Rugby Union: O'Cuinneagain dare not look too far ahead

Ireland's captain has an uncertain future but is focused on Australia. Chris Hewett reports from Brisbane
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IRELAND'S LAMENTABLE Test record against Australia - the brave boys in green have leaked well over 200 points to the Wallabies since their last taste of glory 20 years ago - tends to suggest that their new captain, Dion O'Cuinneagain, will have more than enough to occupy his mind at Ballymore tomorrow without the added complication of an uncertain future. Yet O'Cuinneagain, currently short of a day job if not short of prospects, is being pulled in all directions as he prepares to make the most significant career decision of his life.

The 27-year-old loose forward has a small mountain of offers on the table, including two from London-based Premiership clubs and another from the avowedly ambitious and commercially cut-throat Irish Rugby Football Union, whose members would very much like their main man to cut his ties with English league rugby and set sail for the Emerald Isle. "I'll be continuing negotiations with all parties over the next couple of days," said O'Cuinneagain in Brisbane yesterday as the great and good of both Ireland and Australia pitched up in a local boozer called O'Brien's to unveil the Lansdowne Cup, an elegant crystal trophy for which the two nations will now compete on a regular basis.

Not unreasonably, the Irish team management would prefer him not to spend too much time worrying about his long-term plans, given that the immediate term looks only marginally less menacing than a Hannibal Lecter cook book. The Australians, extravagantly endowed with the best threequarter line in world rugby, may be without John Eales and Steve Larkham, but as Warren Gatland, the visiting coach, admitted yesterday: "They are one of those sides who can lose world-class players and still hit you with talent that you've never even heard of."

For all that, O'Cuinneagain intends to make a firm decision before the end of Ireland's four-match tour, which concludes with a second Test in Perth tomorrow week. His career at Sale, whom he joined from his native South Africa in 1997, came to an abrupt end last month - "I had a two- year contract deal that they felt they could no longer honour, so, as we speak, I'm unemployed and looking for work" - and he has been scarred by the experience. "The Premiership looks pretty unstable from where I'm standing," he said. "I actually received a very good offer from Richmond 24 hours before the club went bust. Can you believe that?

"A move to Ireland is very definitely an option and it would make good sense, especially now that I've been given the captaincy; I would sign an initial contract with the union and then go with their recommendation as to which province I should join.

"They're trying to develop a New Zealand-style draft system and it appears to be working - you only have to look at Ulster's performance in last season's European Cup for evidence of that. But there again, Premiership rugby is of a very high quality, right up there with the top provincial stuff back in South Africa, and it would be a big step to leave that behind. I need to think carefully and make the right call."

If O'Cuinneagain does embrace the Irish domestic scene - his father was a Dubliner and his grandparents came from Galway, so he has legitimate links with Leinster and Connacht - he will not be short of top-class company. Paddy Johns, his predecessor as national captain, has closed his account with Saracens and rejoined Ulster, the European champions, while Malcolm O'Kelly and Garry Halpin have left London Irish and Harlequins respectively after agreeing full-time deals back home. A number of other Test caps, notably Eric Miller and David Humphreys, made the move last season and blossomed as a result.

Whatever the result of the O'Cuinneagain's deliberations, Ireland have good cause to be grateful for a rare, Lawrence Dallaglio-style versatility that gives the skipper a handle on each of the three back-row positions. Quick enough to play Test rugby on the open-side flank - he was, after all, a Springbok sevens captain not so very long ago - he originally intended to turn out at No 8 tomorrow. However, Trevor Brennan's shoulder injury means he will now appear on the blind-side, with Victor Costello filling the gap at the rear of the scrum.

The Irish will miss Brennan for the St Mary's forward was precisely the kind of stroppy ruffian who might have forced the Wallaby machine to miss a cog or two. O'Cuinneagain remained resolutely upbeat, however. "We'll be passionate in the grand Irish tradition, but we'll be disciplined too," he insisted. "I haven't had to say a word to the players about their attitude or their professionalism." Early days, Dion. Early days.