George Hook: Ireland’s greatest player deserved to be treated better than this
Published 18/01/2013 | 05:00
This was not how it was supposed to end. The script called for a triumphant last season for Brian O'Driscoll culminating in a victorious Lions tour to Australia, with Ireland's greatest professional player as captain.
Many of us who care deeply about O'Driscoll are not friends or sycophants, but admirers of a man who has given body and soul to every team for which he has played.
Over the past 12 months, one wondered if O'Driscoll was not putting his future health at risk by his insistence on putting himself through the pain barrier and undergoing surgery to continue to play the game he so clearly loves. I thought he should have retired last year and left the game with his reputation intact. Instead, he faces the ignominy of ending his career, because he is simply no longer fit enough for the demands of rugby at the top level.
This week he was not fit enough to train, yet he will be expected to line out in Leinster's effort to qualify for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup at Exeter. A week later, Declan Kidney clearly wants him to prove his fitness by playing against the English Saxons with footballers not fit to lace his boots.
The coach has suggested that Ireland needs O'Driscoll, yet does anybody doubt that, previously, the great man would merely have indicated his readiness to do battle and it would have been accepted in the selection room.
When O'Driscoll met Kidney he clearly was not expecting to lose the captaincy. His comment that he was "very disappointed" indicates his surprise at the decision. He is a very proud and competitive man and clearly had set out his stall for his final year in rugby. That is now in tatters – yet he could still lead the Lions by default due to the dearth of quality candidates.
What was behind Kidney's decision? His bombshell gives credence to what many of us had feared – that the player's chances of returning to full fitness are in doubt. The coach understandably believes that taking the armband now from O'Driscoll gives Jamie Heaslip a chance to establish himself in the role.
Yet Heaslip was a surprising choice in the first place, given that he had little or no leadership experience. Leo Cullen at Leinster had previously captained almost every team on which he played. Captains tend to be recognised early on in their careers.
Jonathan Sexton was a much more obvious choice. Anybody who has watched a Leinster or Ireland can testify to his onfield authority towards even the likes of O'Driscoll.
The reality is, however, that leadership does not count for much in rugby in this professional era. All likely decisions are thrashed out by the coaches before the game and all the captain needs is a good memory to remember what was decided.
In his recent book, Geordan Murphy talked of the machinations at Carton House with Kidney as players found out their fate prior to the game.
This time – out of deference to the player and his contribution to Ireland – this decision should have been separated from the team announcement. The end of an era should have been marked with much greater solemnity; this was no ordinary player calling it a day. This was the demotion of an icon.