Brian Abu on a perfect afternoon coloured in by the Hand of BOD
Published 10/03/2014 | 02:30
PAUL O'Connell isn't a man given to hyperbole. But in the post-match glow of a shining, special day, his admiration for the undimmed talent of the Man of the Match was genuine. "It was fantastic, the way he played. It was incredible. Some of the stuff he did today we'd never seen before," he said.
The Ireland captain may have been thinking of one particular moment of grace, when Brian O'Driscoll shouldn't have managed to get the ball away, he really shouldn't.
It was the 59th minute and Brian was sprinting for the line, having danced past an Italian player with a flash of that blinding pace and agility which has left so many opponents' hands clutching air.
Italy's Ghiraldini pounced like a hungry hyena on a gazelle, but as Brian was engulfed, somehow – somehow – he unleashed an extraordinary left-handed flip pass which seconds later led to Jonathan Sexton's second try.
It was a picture-perfect afternoon, coloured in by the Hand of BOD. And perhaps the five minutes framing that sliver of magic perfectly encapsulated the heroic life of Brian. A minute earlier, another looping run towards the try line by the greatest centre of the game had ended with the player on the deck, badly winded.
The Aviva Stadium, which had been a roiling river of noise, quietened. The TV camera flashed onto the anxious face of his wife Amy. The journey of the world's most-capped international couldn't end like this, not with France left to conquer next week. But once more the warrior rose, shook himself down, and plunged into battle. The crowd roared its approval. Brian Abu.
Half-way through the 62nd minute with Ireland out of sight at 34-7, the number 13 flashed up on the substitute's board, and a smiling Brian took his final walk in a green shirt across his home turf. Everyone surged to their feet – Irish fans, Italian supporters, media, match-day staff – and the ground shook under the cauldron of clamourous celebration.
All afternoon, there was a carnival atmosphere around Lansdowne Road. The Italian fans were vastly outnumbered but vocal, even though they didn't have much to sing about. Their team were the underdogs, and only the most optimistic among them (such as team coach Jacques Brunel) reckoned an upset was likely.
The green bedecked home supporters had bounced back after the disappointing defeat in Twickenham two weeks ago, and there was an air of determination that nothing would mute the farewell to Irish rugby's most beloved son.
It was Brian's field of dreams. He dug deep into his bag of magic tricks; dazzling jinks, fearless tackles, deft offloads, instinctive running, all executed with confident exuberance.
Even when he had quit centre stage after 62 minutes, the day still belonged to him. Every time the camera panned to him on the bench, a mighty roar arose. Brian sat, wide smile in place, thumb aloft, drinking it all in.
Afterwards, the players formed a guard of honour, Brian hesitated until Gordon D'Arcy urged him through the fusillade of affectionate thumps and whacks from his band of brothers.
A giant floating image of him, clenched fist aloft, was paraded onto the pitch while he took a lap of honour, holding fast to his little one-year-old daughter Sadie.
Tears flowed in the stands – ones of gratitude for all the magnificent tries, the never-say-die spirit and the inspirational leadership, and ones of sadness that such a warrior is hanging up his sword.
Brian almost cried too, as he gave his post-match interview to a thunderous chant of 'One more year' from an almost-full stadium. "It's one thing playing in this jersey; it's another thing winning in this jersey," he said, fighting back the tears.
He knows the war isn't won. Not until next week. For BOD, winning in the green jersey is everything.
"Fairytales do come true sometimes," said coach Joe Schmidt afterwards.
Well, if anyone deserves a happy-ever-after ending in Paris next week, it's the man with that je ne sais quoi, Brian O'Driscoll.