On the bleakest winter’s evening at Blackrock College, framed by the crenellated walls of its castle and the outline of Howth Head beyond the white horses of Dublin Bay, the rugby keeps flowing regardless.
Across 11 exquisitely manicured pitches, coaches hold true to the teachings of French priests of the Order of the Holy Ghost, who in founding this school esteemed nothing higher than the intensity of physical endeavour.
In 154 years of existence ’Rock’ has turned out 52 Ireland internationals, but few so uniformly celebrated as Brian O’Driscoll, who wears the green jersey for his 14th and final Six Nations this weekend assured of lifelong veneration at his alma mater.
Logic might dictate that talent as luminous as O’Driscoll’s was identified at the outset, and yet the indomitable outside centre of recent vintage became known in his youth as a diminutive scrum-half, not even a shoo-in for the starting XV. “You might say Warren Gatland and I are the only two people ever to have dropped Brian,” Alan McGinty, Blackrock’s genial headmaster, reflects.
The story goes that in the quarter-finals of a junior cup team match in 1994, he did indeed dispense with the boy who would be king. It proved, alas, a miscalculation so acute that he still receives calls from disgruntled O’Driscoll disciples denouncing him as a “clown”.
“Brian was the captain of Leman House, elected by his peers,” McGinty recalls. “And of all the house captains, he was the smallest guy. But he was some scrum-half and when Ciaran Scally, our first choice, broke his nose with 10 minutes to go in the game I called over to Brian. We had it won, we were starting with a scrum inside our opponents’ 22, so I told him: ’Don’t show them anything. Let’s focus on the semi-final. No moves.’ ’Yes, sir.’ Straight away he called this play where he moved across, dummy-scissored the inside centre, then the winger, kept going, and with sudden acceleration, was gone, right into the corner. Oh, great try.”
It was an early expression of the fleet footwork and extrasensory perception that helps illuminate why O’Driscoll, as he seeks to surpass Ronan O’Gara’s record of 63 Six Nations caps – plus, perhaps, George Gregan’s mark of 139 Test appearances – commands such reverence in his homeland. Quite apart from his 46 tries, he is heralded by contemporary Gordon D’Arcy, who made his international bow alongside him in 1999 as “the best I have ever seen defensively, without a doubt”. The sheer longevity, likewise, enriches the sense of burgeoning mythology. On the day of his debut in Brisbane Robbie Henshaw, among the most recent addition to his 132 Ireland team-mates, was six.
O’Driscoll passed his 35th birthday garlanded in lush tributes that could appear, to those less attuned than most Dubliners to the resonance of his accomplishments, as melodramatic. Paul Kimmage, who has just resigned from ghost-writing O’Driscoll’s autobiography over an argument about an interview, says: “I was overawed writing about him. It is quite difficult to present a portrait that represents him.” So, on the occasion of his adieu to the Six Nations – a competition to which he has bequeathed 26 tries, not to mention an overall winning record against every team bar France– let us try.
To trace his origins fully one needs to visit the Dublin waterside suburb of Clontarf, where the names of parents Frank and Geraldine are inscribed on the plaque outside their GPs’ surgery on the main road. According to Frank, who twice played for Ireland against Argentina in 1970, Brian “was born with a mind like a sieve, which is why he needs his dad.” It is the indulgent aside of a father conspicuous by his exuberance at Ireland’s Grand Slam celebrations in 2009, and yet it was never his intention that Brian should alight upon rugby. There were marked physical impediments to doing so, not least Brian’s severe astigmatism, which meant he could not keep contact lenses in and left him chronically short-sighted.
Still, he acquired a fierce competitive impulse from Frank, as reflected when he won a teenage bet that he could not escape the bushes beside the par-four 10th at Royal Dublin without a par. Courtesy of a three-iron, no less, he did. His natural shyness convinced Frank that he ought to be sent to the fee-paying Blackrock, where McGinty was immediately struck by the powerful dynamic between father and son. “Frank has that paternal instinct for doing the right thing,” he says. “Later on in his career, Brian had an agent but only for one year, and you could see the difference. There appeared to be something very artificial. That family connection is important in making him such a grounded guy. By habit now, he makes the right decisions readily. They say that character means doing the right thing when nobody is looking, and there is a substance about Brian that makes him a very good leader.”
