Thursday 29 September 2016

Why I'll always be hooked to the number 13 jersey and the man who wore it so well

Published 15/03/2014 | 02:30

Brian O’Driscoll leaves the pitch to applause after the clash against Italy.
Brian O’Driscoll leaves the pitch to applause after the clash against Italy.

When the Irish rugby team bagman Paddy 'Rala' O'Reilly saw the replay recently of Brian O'Driscoll's hat-trick in Paris in 2000, the image took him aback. Not because of O'Driscoll's handiwork. But his own handiwork. "Would ya look at the sleeves," Rala cursed to himself.

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The Ireland jerseys were long-sleeved back then; but the players wanted them short. So before Rala laid them out in the Stade de France dressing room, he had to cut up the sleeves. It was going to be a roll-up-the-sleeves kind of game anyway. After the alterations, Rala hung up the number 13 jersey on the hook. It was a game away from becoming one of the most iconic jerseys in world rugby. That day in Paris, nothing fell apart at the seams.

When O'Driscoll was asked by his former team-mate Shane Horgan what he was going to miss the most in the Six Nations, he mused about the visits to Rala's room in the team hotel. On the eve of his final Ireland game, O'Driscoll would have completed the ritual for the final time in Paris last night. Just after 10pm. The last player to visit.

It used to be a routine he shared with Horgan and Denis Hickie. Rala dubbed them 'The Golden Triangle'. When they retired, O'Driscoll went solo to Rala's room to shoot the breeze. And maybe guzzle a wine gum or two. Rala would give O'Driscoll a special knife to clean his boots. By the time they finished chatting, his boots would be so clean "you could eat your dinner off them", Rala says.

Through his career, they may have become more fancy. But O'Driscoll never got too big for his boots. His innate talent wasn't the only trait that was All-Black-esque. But also his attitude. In the book 'Legacy', James Kerr writes that humility is ingrained in Maori culture. How getting above yourself is deeply frowned upon.

This is textbook O'Driscoll. He declares nothing but his genius on the pitch. Kerr also says that New Zealand players are taught to never be too big to do the small things that need to be done.

Like cleaning your boots.

O'Driscoll is probably one of the most undivisive people we've ever known in Irish society; the last few weeks have been one big love-in.

Maybe we should get some balance on this. But it remains one-sided on my part too. I've interviewed O'Driscoll on countless occasions. And he's been consistently polite, even when he was in the middle of doing as many as 10 one-on-one interviews in a row when he was captain.

The moment his dignity really struck me was the day he arrived home from the Lions Tour last summer. Understandably, all O'Driscoll wanted to do was head straight home to his family. And just (try to) forget the whole controversy about being dropped for the final Test. While he sidestepped the print journalists at Dublin airport, RTE's Jacqui Hurley and I walked alongside him, cameras in tow, and interviewed him as he made his way through arrivals. Of course we didn't want to pester him. But he also knew we had our jobs to do too. Later that evening, he tweeted Jacqui and I to apologise for having us on the 'hoof in heels' and thanked us for coming to the airport. What other sportsperson would have done this?

And he isn't a player who sneered at any of your questions either. In fact, the opposite at times. When Ronan O'Gara was due to make his 100th appearance for Ireland in November 2010, I asked O'Driscoll if O'Gara (who was on the bench) would lead out the team. He hadn't asked him.

After the interview, O'Driscoll made a quick exit, saying he was going straight upstairs to ask O'Gara. Sorry Brian – I didn't mean to drop you in it!

O'Driscoll is exactly four months younger than me. It is astounding to think of everything he's achieved in his career. If you Google his name, the next most popular search after his twitter account is 'net worth'. Didn't you know? It's immeasurable.

For the final time today, Rala will hang O'Driscoll's number 13 jersey on the hook in the Stade de France dressing room. Rala will try and keep his emotions in check, but admits it will be "heartbreaking".

We hope O'Driscoll gets his final coronation by helping Ireland to win the Six Nations. Either way, a part of us will always be hooked to that jersey. And to the man who wore it so well.


Irish Independent

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