Sport Rugby

Sunday 24 September 2017

Highlights reel that shows why in Bod we trust

As the playing career of Ireland's greatest player winds towards its inevitable close, Vincent Hogan picks out some of Brian O'Driscoll's most memorable moments from his 14 years as our leader, talisman and inspiration in green

Brian in 2009 versus Wales.
Brian in 2009 versus Wales.
Brian in 2000 versus France.
Brian in 2001 versus FRANCE
Brian in 2006 versus ENGLAND
Brian in 2007 versus ENGLAND
Brian in 2009 versus ENGLAND
Brian in 2011 versus ENGLAND
Brian O'Driscoll
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Some time before Irish rugby located sufficiently broad confidence to follow him, Brian O'Driscoll hopped the turnstile into a different world. It was as if he came walking out of the pages of some far-fetched, bed-time fairytale. That Paris day in 2000, when his three tries gave Ireland their first victory in the French capital since 1972, O'Driscoll already looked a man beyond the realm of definition or class.

The world gaped as he wheeled away, making that mysterious diamond gesture with his fingers, something almost sparrow-like in his gait as that green No 13 jersey flapped like a bed-sheet. Ireland didn't win that inaugural Six Nations (England put half a century of points on us at Twickenham and Wales then did an April Fool's number on the team in Dublin two weeks after Paris), but we did discover someone who would help change the collective psyche.

This year's will be O'Driscoll's 14th and final tournament – he missed the entire 2012 Six Nations through injury – and it seems odd to even countenance a plenary farewell.

Because he is the emblematic figure of what became known in Irish rugby as the 'Golden Generation', and – if the harvesting of four Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam in his time up to now doesn't strike people as remarkable – just bear in mind that, prior to 2004, Ireland had plundered a mere six Triple Crowns in our entire history.

That said, he didn't arrive on the international landscape with any great, dramatic drum-roll.

He'd been capped by Ireland before he even got a start with Leinster, Warren Gatland bringing him on the '99 tour of Australia, in which he started both losing Tests.

That catapulted him into an abysmal World Cup misadventure, Ireland's campaign finishing with that infamous 12-man line-out against Argentina in Lens, a fittingly turgid ploy in that one-trick French town now trembling under the press of a great, expectant rugby throng.

Then factor in that 50-18 slaughter against Clive Woodward's England at Twickenham as O'Driscoll's introduction to Six Nations rugby and the portents were hardly promising. But, over the next 14 seasons, he would become a virtual public face of the tournament, Eddie O'Sullivan's decision to make him Ireland captain in '03, because of Keith Wood's injury, compelling O'Driscoll to be present at virtually every launch for a decade.

On the field, he rewrote Championship records, being declared Player of the Tournament in '06, '07 and '09, then breaking a 78-year-old try-scoring mark with his 25th touchdown in the 2011 tournament.

O'Driscoll and the Six Nations became what felt like a never-ending story. This, though, will be the final chapter. Time, then, to pick the pivotal moments.

2000

FRANCE 25 IRELAND 27

Stade de France, March 19

Rob Henderson describes one of his most precious memories from international rugby as a 5.0am walk down the Champs Elysees with O'Driscoll, the two of them drinking from bottles of wine on their way home from a karaoke bar.

Henderson had been O'Driscoll's midfield partner that famous day in Paris, his wonderful burst paving the way for the second of three history-making tries.

The first came in the 23rd minute off ball recycled by Peter Clohessy, the towering figure of Malcolm O'Kelly eventually providing a platform for O'Driscoll to go ducking between a grove of blue shirts, jinking right, then left before touching down under the posts.

The second arrived in the 58th minute, Ireland trailing 19-7, when O'Driscoll arrived at Henderson's right shoulder, knifing past a phalanx of defenders to leave them remonstrating with thin air.

The third was a pure beauty. Peter Stringer's attempted feed went to ground only for O'Driscoll to swoop like an albatross over water. No less an authority than 'Bull' Hayes would recall the moment as "a green shirt coming onto it in a blur," O'Driscoll dancing inside Emile Ntamack for the touchdown.

True, it took a late David Humphreys penalty to seal the two-point win, but only one man was the talk of European rugby.

2001

IRELAND 22 FRANCE 15

Lansdowne Road, February 17

Having won just once in 24 Championship clashes with France between '75 and '00, Ireland now – remarkably – registered back-to-back victories.

Ronan O'Gara's boot did most of the damage, but Ireland's only try came from O'Driscoll. In the 48th minute, he took a pass from David Wallace just inside the French 10-metre line and exploded towards the left corner, managing to touch down one-handed with a battalion of would-be French defenders falling across the line with him.

It took a lengthy video ruling to confirm the legitimacy of the try. Afterwards, French coach – Bernard Laporte – described O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara as "two of the best players at centre and out-half in the world at the moment".

2002

IRELAND 43 SCOTLAND 22

Lansdowne Road, March 2

Another Six Nations hat-trick from O'Driscoll as Eddie O'Sullivan's debut season as coach gathered steam.

