James Lawton: BOD's greatest feat is to walk away unscathed
Brian O'Driscoll's heroic disregard for own safety a cornerstone of stellar career – and makes his longevity a wonder of the age
Published 31/05/2014 | 02:30
When the great warriors of sport finally submit to the march of time, the speculation is inevitable. Will we ever see their like again?
Will anyone in rugby move the spirit like Brian O'Driscoll when he takes his last hurrah this weekend after 133 games in the green jersey and four Lions tours?
It is no slur on any of his potential successors, on their nerve and their spirit and the promptings of their native talent, to be more sceptical than ever before because if these attributes are eternal, the culture in which they flourished is certainly not.
There is a reality which grows a little stronger each day. It says that the way of thinking which most celebrated O'Driscoll's career-long willingness to put his health on the line has never been beset by so many piercing questions.
Those questions come, of course, from very close to home – O'Driscoll's home, this is – the one inhabited by the people who know him best and have for so long agonised over the narrow line he strode between stunning triumph and the possibility of physical catastrophe.
Mostly they have been muted but sometimes they have come to the lips of his father Frank, who has spent his life dispensing medical advice as a GP, and his uncle Barry, who resigned as a consultant to the International Rugby Board out of disgust with their policy on the handling of concussion cases.
Shortly before O'Driscoll went on his second Lions tour, as captain against New Zealand in 2005, I sat next to his father in the Lansdowne Road stand.
It was a classic performance from the then 26-year-old player. There were flashes of offensive brilliance, the trademark side-step and the surging power, but if there was an enduring sense at the end of the match, it was the now familiar one of a player who was utterly committed, some might say addicted, to the exhilaration of physical contact.
His father sighed and said: "From time to time I get up the nerve to talk to Brian about the risks he takes, the damage he courts, but to be honest I don't get very far.
"I tell him how proud I am of his achievements but also how I just wish he would sometimes be a little more circumspect. And, of course, he tells me he knows what he is doing, what he can do. In effect, he tells me to mind my own business."
Recently his uncle Barry, who was appalled earlier this month when Florian Fritz of Toulouse was hurried back on the field despite the most compelling evidence of possible concussion after he collided with the knee of Racing Metro's Francois van der Merwe, joined the ritual celebrations of his nephew's superb career.
But he also expressed his relief that he would be playing his last game this weekend.
He said that the risks might be 'slight' but they would always require the utmost vigilance.
What isn't in question, of course, is the security of O'Driscoll's place in rugby legend alongside such phenomenal compatriots as Mike Gibson and Willie John McBride. There is, however, the undeniable fact that while Gibson wielded a scalpel and McBride the bludgeon of his own vast physical resources, O'Driscoll happily employed both.
He, self-evidently, could beat you any which way, and it was maybe this truth that provoked one of the most gut-wrenchingly cynical incidents in the history of modern sport.
It came in the opening minutes of the first Lions Test in Christchurch in 2005, when All Black skipper Tana Umaga and hooker Keven Mealamu performed their notorious spear tackle.
The resident citing officer, of course quickly and unforgettably decided that the All Blacks had no case to answer, and their countrymen derided the outrage in the Lions party.
That was embodied quickly enough when Lions manager Clive Woodward's media adviser, the former Tony Blair acolyte Alastair Campbell, orchestrated a horror slide-show back at the team hotel.
Four months later, which is to say long after the Lions tour had been ruined by the ransacking of their inspirational captain, the IRB agreed that the tackle was an outrage.
Perhaps it is not the least astonishing fact of O'Driscoll's career that the Christchurch atrocity, in which he broke a collar bone while stretching out an arm to protect his head, did nothing to staunch any aspect of an individual game of absolute commitment.
O'Driscoll, we have long learned, was beyond any kind of intimidation. Some of a more objective nature, and detached situation, considered his reaction to the rejection by Lions coach Warren Gatland before the last Test in Australia last summer somewhat one-eyed. O'Driscoll one-eyed? What a stunning conclusion.
Of course he has always been unswervingly one-eyed. He turned the blind one obdurately when dealing with the pleadings of his medically educated family. He came back from his personal wasteland of New Zealand with an absolute conviction that his Lions days were not over and it was maybe that which most fuelled his disappointment when Gatland made what many considered to be the series-winning decision.
For the fabled Bod there has, of course, always been one over-riding imperative. It has been to go to the limits, and often a little beyond, the sum of his huge physical gifts. He was the scorer of remarkable tries, indelible strokes of genius which regularly irrigated the lush reaches of his talent, but he never defined himself with such acts of artistry. Essentially, his most compelling presence was visceral.
Right up to this last weekend he has been rather more than a rugby virtuoso. He has been a force of nature, one of the most untrammeled in the history of any sport. That he leaves his own so apparently unscathed is far from the least of his extraordinary achievements. However, it does raise the question of whether rugby in a new age will ever be allowed to let someone like him happen again.