O'Connell leads Ireland in O'Driscoll's absence

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The Independent Online

Paul O'Connell is a lock forward who plays a lot like the great Martin Johnson - no frills, no prisoners, no excuses - so a spot of captaincy at Test level should suit him down to the ground. The 24-year-old Munsterman will lead Ireland in their opening Six Nations' Championship match against France in Paris on Saturday, and while his temporary appointment was the direct consequence of Brian O'Driscoll's failure to overcome a hamstring injury in time to take his place in midfield, there was no wailing or gnashing of teeth from the national hierarchy.

Eddie O'Sullivan, the head coach, described O'Connell as "full of fire and enthusiasm" and said he was the "perfect man to get the team going". As the Irish team will have to go some this weekend, he must be praying that his frank and forthright second row lives up to the billing.

O'Connell might have been a whole lot happier had his gifted provincial partner, Donncha O'Callaghan, been given a place ahead of Malcolm O'Kelly - familiarity is all when a team has its back against the wall - but there will be no shortage of urgency from the new skipper.

"Brian was very close to making it; Saturday will come just a little too soon for him," O'Sullivan said of the stricken O'Driscoll. "Had it been a Grand Slam decider, we might have played him. But the opening game in the championship is not the time to take unnecessary risks." The world's best outside centre and an obvious candidate for the Lions captaincy in New Zealand, the Dubliner may return for the home match with Wales on Sunday week.

Gordon D'Arcy, used as bench fodder by Ireland thus far and yet to start a full international, will replace O'Driscoll - due reward for his excellent attacking form with Leinster during the pool stage of the Heineken Cup.

Elsewhere, Tyrone Howe of Ulster fills the gap on the left wing created by Denis Hickie's long-term injury problems while at outside-half, Ronan O'Gara has won the latest round of his endless bout of tug-of-war with David Humphreys. Up front, there is no starting place for Victor Costello. Simon Easterby, Keith Gleeson and Anthony Foley make up the back-row unit.

Had the French been able to field a settled combination, last season's runners-up might have been petrified at the thought of a trip to Paris. But the French are anything but settled. There are changes in every area of the side bar the loose-forward combination - Serge Betsen, Olivier Magne and Imanol Harin- ordoquy are together as one, as usual - and when Jo Maso, the manager, announced the team yesterday, it was obvious that the selectors had agonised over several key positions, especially scrum-half and hooker.

Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, the goal-kicking utility back from Toulouse, has beaten Dimitri Yachvili of Biarritz to the scrum-half position vacated by Fabien Galthié at the end of the World Cup, while another Toulouse player, William Servat, has been picked at hooker ahead of his more experienced clubmate, Yannick Bru. Vincent Clerc, a Tricolore version of Jason Robinson, is recalled to the right wing in place of Aurelien Rougerie, dropped after a run of poor form; Damien Traille of Pau returns at centre, with Yannick Jauzion moving to the outside berth; Sylvain Marconnet switches to loose-head prop to allow the return of Pieter de Villiers; and Pascal Pape, an uncapped lock from Bourgoin, will partner Fabien Pelous in the engineroom.

Meanwhile, Wales go into their opening match with Scotland in Cardiff on Saturday without two first-choice tight forwards in Robbie McBryde, the Llanelli Scarlets hooker, and Robert Sidoli, the line-out specialist from the Celtic Warriors. Both are injured, so Mefin Davies and Gareth Llewellyn make the cut - something of a relief in Llewellyn's case, in light of last week's decision by the Neath-Swansea Ospreys to dump him on the transfer list.

The former Harlequins lock, 35 later this month, will win his 84th cap, thereby reinforcing his proud position as the most decorated forward in Welsh history. Colin Charvis, currently playing second-division club rugby in France, will captain the team from blind-side flanker.