Ireland were still adjusting to Mike Ford's defence system, having coughed up a humiliating 45 points in their previous outing at Twickenham. Here, too, there was evidence of defensive confusion, but O'Driscoll's magic kept the Scots at safe distance.

His first try came courtesy of a huge, looped pass from David Humphreys; the second signposted the predatory instincts of a circling hawk, O'Driscoll swooping onto a loose Bryan Redpath pass to run three quarters the length of the field for a spectacular touchdown; the third highlighted that ability to step past tackles, O'Driscoll cutting through the Scottish cover as if dancing past cemetery head-stones.

2003

IRELAND 6 ENGLAND 42

Lansdowne Road, March 30

O'Driscoll's first season as captain and Ireland arrived at the concluding weekend of the Six Nations with four wins from four and a shot at the Grand Slam.

Opponents, England, were at the height of their powers, perhaps the best English side of all time and soon to be crowned world champions. They were, though, also facing the pressure of trying to avoid falling at the last Grand Slam fence for the fourth year in succession.

O'Driscoll's Ireland gave it everything they'd got and, with 20 minutes remaining, trailed by just a converted try. But Clive Woodward's men cut them to ribbons in that final quarter, running out victors by a hugely flattering 36 points.

Down but not out, four wins from five was a strike-rate Ireland had scarcely been accustomed to and, in O'Driscoll, a new, inspiring captain had been found.

2004

ENGLAND 13 IRELAND 19

Twickenham, March 16

Having missed the opening round defeat in Paris with a hamstring strain, O'Driscoll had then celebrated his inaugural midfield pairing with Gordon D'Arcy by scoring two tries in a 36-15 Dublin win against Wales.

But Twickenham would be where his personality found most strident expression.

The game had been previewed as a kind of celebratory homecoming for England's World Cup winners, but O'Driscoll captured the Irish mindset beforehand by suggesting that they would hope to make the Twickenham crowd "choke on their prawn sandwiches".

Clive Woodward took exception to the comment, responding somewhat condescendingly: "It's best to keep quiet. I'm surprised teams haven't learnt that lesson when it comes to playing England."

There had been a tentative suggestion that Ireland might applaud the new champions onto the field beforehand, but, on the eve of the game, O'Driscoll went to O'Sullivan. "You know you were talking about clapping them on the field tomorrow, then kicking them off it?" he said.

"Well f**k the clapping bit!"

The following day a training-ground try from Girvan Dempsey helped Ireland bring down the world champions. Two games later, they had won their first Triple Crown since 1985.

2005

IRELAND 19 ENGLAND 13

Lansdowne Road, February 27

A Six Nations year that would prove an anti-climax when, having won their opening three games, Ireland lost the final two to France and Wales.

That said, an exact reprise of the previous year's Twickenham scoreline poured scorn on the notion, propagated by sections of the English media, that the '04 result had been some kind of aberration.

O'Driscoll, typically, would score Ireland's only try, taking a pass from Geordan Murphy virtually on the West Stand touchline and, quite literally, tip-toeing past the English cover to get the touchdown. He would also score a beautiful touchdown in the subsequent 19-26 defeat by France.

2006

ENGLAND 24 IRELAND 28

Twickenham, March 18

A strange campaign for O'Driscoll in that, for the first tournament of his career, he did not score a Six Nations try.

Yet, his influence was immense on an Irish team that, quite gloriously, secured its second Triple Crown in two seasons with a dramatic St Patrick's weekend defeat of England at Twickenham.

Unknown to the public, the captain became a huge doubt for that game, having pulled his groin when stepping into the shower at the team's Bracknell base. Denis Hickie was even surreptitiously flown in as cover.

But O'Driscoll played and, with a remarkable game going right to the wire, he would play a key role in the build-up to Shane Horgan's injury-time try that threw a veil of near disbelief across watching English faces.

Taking Ronan O'Gara's feed from a ruck, the captain took the ball infield, opening up the short-side. And it was from that field position that Peter Stringer's sublime pass put Horgan over with just inches to spare. O'Gara kicked a remarkable conversion and, with two scores required, England's race was run.

2007

IRELAND 43 ENGLAND 13

Croke Park, February 24

An extraordinary year that would decant Ireland's third Triple Crown in four seasons and would also leave them with a nagging sense of what might have been.

O'Driscoll scored a wonderful try in the opening 19-9 victory against Wales in Cardiff, taking O'Gara's looped pass on the right touch-line and knifing back inside two Welsh tacklers for the touchdown.

But injury would prevent him from playing in the historic Croke Park game with France, a game lost to Vincent Clerc's last-minute try, created through the channel O'Driscoll normally manned.

"I find it hard to escape the feeling that the Grand Slam would have been ours had Drico, especially, been available," wrote Eddie O'Sullivan in his autobiography 'Never Die Wondering.' "Sadly our most important player was sitting in the stand."

