A BAD few days for Brian O'Driscoll: replaced as Irish skipper on Thursday, out of the Heineken Cup on Sunday, and easing into his 35th year yesterday. Moreover, the new skipper, Jamie Heaslip, is clearly his own father's son. Colonel Dick Heaslip is one of the finest and most scandalously under-promoted soldiers this Republic has ever produced. It's not appropriate here to describe his achievements: suffice to say that his military career was defined by a heroic sense of duty. So I have no particular fears about the future captaincy of the Irish rugby team under his son. But it is, however, a terrible shame that the concluding period of the career of the greatest Irish player ever should have been so clumsily signalled.
Brian O'Driscoll has been the star of Irish rugby through the lunacies of the Celtic Tiger and the ignominies of financial ruin, and he treated those two imposters just the same. Moreover, he arrived on the scene as rugby was changing forever. I got an insight into the future during the South African World Cup in 1995, when I was staying in the same hotel as the New Zealand team. The white players looked like a cross between a giraffe and a Mormon elder, whereas the Islanders apparently had rhino genes. Each morning in the restaurant, via blank, untroubled faces, they assimilated vast amount of protein as silently as grazing herbivores. Every player rose from the table an inch taller, apart from the Islanders, who'd gained a stone each. Well, I thought: that's that – Irish rugby can't compete with these GM athletes.
However, by more modest European standards, Irish rugby has certainly changed. In the 1980s, on the tear in Dublin the night before a match, I decided to pop into the Swan pub, off Camden Street, where I knew the players always drank. Sure enough, at 1am, the team was there, skulling pints. I felt it right somehow that I should give them the benefit of my profound rugby wisdom. Instead of booting me up the backside, the skipper listened gravely to my suggestions and, having delivered my bracing team-talk, I resumed on my lunatic nocturnal odyssey.
These days, the players are probably tucked up in bed by 10pm, and not even the most drunkenly foolhardy of journalists would intrude upon their social gatherings. But if the idiot who assailed the team all those years ago was to return and give Brian O'Driscoll a piece of his lobotomised mind, he probably would get the same courtesy as in the 1980s. For Brian is clearly that old-fashioned thing, a gentleman, and a credit to his family and his teachers.
Quite simply, Corinth still flourishes while he plays on. Notice how, in repose, his face is always smiling. Though the victim of many criminal fouls, he is the author of none and never retaliates, no matter what the provocation. Moreover, he is a headline-writer's heartbreak, for he only utters the most moderate opinions – even after the potentially homicidal attack on him in New Zealand that should have led to a brace of All-Blacks hanging by their thumbs in a shark-infested dungeon.
As well as having the imperturbable temperament of a Buddhist monk on beta-blockers, he possesses the most perfect rugby physique: his low centre of gravity propels him through tackles and enables him to shift direction in a microsecond. His energy-bursts are simply explosive and his tackling heroic. But these physical attributes would be nothing without a footballing brain of the purest genius, which enables him to unlock what the rival coach passionately believed was an impenetrable defence. No other Irish rugby player – not even the great Mike Gibson – ever had the vision that Brian has.
This is not an epitaph to a wonderful career. It is mid-afternoon still. Great glories might await us before nightfall. But it is reasonable to wonder how much greater would Brian's rewards have been had he been in a better team, with a more ruthless philosophy. How many matches have been lost through indiscipline? The Mormon giraffes of New Zealand, conversely, pick up yellow-cards as often as cats consume cabbage. Moreover, we have been too content with that meaningless bauble, The Triple Crown, when the only worthwhile achievement is the Grand Slam, especially when beating France away. And beating France in Paris almost single-handedly was how Brian O'Driscoll burst on to the international stage.
Since then, we have seen the Heineken Cup laying almost greater claim on rugby-loyalties than the Six Nation Championship. Certainly, the rugby is often better, but not with Brian O'Driscoll. He always plays to the very limit of his ability, for Leinster, for Ireland, or even – if he were asked – for the Kingstown Presbyterian Ladies' Sewing Circle in the Miwadi Crocheting Cup. He is, simply, a natural competitor. Yet that said, I believe what drives Brian most of all is patriotism in its purest and best sense, and you can't say higher than that. Oh, and his day is not yet done. Not by a long chalk.