Sunday 22 October 2017

Lion king still rewriting the history books

O'Driscoll dreaming of elusive series victory to cap incredible career, writes Conor George

Conor George

Conor George

Brian O'Driscoll has spent his career setting records, knocking down barriers and rewriting history with Leinster, Ireland and the Lions.

His career has expanded to encompass so many record achievements only because he has retained that priceless capacity to enjoy the challenge and to be inspired by the contest. When he runs out on to the pitch today, he will again set new records.

He becomes the oldest Irish player to play for the Lions in a Test arena. It is a remarkable achievement for O'Driscoll, who is one of only three players to have been selected in four original Lions squads and all of them are Irish – Willie John McBride (five) and Mike Gibson (four).

O'Driscoll will become only the second Lions player to play in Test matches on more than three Lions tours. McBride played Test matches in each of his five tours and Gibson in three of his four.

It would be fitting if O'Driscoll assumed a major role tonight for two reasons – one, he is the most famous player in the red shirt; and two, it was here in Australia that his genius was established for a world-wide audience.

Twelve years ago he was the Lions' fresh-faced secret weapon. He had announced his arrival in northern hemisphere circles with his hat-trick of tries against France in the 2000 Six Nations.

His then burgeoning reputation hadn't yet caught the attention of the Australians despite his touring there with Ireland in 1999.

When he scythed through the Australian defence to score his first Lions' Test try in the opening clash in Brisbane, the Wallabies and Australian public were suddenly interested in who this 'young Irish kid' was.

O'Driscoll's career since that seminal moment has been one of storied feats of distinction and the 12 years since that first Lions tour have been years of excitement and drama, of joy and heartache on the world stage.

HOPES

Now, at 34 years of age and at the end of his penultimate season, the Lions face into another Test series with Ireland's top player carrying with him their main hopes of success.

O'Driscoll is, of course, a different man and player today and the game has changed utterly since that first Lions Tour. "It's a totally different game in every regard, not least in training. If we trained now like we trained in 2001 I'd have died two weeks ago!" he laughed.

The respect the Wallabies have for O'Driscoll is not contrived. Before the 2011 World Cup meeting between Ireland and Australia, he and Paul O'Connell were the only Irish players the Wallabies had any knowledge of.

They were the only two Irish players they respected. That respect has not been diluted by the intervening years. He and O'Connell were both name-checked by Australian captain James Horwill and scrum-half Will Genia at their press briefing yesterday.

O'Driscoll has won plenty throughout his career. He has Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam with Ireland and Heineken Cups with Leinster to his credit, but it is true the game's greatest accolade has eluded him.

O'Driscoll will never win a World Cup with Ireland. The next best thing and the only new accolade he can win before he retires is a Lions Test series.

"I think a series win is the Holy Grail for me in a way," said O'Driscoll.

"I'm not going to be involved in any more World Cups and it's probably a big shout for Ireland to win a World Cup but, that apart, for me the only other attainable thing that I'm going to be able to achieve in my career that I haven't previously won is winning a Lions Test series.

"I dearly want to be part of that for my own sake but also for the Lions' sake going forward. I think we need to win one of these series soon and let's hope it starts tomorrow."

It is incredible to realise that in his three previous Lions tours that victory over Australia in the opening Test in Brisbane in 2001 is O'Dricoll's only Test win in six games. He experienced only 77 seconds of the Test series in 2005 and missed the final Test in 2009 because of injury.

"It is time to add to it," he said in his typically understated manner. "I don't want to be someone who has a lot of appearances but not won a series.

"That is what ultimately it comes down to," he said.

O'Driscoll cut a relaxed figure at yesterday's final training run at the Lions' base in East Brisbane. He sported a piece of support tape on one thigh during the short session, but there was an easy smile and a few laughs as he and O'Connell warmed up together.

His easy-going personality was also evident when discussing his latest room-mate on this seven-week tour – his centre partner this evening Jonathan Davies.

"He's a good roomie," smiled O'Driscoll. "He saw the 'Do Not Disturb' sign yesterday afternoon and was very quiet coming in thinking I was having an afternoon nap. So he's thoughtful!

"I'm not a tea person so he doesn't make me tea. We do bring our laundry up for each other and water too. It's important to be caring!"

The quips are part of O'Driscoll's disarming personality, the easy grace he has which has made him one of the most popular figures in the game. It doesn't mask the determination to succeed that still fuels his sporting appetite.

"You talk about the fun and the gelling and everything, but at the end of the day, if we got on terribly and won the Test series I'd take that above getting on great, making great friends and losing the series.

"That (getting on) is not what this is about. It's about winning the Test series. That's what we're here for."

The ambition that burned brightly when the famous red jersey was a paler hue and billowed in the wind when the 21-year-old O'Driscoll first wore it in 2001 is as significant as ever for the veteran.

He is an iconic figure in Irish, European and world rugby and his brilliance is matched only by his longevity. It is incredible to think he was nervous about his chances of selection – "it's the top 37 players in Britain and Ireland, to be selected in that group is special" – but it's that modesty that makes him the talent he is.

It is another unbelievable statistic in a Lions career that has spanned 12 years that O'Driscoll's only try in a Lions Test was that celebrated one against Australia in 2001.

Twelve years since his last touch-down is too long for a player of his formidable talent. You know he feels it too for in spite of his distinction he is still totally absorbed in the search for perfection.

Now, on the eve of yet another huge day in the extensive history of one of rugby's most admired protagonists, he must wonder does he stand on the threshold of yet another glorious chapter. To be acknowledged as a Lions Test series winner would be a fitting end to his special story.

Irish Independent

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