These are judgments, McGinty acknowledges, reached in retrospect. “I wouldn’t have marked him down for leadership at school,” he admits. “In the same way I could never have forecast that he would go on to be the greatest back this country has ever produced. The signature virtues of his play, however, were in abundant evidence. “Brian had superb balance – you could see that in the way he moved. He never had great top speed but he had prodigious acceleration, and at centre, the position he has made his own, it is that surge, the initial surge over the first two or three metres, which proves crucial. The other element was his quickness of mind, his reaction speed. He could disappear,” and here McGinty clicks his fingers, “just like that.”
Not always did his decision-making reflect the finest wisdom. Infamously, in his farewell schools game against Clongowes, he tried to erase Blackrock’s deficit with four drop-goal attempts in the last five minutes, missing every one of them. “That, I suppose, is folklore,” McGinty shrugs, smiling. Already, though, O’Driscoll was being touted as a worthy heir to Brendan Mullin, the one man who might legitimately hold a candle to his claims as Ireland’s pre-eminent centre. Swiftly he made good on the bolder predictions, winning a place at University College, Dublin on a sports scholarship, and earning a Six Nations call-up from Gatland before he had even made his club debut for Leinster.
Anthony Foley was in the Ireland side in February 2000 when O’Driscoll played his maiden Six Nations game, a rather inauspicious 50-18 defeat to England at Twickenham. He hopes as ardently as all his countrymen that 14 years of distinguished service to the tournament can be bookended in more stirring fashion. “Everybody wants the best for Brian, for him to finish on a high,” says Foley, the former flanker on a break from training the Irish ’A’ team at Carton House, Co Kildare. “People would tell me how gifted this player from UCD was, how you just could not behold the skills he had. He always had those little touches of class. For all his explosiveness, he would never shirk the hard work, either. All the forwards appreciated the work he did, and we tried to look after him to the best of our abilities.
When you have a guy like that, you want him fresh and playing the whole time.”
But for the devastating shoulder injury that ruined his captain’s tour of New Zealand with the Lions in 2005, O’Driscoll has compiled a remarkable sequence of 14 Six Nations in 15 years, even if the tries no longer come as freely as they once did. Indeed, he has only managed 10 since the Grand Slam four years ago, but Foley maintains that he has augmented his abilities since his formidable younger years. “The centres’ partnership with D’Arcy gave Brian more space,” he says. “They played so well off one another that Brian soon became a major threat, finding a lot of breaks and momentum. I only hope we can find someone in this country to replace him, but I am not so sure.”
Asked to name O’Driscoll’s defining performance, Foley is unequivocal.
“France, 2000. Three tries in one game to win in Paris for the national side – it is just a pity that we don’t savour that feeling too often.” On that mistily-remembered afternoon, McGinty was at home, being bombarded with messages from those who reminded him of that misguided snub for Blackrock’s Under-16s. He is convinced, more profoundly than most, that the school’s cherished alumnus is taking his leave from the Six Nations with a reputation reinforced as far more than a rugby player.
“It drives me mad sometimes, when Blackrock is called a rugby school,” he says. “It is about personal development, about the creation of community, and Brian is a superb ambassador because of his espousal of those values.
His legacy is derived from the way he projects himself. Rugby is not a profession, and I always emphasise this to the students. It is an occupation for your 20s, and also a leave of absence from life. You are frogmarched around, and suddenly you are in your 30s and the lights out.”
McGinty is of a mind that O’Driscoll, married to actress Amy Huberman and with baby daughter Sadie, is uncommonly well-equipped for the return to real life. “From the way he has been brought up, he is ready to move ahead.
The bottom line, for all of us, is that the clock ticks on. Just please God,” he says, in an illustration of one sportsman’s exalted place in national affections, “let there be more Brian O’Driscolls.”