O'Driscoll: I’d hate to give it up and, in a few years, think ‘God one more season would have been great’
Published 04/02/2011 | 05:00
Home comforts, he's been thinking about them lately. Thinking about how the emotional tug isn't just to be in the cradle of big crowds, heart dancing, lungs on fire.
Sometimes, the secrets are in the everyday. A few weeks back, he did a photo-shoot for Childline that required him posing with Jedward.
The picture of Ireland's rugby captain standing next to those strange Q-tips with big hair made most newspapers and, swept away by a sense of civic responsibility, the younger Leinster players grasped their opportunity.
When Brian O'Driscoll pitched up for work the following morning, the photograph was blue-tacked above his dressing-room place with Jedward hair super-imposed on his own. Sucker.
The day that stops, the moment anyone is inclined to build an invisible moat around him and maybe start deferring to his years, O'Driscoll will know that the game is up. Mischief rules a contented dressing-room and, with Leinster just now, the older you are, the bigger the target between your eyes.
"You have to be on your guard, because you'll get cut down over anything," he grins. "But I really enjoy what I'm doing, probably more so now than I can ever remember."
He will play on with Leinster now into 2013 and, he hopes, with Ireland too. Last week, he was in London for the Six Nations launch, his eighth year making the journey. The structure of the day is formulaic to the point of having a faintly robotic feel. Always the same picture, six captains striding down a leafy avenue, the one representing last year's Championship winners holding the silver trophy.
Always the same questions, echoing to the same stock answers.
Before he travelled over, he found himself joking with some team-mates about the buzz-phrases that would be de rigeur for the occasion. Like 'It's a competition of momentum ... ' If he'd say it once, he reckoned, he'd say it a dozen times. And he did.
The first few years, O'Driscoll felt compelled to summon something different for every microphone. This wasn't sensible. After a time, it dawned on him that he ran the very real risk of contradicting himself.
So he goes to London on message now, suspecting that the journalists do likewise. "For want of another term, it's a kind of Groundhog Day," he grins. He can't even remember who were the other captains for his first launch (2004). That said, he did enjoy last year's picture. He was the one holding the trophy.
O'Driscoll is 32 now and into his 12th season of international rugby. With every year, the memories obscure one another a little more and people's questions tilt another few degrees towards the end.
But his body tells him to disregard the taste for requiem.
He feels as healthy as he has ever done and, deep down, dreads the day he stops being a professional athlete. The endorphin release after training is, he says, "the drug that I can't imagine being without."
So many times he's gone into a gym with all the enthusiasm of a horse being dragged into a burning building and -- almost without knowing -- just lost himself in the drills. "It's definitely something I'm hooked on," he says. "Just that feel-good factor of really pushing yourself in a session."
Maybe it's taken all this time to strike a contented balance, for there is no drudgery in the discipline now. He says he treats himself occasionally. The night of the recent Heineken Cup defeat of Saracens, he drove down to the Diep noodle bar in Ranelagh to collect dinner for himself and Amy.
From there, he stepped across the street to a newsagent's and, for a self-confessed "chocaholic", this isn't always wise. "I saw this large bar of Toblerone," he says, laughing now.
"So I'm thinking 'God I love that stuff. We won today. We won well. Maybe I deserve it'. So I come out of the shop, I'm walking across the road and -- of all people to meet -- I see Gordon D'Arcy. He hadn't played that day because of injury and he's like 'Well, well, well, well, well, what do we have here?'
"He's caught me in the act. I'm standing there, with this big bar sticking out from under my oxter -- it's difficult to hide something that size -- and I immediately go on the defensive. I'm like, 'Some of us played 80 minutes today, maybe some of us deserved it!' Sure enough, within 24 hours, that bar of Toblerone was gone. I felt justified. But then you go in that Monday and I think it makes you train harder because you feel you've got to get it out of your system."
Married life is good, he says. Yet, recently, he was quoted in a 'Hot Press' interview as reflecting that their respective schedules are so hectic at the moment, he and Amy are reduced to "bumping into each other every couple of weeks on the stairs".
He says it was a tongue-in-cheek comment that, to his dismay, "was quoted as gospel". It created a false impression some distance from the truth. "Work is great and everything, but there's definitely more important things," he says now. "Like enjoying life, enjoying one another's company. When our schedules are hectic, we definitely make time to hang out together and just do regular stuff like everyone else."
Yet, the media blizzard that surrounded their wedding last year announced pretty unequivocally that Brian O'Driscoll and Amy Huberman aren't looked upon "like everyone else" in Irish society.
The coverage surprised him. This newspaper alone, Brian himself recalls, devoted nine broadsheet pages. Incredible? "Yeah, we were a bit taken aback by it (the coverage), in the nicest possible way," he says.
"The whole lot of it was very positive. You know, it's funny the way people talk about it. 'Oh fair play to them, they didn't go for the magazine deal.' That didn't even come into the mindset. Not for a second was it even a contemplation. But, listen, we'll take the kudos (laughing). 'Fair play to you...' 'Ah, thanks a lot. Yeah, it was a really tough decision!'
"I'm not trying to be bolshy about other people doing it. People have their different reasons and there are hugely lucrative deals to be had.
"You know, if you're offered a million quid for your wedding day ... I wouldn't take a million quid. Your wedding day is, you know, your own. I wouldn't do it for 10 million quid. Really. No interest whatsoever in someone ordering me around on what photos to do."