Yet, the season would be defined by England's visit to GAA Headquarters and an occasion that came to represent far more than a simple rugby game. O'Driscoll's Ireland did not disappoint, demolishing the visitors for a remarkable 30-point victory that will forever hold a special place in Irish hearts.

Leading 23-3 at half-time, O'Driscoll's dressing-room presence was described as "wonderful" by O'Sullivan. Two away victories followed in Edinburgh and Rome, but the Championship again – cruelly – eluded Ireland.

2009

IRELAND 14 ENGLAND 13

Croke Park, February 28

Quite possibly O'Driscoll's finest hour in an Irish shirt.

With the huge English team unashamedly targeting Ireland's captain for "special attention," not alone did he stand up to the ordeal, he contributed a critical eight points on a day when scores were always at a premium.

Nothing captured his contribution more succinctly than the only Irish try of the game, a 57th minute Canal-end take from Tomas O'Leary's feed and a selfless dive under the shark-infested waters of a scrambling English back-row.

It took extraordinary courage and timing from the already bruised and dazed O'Driscoll to get the touchdown. In fact, such was the punishment he had taken, the wonder was that he would finish the day without the company of a stretcher-bearer.

Eleven minutes earlier, he'd also dropped a sublime goal.

"One of the more physical Test matches I've played in a long, long time," he smiled when it was over.

2009

WALES 15 IRELAND 17

Millennium Stadium, March 21

Scotland alone would hold O'Driscoll try-less in our Grand Slam year and his touchdown in Cardiff dramatically changed the dynamic of what was proving a nerve-wracking decider against Wales.

Ireland went without a single score in the first half, but, four minutes after the resumption, the captain presented himself by Paul O'Connell's shoulder at the side of a ruck and dived over for a critical try.

Two minutes later, Tommy Bowe was in again and, with Ronan O'Gara converting both, Ireland had wrestled critical momentum.

It would, of course, take O'Gara's late drop-goal to close the deal, but one of Irish rugby's most beautiful images would be the post-game embrace between O'Driscoll and Jack Kyle, a star of Ireland's last Grand Slam victory 61 years earlier.

Kyle understood exactly what he had seen too, subsequently describing O'Driscoll as "one of the greatest players in the history of the game."

2010

IRELAND 20 SCOTLAND 23

Croke Park, March 20

A wretched anti-climax for Declan Kidney's Ireland after the glories of the previous season with another Triple Crown opportunity spurned gallingly in Dublin.

O'Driscoll got the show on the road for a possibly complacent Ireland with his 11th-minute try, arriving with perfect timing on Jonathan Sexton's shoulder after the out-half's magical break.

But Ireland could not build on that early initiative and would be eventually sunk by Dan Parks' 78th-minute penalty.

2011

IRELAND 24 ENGLAND 8

Aviva Stadium, March 19

England's Grand Slam bid left in tatters on a day O'Driscoll scored his 25th Six Nations try, breaking a record held by Scotland's Ian Smith since 1933.

It came in the 46th minute of a dominant Irish performance, Donncha O'Callaghan straightening the line as the ball was ferried eventually to O'Driscoll, Ireland's captain taking a glorious, arcing route into the left corner.

2013

ITALY 22 IRELAND 15

Stadio Olimpico, March 16

A season that started in sublime fashion curdled into Ireland's poorest Six Nations ever and, ultimately, cost Declan Kidney his job.

For 45 minutes in the opening game at the Millennium Stadium, Ireland were wonderful, O'Driscoll – surprisingly relieved of the captaincy by Kidney – irresistible. He threw a superbly imaginative pass for Simon Zebo's 10th-minute try, then dived over for Ireland's third in the 42nd minute, Jonathan Sexton's conversion making it 30-3 to Ireland.

But what followed was maybe a pointer, Wales scoring 19 unanswered points in the remainder to leave Ireland with sticky palms.

O'Driscoll's daughter, Sadie, was born just hours before the England game in Dublin, but Ireland could not take inspiration from the event, losing 12-6.

They drew with France at the Aviva, a seemingly concussed O'Driscoll being replaced late in the game, then coming back on to a remarkable symphony of cheers. Then they lost to Scotland at Murrayfield, something Ireland had not done in the Six Nations since the delayed autumn games of '01.

After that it was Italy in Rome to finish and everything that could go wrong pretty much did.

For O'Driscoll especially, the game is best forgotten. In the 29th minute, he was sin-binned for an alleged stamp on Simone Favaro, Ireland losing their way against opponents they'd never previously failed to beat in the Six Nations.

Ireland did not register a try in the game and were held scoreless for virtually the last quarter. O'Driscoll received a five-week ban for the stamping, subsequently reduced to three, the disciplinary committee noting his "exemplary playing and disciplinary record."

At 34, the natural question on rugby's lips was "had the great man played his final Six Nations game?" One year on, happily, it seems he hadn't.

Irish Independent

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