Monday 24 October 2016

Emotional endgame as hero hangs up jersey

Published 17/03/2014 | 02:30

Brian O'Driscoll celebrates
Brian O'Driscoll celebrates
Celebrations as Ireland seal Six Nations

HE didn't want to take it off. Would you blame him?

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It was nearly an hour after the game and Brian O'Driscoll, pictured, was struggling with the idea of taking off his Ireland jersey for the final time. The Six Nations medal which hung around his neck earlier was now in a safe place. The best place for his Ireland jersey was where he wanted it. On him. O'Driscoll said he was "dragging the arse out of it". Probably the only time he's ever done that in his life.

Deep in the bowels of Stade de France later that night, we sat with Ireland bagman Paddy 'Rala' O'Reilly. When it came to hanging up O'Driscoll's jersey earlier that afternoon, Rala said it was terrible. He took more than a second to do it. He came to a full stop. The closing of a chapter. We were all desperate for the romantic finish in Paris. To O'Driscoll's Ireland career. To this Six Nations. But Saint Denis on Saint Patrick's weekend nearly broke our hearts. The endgame was emotionally and physically painful to watch. Forget Euro Disney. This was a rollercoaster ride like no other. France came into the game unable to win the Championship. Nothing to win. But nothing to lose either. They called the opening shots. Two penalties. They called the tunes too. La Marseillais. Allez Les Bleus. Brass bands.

But Ireland had the perfect riposte. Two tries scored within five minutes of each other. Johnny Sexton. Andrew Trimble. The chants of Ole were belted out. It sent a shiver down my spine. I also shivered at the memory of the All Blacks in November. We had hope then too. And hope had become almost a dirty word in Irish rugby. No silverware won since 2009.

Our hopes were kept in check by France's opening try from Brice Dulin. Half-time was a chance for the players to Talk to Joe. The Ireland head coach has a proclivity to get the half-time soundings just right. He always makes an immediate impact. He did again here. Soon after, O'Driscoll looked like he had the freedom of Stade de France with a tremendous break. He said himself he didn't have the gas to complete it. But he had back-up. And Sexton finished it off.

The Irish players looked in control. Compared with earlier in the Six Nations when the rapid pace left some players with their hands on their heads, the optics here were different. No one looked out on their feet. Paul O'Connell stood tall and strong. As did the defence.

With the 'Fields of Athenry' filling the air, it seemed like we had our very own St Patrick's Day parade here. But this was no procession. Les Bleus broke down Ireland with a second try. And we also had perspective with the sight of Sexton being stretchered off.

And then the Black flashes once more. It felt like New Zealand all over again when Damien Chouly went over in the corner. The Hand of Henry haunted us here before with the Republic of Ireland. We couldn't live with the Pass from Pape.

I looked down at Joe Schmidt and saw him scratch his head. I've never seen him do that before. As we waited for the official, O'Driscoll looked up at the big screen and saw himself staring back. It was a soul-searching moment.

The Irish fans were in pockets around the stadium but they were also grouped together in the corners of Stade de France. When 'forward pass' was confirmed, that corner with the disallowed try was rechristened Amen Corner.

There's a reason the word opportunity ends with unity. The forwards become one big force again and seized the chance at the end with a brilliant choke tackle. When the final whistle shrilled, we all did. Nirvana.

O'Driscoll's jersey was seeped with sweat, tears of his loved ones and champagne.

He knew the time would come to take it off and shower. On the ground where he made his rugby baptism 14 years ago, he bathed in the euphoria of it all. For one final time.


Irish Independent

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