He is pleased to have the contract situation resolved and, in truth, never had much appetite for the idea of finishing up abroad. O'Driscoll says he has been "well looked after" by Leinster and is excited by their current personnel. He is also candid enough to admit that tax incentives introduced by Charlie McCreevy in 2002 were a factor.
The Ireland captain stands to claw back tax amounting to 40pc of gross earnings for 10 years when he hangs up his boots, so long as he retires while under contract in Ireland.
"I'd be dishonest if I suggested that wasn't a factor," he confirms. "But it's only one component. You could go (abroad) and there's all sorts of different tax brackets and whatnot in France. You know they're paying bigger money over there and, if you went there for a career, you could possibly make it up to a similar sort of weight.
"But you're going to be playing a lot of games over there. And I enjoy being at home. I enjoy having my friends around and my family close. Amy enjoys being able to work between here and London and having her friends and family close. On top of that, I like the set-up we have at Leinster and the players I'm playing with. I enjoy going in every day.
"Guys have gone away and one or two come back and they're like 'You've got a good thing going on here ...' You hear from people that other clubs just don't have the same connection or bond that I think the provinces in Ireland have.
"We want to play for one another. We're not mercenaries. There's a genuine sense of identity there. A lot of us are local guys. We've bought into the Leinster brand, the Munster brand or the Ulster brand. I said it when we won the Heineken Cup in 2009. It meant 10-fold to me what it would have meant winning with Toulouse or Biarritz.
"Winning it with your friends is so much more important. I look back at the pictures now. Great times. You know, if you were lifting one handle of the trophy and, say, Yannick Jauzion has the other side? Cool.
"But it was different having Shane Horgan holding the other side. Likewise with the (Grand) Slam, having Ronan O'Gara on the other side. Guys that you've spent a lot of time with and become good friends with. To win something with them is very special. And it's one of the main reasons that I've stayed at home."
His profile has scarcely suffered from this status as a homebird. A Grand Slam, a Heineken Cup, multiple Triple Crowns, three Lions tours (one as captain), three RBS Player of the Tournament awards and voted 'World Player of the Decade' by 'Rugby World' magazine all stack up as garlands to his extraordinary standing in the game.
He is seen, universally, as a natural leader. Yet, prior to Eddie O'Sullivan offering him the Irish captaincy in 2002 (because of Keith Wood's ongoing injury problems), O'Driscoll had no documentable form in that area. Sometimes he finds himself thinking now how different his career might have been without that offer.
"I never perceived myself to be a leader," he says. "Never. I mean I had never captained a team. Well, I captained a UCD under-age team for one game when the captaincy was being shared around. And I remember it being alien to me."
The magic of Lions tours, he says, he only came to understand in South Africa '09. They lost the series, but the tour never had that vast, unwieldly feel that came to suffocate them in New Zealand four years earlier.
"I couldn't understand this legend that was Lions tours up to '09," says O'Driscoll. "I was very young in '01, then '05 was very unenjoyable, even apart from the shoulder thing. The whole of it. It was a massive tour and we roomed on our own.
"When Gerald Davies became manager for '09, he kind of picked my brains on why things hadn't worked. And one of the things I said was it was so important to room together."
In South Africa, a pleasant surprise was the experience of sharing with Welsh scrum-half Mike Phillips. Someone he imagined to be "a real bolshy kind of fella". They got along famously.
"I'd be guilty like everyone else of making assumptions about people," says O'Driscoll. "A lot of the conversation at dinners after matches is quite forced. The olden days of camaraderie between players, of going out clubbing together, that was all drink-induced.
"Now, genuinely, those after-match functions can be a real struggle. Because it's like being thrown together with strangers. Just because you played against one another, doesn't mean you know one another. So it is stilted conversation. Definitely.
"Sometimes, too, you're really flogged after a game. You're wishing the time away and that's got nothing to do with the company.
"In my early days as an international, there was still a big social culture after games. And the dinners could be great fun. It's terrible because it seems as if alcohol was the gelling factor in that. Which, to a degree, it was. But now the mentality switches immediately to the next game."
Two more seasons after this, then, but there will -- O'Driscoll insists -- be no deluding himself when the time comes to walk away. It's just, right now, he suspects that people are being needlessly ageist. "People can get a bit hung up on the whole age thing," he says. "But I look at people like Nathan Hines and I can't envisage him giving up in the next year. He's two years older than me. ROG is two years older than me. John Hayes is 37.
"I would hate to give it up and, in a few years, think 'God one more season would have been great ... '
"At the same time, you don't want to go on too long. The body will probably tell you, but more so the head, when it's time. I'd like to think that if my standards drop that I haven't got so hung up on being a professional athlete that I end up doing an Ian Rush on it (the former Liverpool striker played on with decreasing success to the age of 39).
"I don't envisage myself going back and playing AIL when I'm done."
He knows and appreciates his blessings. Recently, he recalls watching the 'Late Late Show' when the topic was emigration and remembers, specifically, the anguished voice of an ardent Munster fan about to uproot his family for a new life in Australia.
"You could tell that he didn't really want to go. As much as we live in a little bit of a cocoon, watching that can't but affect you."
If there is an imperative in Rome tomorrow, it is maybe to give that kind of reluctant emigrant 80 minutes of escape. The new law interpretations encourage a running game and Ireland look equipped to play it.
"I think the mentality with guys throughout the provinces is that we want to play running rugby," says the Irish captain. "We feel we have the athletes and, let's be honest, there's no fun in chasing kicks."
Gillette Ambassador and Irish rugby captain Brian O'Driscoll was speaking in the run-up to the launch of the new Gillette Fusion ProGlide range.