2019 season that saw no shortage of issues creep up, Ireland’s physicality became an increasingly noticeable concern.

The first warnings came when Schmidt admitted his team had been ‘bullied’ by England during a a humbling 32-20 defeat on the opening weekend of last year’s Six Nations.

The 32-point loss to New Zealand at the World Cup highlighted the problem again.

Going forward, do Ireland need a ‘dog’ in the pack?

“It’s something that I’ve always talked to a couple of coaches about,” O’Driscoll says.

“People think there is less necessity because of [TV] cameras and a dog isn’t about being a thug, trying to throw cheap shots, it’s about being nasty and physically imposing and that’s why I always loved playing with Sean O’Brien. 

“That’s why, whenever he was fit, I wanted to see him in the team, because he brought ferociousness to everything he did. At training, but in particular in games, I’ve never seen him taking a backwards step and I just wonder, do we have that level, in the best possible way, that ‘thug’ within the team that you want to throw their weight around a little bit and set out a few markers. 

“We don’t have it in the second row. We’ve two great athletes but I don’t think it exists. [It is there] A little bit in Tadhg Furlong and Cian [Healy] but not to the Sean O’Brien or Paulie [O’Connell] or [Denis] Leamy [level]. 

sean-obrien-supported-by-shane-jennings-and-brian-odriscoll O'Driscoll says he always enjoyed the 'ferociousness' Seán O'Brien brought to a team. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Yeah, Seanie lived on the edge and he crossed it a few times but it was the ferociousness of everything he did. It’s an attitude thing, it’s ingrained in you or it’s not. It’s a very hard component to develop.” 

O’Driscoll believes the problem may lie in the way young players are developed in Ireland, and the two-time Six Nations winner is worried the school and academy systems are potentially producing players that are just too ‘nice’ for international Test rugby.

“I think it’s a really relevant point, I really do. It’s something that I’ve thought about. That’s why I loved having [Denis] Leamy in the team. He was softly spoken and very quiet and went about his business but he was an absolute animal. 

“If he could, he’d hurt you, and it’s that… where you could get a shot and you’d really [feel it].

“It’s about playing on the line, not trying to play [dirty]. This is a tough game that we play. At international level if you get an opportunity to set out a marker, don’t miss that chance. Sometimes rather than waiting for it to come, people have to go looking for it. That’s sometimes the difference between the real hardy boys and everybody else.”

In terms of the personnel available to Farrell, O’Driscoll says he would lean towards a more conservative squad selection for the Scotland game.

He would put faith in Conor Murray over the in-form John Cooney.

He feels the centre partnership should be Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw.

He wouldn’t pick Andrew Conway ahead of Keith Earls or Jacob Stockdale.

If there is a revolution coming, O’Driscoll thinks we’ll have to be patient.

“I think you’ll see Andy getting a balance. I think he’ll do what he needs to do to win games and build this squad over the next two to three years.

“And there will be changes, there will be guys that you’ll see in this Six Nations that won’t be involved in two years time but you can’t cast them aside yet. You’ve got to have a progression system of using that experience with some new blood.

“You’ve got to start with a win on Saturday,” he continues.

“I think that’s very important. But then to get the opportunity to have the squad together for seven weeks is important in the style that he’s going to change. It’s very hard for him to do it having had a three-day camp at Christmas and then having the lads in for some of last week and into this week – that’s no time to try and shape a completely new game plan. 

“It will be a progessional thing, I would imagine, but I think he’ll have some slightly different concepts and ideas. I think you’ll probably see a bit more focus on unstructured play, I think you’ll see an opportunity to offload a little bit more, to push the pass a little bit more, where maybe we got a little bit tight in that regard the last couple of seasons and played a bit too conventionally. 

“I think there will be a bit of breakaway from what we have seen, and maybe, people are talking about more of a focus towards how Leinster are playing… There will be aspects of that, but he’ll have his own stamp, and Mike Catt will have a big say in that as well.”

brian-odriscoll Brian O’Driscoll has teamed up with Guinness to launch a host of Guinness Six Nations experiences which celebrate a fusion of the six competing nations inspired cultures through events available to the public. For more details visit www.guinness.com. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

If Ireland are to move more towards that unstructured style, it would naturally suit the Leinster contingent of Farrell’s squad.

And O’Driscoll feels that while those from Connacht, Munster, Ulster may find themselves trying to learn new tricks, balance will be key across the team, particularly in an increasingly competitive back-row, where Schmidt favourites CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony have struggled for consistency at different stages across the last 12 months.

“What does CJ do particularly well? He gets you go forward. Internationally, it’s not easy to get go forward. So you’ve got to still maintain some of those guys but then have the balance, particularly in the back-row of players that can play-make.

“They have the skill to be able to evolve to that new gameplan whilst those other players, and CJ is a good example; his ball-handling wouldn’t be the strongest part of his game, but it needs to be something that he evolves if the gameplan does go that direction, while also at the same time, giving what he does do extremely well. Like, nobody else is that really important go-forward [type of player].

“The players now over the next few weeks will get a clear understanding of what part of their game is deficient and needs to improve. Some will be ball-carrying, and you talk about Max Deegan and Caelan Doris – these guys haven’t played internationally and they don’t know how physical it is and how difficult it is to get advantage lines. That will be something they will learn in the coming weeks. 

“Likewise with Pete [O'Mahony] who needs to probably do a bit more ball-carrying and CJ, who does great ball-carrying, needs to work on his handling and his ability to get the ball away from point of contact.”       

Plenty of questions. We’ll get the first answers on Saturday.

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