DUBLIN Brian O'Driscoll's decade of leading Ireland ended on Thursday after Jamie Heaslip was named as skipper for this year's Six Nations, drawing the national team's longest captaincy to a close.
No.8 Heaslip led Ireland in November in his Leinster team mate's absence through injury and although O'Driscoll has returned to the squad, coach Declan Kidney said the time was right for a change.
O'Driscoll led Ireland on a record 83 occasions, more than twice as many times as anyone else, but ahead of his 34th birthday next week, the former British and Irish Lions captain said he understood the reasons for the change.
"The captaincy has been a big part of my career and life over the last number of years, and while I was naturally very disappointed not to be leading the team, I accepted the reasons behind the decision," O'Driscoll said in a statement.
"I've always known that the Rugby World Cup in 2015 was most likely a bridge too far for me, so at some point a player, who will most likely be there for the tournament, needs to build that captaincy experience."
O'Driscoll captained Ireland for the first time in 2002, three years after making his international debut, and led the country to three triple crowns between 2004 and 2007, and their first grand slam in 61 years in 2009.
He also captained the Lions in one test during a 2005 tour wrecked by injury and holds the record of leading a test side 84 times, one more than South Africa's John Smit.
Kidney said he did not know what the country's record try scorer's plans were beyond this year's Lions tour starting in June, but added O'Driscoll did not need the extra responsibility of being captain at this stage of his career.
"Obviously he'd be very disappointed, Brian has always told you what an honour it is to captain Ireland and that will never change," Kidney told a news conference, adding that it was one of the most difficult decisions he has made as coach.
"I don't think people realise sometimes the amount of weight that would be on a captain's shoulders and Brian's been hugely generous to the team and I just feel that now is the right time to allow him to concentrate on himself, to get himself right."
Alongside fit-again O'Driscoll, Kidney welcomed hooker Rory Best and Heineken Cup winners Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney and Sean O'Brien back into a 39-man squad that will be trimmed ahead the opening Six Nations game in Wales on February 2.
Lock Paul O'Connell and winger Tommy Bowe have been ruled out of the championship through injury, although Kidney said there was an outside chance flanker Stephen Ferris could return from an ankle injury to come back into contention.
Kidney, who included 19-year-old Connacht fullback Robbie Henshaw among six uncapped players in the squad, escaped losing flyhalf Ronan O'Gara for part of the campaign after he received a one-week ban for kicking an opponent last weekend.
Kidney added that Irish rugby's governing body would do all it can to try and keep first choice flyhalf Jonathan Sexton at Leinster amid media reports linking him to a move to France when his centralised contract runs out at the end of the season.
Michael Bent, Rory Best, Isaac Boss, Darren Cave, Tom Court, Sean Cronin, Gordon D'Arcy, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Declan Fitzpatrick, Craig Gilroy, Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip (captain), Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Robbie Henshaw, Paddy Jackson, Rob Kearney, David Kilcoyne, Ian Madigan, Paul Marshall, Conor Murray, Mike McCarthy, Fergus McFadden, Dave McSharry, Sean O'Brien, Donncha O'Callaghan, Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara, Peter O'Mahony, Eoin Reddan, Mike Ross, Donnacha Ryan, Jonathan Sexton, Lewis Stevenson, Richardt Strauss, Devin Toner, Andrew Trimble, Simon Zebo
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin, editing by Ed Osmond and Alison Wildey)