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Ulster skipper Rory Best could still captain Ireland into 2019 World Cup, says O'Driscoll

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

This November represents the point at which the World Cup cycle pivots forward and Japan 2019 comes hurtling into view.

There are five international windows remaining between now and that tournament and, while November success, Six Nations Championships and summer series wins will be the primary motivations at the time, the bigger picture will all be about the Webb Ellis Cup.

Joe Schmidt has been meticulously planning his route to that tournament ever since he committed himself to leading Ireland to his second World Cup, and his focus has been on building depth and introducing new faces to the rigours and standards of the Test arena.

That process will continue in November, but this is also the moment when Schmidt must decide who will lead his team to Japan.

Rory Best has done a fine job to date, captaining Ireland to a series of historic victories in the post-Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll era.

The Ulsterman is 35 now, and will be 37 when the tournament kicks off, but his performances as the Lions' midweek captain indicated he is showing little sign of slowing down just yet.

He has re-assumed the captaincy at provincial level, however, and his appointment by Les Kiss as Ulster skipper has set tongues wagging as to whether it might signal a change at international level.

"I do think that there is a big workload in being captain of both and so I was interested to see Rory taking up the Ulster captaincy again," O'Driscoll said yesterday.

"He's not the sort of guy to give up a captaincy, considering how good a job he's done with Ireland. So, I think he'd have to have it prised off him if that is the case.

"I think Rory's the only one who knows how he feels. He's still the No.1 hooker in Ireland, he's done a phenomenal job since he took up the captaincy.

"He's someone who encourages pressure on himself, there was a void in Ulster and he's stepped up to the plate.

"If his body is good enough, should he be captain for the World Cup? I do think he'll get there and he'll be No.1 choice hooker on current form.

"So there's not a need to change a whole lot, the only time someone will get an opportunity is if he's injured, and you need to have a contingency.

"Rory is the only one who knows how he feels and if he'll get to Japan in two years."

If there was to be a change, then Peter O'Mahony would be the front-runner for the job.

O'Driscoll had the honour of handing the Munster man his Lions jersey on the eve of the first Test in Eden Park when he led the tourists against the All Blacks last June.

The pride became a fall, however, and having been subbed off early the 27-year-old Corkman was dropped for the second and third Tests.

He has nursed his disappointment all summer and O'Driscoll reckons he'll be able to channel it into performances.

"Peter is a very old head on still relatively young shoulders, and he's very popular," he said.

"You can see in any team he embeds himself into, particularly in a Munster setup, but with Ireland how he takes his opportunity, and he has done.

"He's going to be a huge player for Ireland come the World Cup in 2019. It's an incredibly competitive back-row, and again Joe will be picking on form. It would be a silly man who'd bet against Pete.

"He's got a serious bloody-mindedness and I'm sure the disappointment of what happened during the summer will pump him up for the season to make sure that he can prove a few people wrong."

However, the competition for places in the back-row, and the fact that O'Mahony has been edged out by his clubmate CJ Stander when everyone is fit in selection calls thus far, could work against him when it comes to the long-term captaincy call.

"I think Pete is the obvious choice because of how much he is respected," the BT Sport analyst said. "But you have to guarantee your captain a starting berth and can you guarantee him that in that back row right now? Probably not, but there is a good likelihood that he'd be there.

"Other than that, Johnny (Sexton) has matured in the last few years, again you look at how good he was for the Lions and the cool head, I've said it over the last couple of years, it looks as though he's mellowed an awful lot, he's better captaincy material (now).

"Conor Murray, he doesn't need to be captain because he leads with his performance anyway, he's a world-class No.9.

"I do think it's probably Pete, Johnny or Rory."

The other step on the World Cup road that is likely to come in November is the introduction of the latest batch of 'special project' players, of whom Bundee Aki is the most high profile.

With injury concerns over Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne, and Garry Ringrose definitely out of the Tests against South Africa, Fiji and Argentina, the door is open for the New Zealander to make his debut this autumn.

Whatever your thoughts on the residency laws, the prospect is an exciting one in pure playing terms.

"If I was a young up and coming player and I saw Bundee Aki playing centre I'd be worried because he's a good player and he'll do a good job when he does put on a green jersey," O'Driscoll conceded.

"Joe is someone who always rewards guys who are in form. He's obviously not getting Champions Cup exposure, which helps, but the best thing for any player trying to get into international rugby is for the provincial team to go well and then there's a knock-on effect.

"Organically, you'll manage to get yourself picked.

"The people in situ that he'll want to displace, you'd imagine Robbie, who went on the Lions tour, will remain the number one in the No.12 jersey unless something changes between now and November."

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