Brian the Lion can't stop roaring
Published 05/05/2013 | 05:00
Between a ruck and a hard place: why our favourite rugby star will find it so hard to hang up his boots
A few weeks ago, Brian O'Driscoll came home to his wife Amy and baby Sadie after what must have seemed like an average day at the office.
He had just played yet another tempestuous rugby international against France, and arrived back with a typical toll of injuries – a dead leg, concussion and a lacerated ear.
As he said later, his baby daughter didn't care much. "She still wanted her nosebag at 11pm, 3am, and 7am and decided I was the man for the job."
O'Driscoll seems to be delighting in his new role as a father.
"It's great that after games it does become irrelevant what you do on the Saturday," he said in an interview. "Rugby is hugely important in my life but not as important as what's happening at home with a new daughter."
O'Driscoll added yet more lustre to a career of almost unrivalled achievement this week when he was selected to play for the British and Irish Lions in Australia. It will be his fourth tour.
Fans remember how he travelled to Brisbane as a young lad in 2001 for his first test match with the Lions, and lit up the rugby world.
In his red shirt he ran half the length of the field and danced around his Australian opponents with Pele-like virtuosity to score a try.
The crowd sang Waltzing O'Driscoll.
He was joined on that tour by that other injury-prone star of world rugby, Jonny Wilkinson.
This week, Wilkinson was offered a place on the tour, but turned it down, partly because he wanted to protect his body from the savage shocks of rugby in what may be the final months of his career.
But O'Driscoll has soldiered on and has chosen to go on his last big adventure to Australia having survived an injury toll that must be equivalent to multiple car crashes.
He emerges from every match like an Aston Martin that has been sent stock car racing in a demolition derby.
The sight of O'Driscoll being stretchered off is a frighteningly familiar one, whether for a knee to the head, a bone-crushing tackle, or as on the Lions Tour in 2005, when he was up-ended by two All Blacks and crashed to the ground.
Brian's father, Dr Frank O'Driscoll, could be forgiven for describing that notorious incident, which put him out of the Lions tour, as "every parent's nightmare".
In the past, O'Driscoll senior has expressed concern about dangerous high tackles in rugby and how the necks of players are so vulnerable.
During this year's French match, O'Driscoll took yet another big knock.
He seemed as disoriented as a punch-drunk boxer and was clearly unsteady on his feet as he was assisted from the pitch.
Spectators were stunned when he returned just a few minutes later and re-entered the fray. Wearing a bandage, he looked like Basil Fawlty in the episode of the sitcom when he returns home prematurely from hospital.
His former Leinster teammate Bernard Jackman, whose own career was blighted by injury, said: "It didn't surprise me. He is renowned for his skill, but what you also have to remember is that he is unbelievably tough and shows remarkable bravery."
Some might call it brave, but the rugby pundit George Hook called it "foolhardy".
So for how long more can O'Driscoll take this physical punishment or will he soon hang up his boots?
For two years now he has talked of this Lions tour as if it would be the ideal bookend to his career, but he will decide this summer whether he continues. At the most recent Leinster match he smiled as fans chanted "one more year".
The former Leinster fitness adviser Karl Gilligan told Weekend Review: "Brian will decide on whether to play for another year by listening to his body.
"He will look at his own athletic performance scores (which can be measured): his strength, his sprint speed and his agility.
"You would expect a small decline at his age, but if there is a big drop-off he will know that it is time to go."
It can be almost impossible for a retiring sportsman to recreate the intense excitement of his sport.
Brian's wife, Amy, recently spoke with empathy about the difficulty he is facing in deciding whether to go on playing.
"It's really hard because it kind of leaves you," she said. "It's not like his love for it has waned and that's the sad part – you just become too old for it which is awful. If I had to give up (acting) in a couple of years I just couldn't imagine it."
The decision may be a difficult one, but O'Driscoll has been making plans for his life beyond the rugby field for some time now.
He has his own BOD Rugby coaching academy for children, and places for this summer's sessions are already booked out. He helped set up a company selling the Ultimate Rugby App for smartphones, and works with Ikon Talent, a company that acts as an agent for sports stars.
There will be BOD the after-dinner speaker, BOD the pundit, and BOD the long-awaited biography written by Paul Kimmage.
No doubt if he wanted to he could produce his own Little Book of BOD, a volume of his pithy words of wisdom.
Once asked about his England rival Martin Johnson at a press conference, he famously replied with a line worthy of Eric Cantona: "Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad."
More than any Irish sports star in history, O'Driscoll has succeeded in turning himself into a brand, carefully nurturing his relationship with a small number of sponsors.
He said recently that he avoided alcohol sponsorship, and expressed views about his promotions that could have been taken straight out of a marketing man's handbook: "It's important to keep brand exclusivity. Less is more."
There was one rare lapse when he posted a picture of himself on Twitter in bed with the Heineken Cup trophy. His sister sent him a message in block capitals: "REMEMBER YOUR BRAND."
Judging by interviews, O'Driscoll seems to have planned his Lions trip as a swansong.
Bernard Jackman says: "He has nothing to prove to anyone, but when his teammates see him in the dressing room they will know they can win. Whatever he does, Brian will want to impress."
Once asked if he was a sex symbol, O'Driscoll deftly sidestepped the question by drawing attention to the Irish fullback Rob Kearney: "He's the ladies' choice now. I'm yesterday's news – fish and chip paper."
One thing is sure. Whether he retires in the summer, next year or soldiers on into his late-30s, he will never be fish and chip paper. His place is assured in the history books and we can only hope that the final chapter is as glorious as the preceding ones.