With Declan Kidney giving youth its chance in Ireland’s opening autumn Test against Canada, Brian O’Driscoll has spoken of the excitement of being involved in what he feels is a rejuvenated Irish squad.
Brian O’Driscoll, who will captain his country for the 49th time on Saturday, will be part of one of the youngest Irish back-lines for some time.
Declan Kidney has selected a backs unit with an average age of 25, with debutant full-back Keith Earls (21), centre Luke Fitzgerald (21) and winger Rob Kearney (22) adding a fresh input.
Playing at full-back, Kearney was arguably Ireland’s best player on their summer tour to New Zealand and Australia and he continues to enhance his reputation with Leinster.
Both Earls and Fitzgerald played together in the Ireland Schools side that beat France, England and Wales in 2005 and their quick progression since then, with Munster and Leinster respectively, has them marked out as Irish rugby’s new wonderkids.
An elder statesman of the backline at 29, O’Driscoll has never played with Earls before but rates the newcomer highly.
“I think Keith’s been probably the in-form back in Ireland this season,” he said.
“The great thing about his first selection is that it seems to be a selection picked on form and I think it’s important to reward form.
“Irrespective of how old you are or how young you are, if you’re producing the goods on a weekly basis and you’re training well on a daily basis when you come into squads you’re putting your hat in the ring to be selected.
“I’m looking forward to playing with him. He’s a very exciting player.
“I don’t want to to build things up too much because it’s about growing into international rugby but, at the same time, if he gets those basics right, I know he can create things as well.
“It will be about running off him and trying to give him those options. It’s very exciting to be involved in a backline with him.”
An added benefit to Kidney of having the likes of Earls on board is he can play in three different positions.
The Moyross native was ever-present on the left wing during the Ireland Under-20s’ Grand Slam campaign in 2007 and he has played at full-back and centre for Munster this season, scoring a hat-trick of tries from full-back against the Dragons and donning the number 13 shirt for Munster’s successful Heineken Cup trip to Sale last month.
With Fitzgerald and Kearney also capable of switching positions, that versatility is a sign of progress according to O’Driscoll.
“It’s an important aspect in moving forward. You see other teams doing it, particularly the French where they have guys that can play in three or four different positions in the back-line,” he added.
“Sometimes we pigeon-hole ourselves a little bit in to just being specialists in one position – there’s no reason why you can’t be a specialists in two or three different positions.
“By guys playing in different positions, whether it be for their province or country, they’re gaining more experience so they’re getting more confident and comfortable playing there.
“It’s certainly a good progression. You want to get your best players on the pitch. Just because you’ve got three great centres, one guy shouldn’t be left out.
“If he can play on the wing, well fantastic.”
Another reason why optimism is brewing in the Kidney-led set-up is that the new coaches, such as Alan Gaffney (backs), Gert Smal (forwards) and Les Kiss (defence), are bringing in new ideas and calls at training.
With O’Driscoll noticeably back on form and Ireland needing to better or at least maintain their IRB world ranking of eighth before the 2011 Rugby World Cup draw on December 1, things seem to be clicking even before a ball is kicked.
“It’s really exciting. I’m rooming with Donncha (O’Callaghan) at the moment and it was exciting the night before the team announcement wondering what the team was going to be. It’s nice to have that rejuvenation again,” the Ireland skipper admitted.
“We’ve looked forward to training. I have looked forward to training every time I’ve gone out. I feel I’m learning things on a daily basis.
“I think we’re trying to push each other as much as we ever have. With the new coaching staff in there, you’re trying to impress them and get off on a good footing.
“It seems like it’s a little bit of a rebirth.”