Ahead of O'Driscoll's last home international our writers relive their favourite Dublin memories of Ireland's greatest player
Published 08/03/2014 | 02:30
It was the day he became an irresistible symbol of all we hold dear in the meaning of being Irish.
Brian O'Driscoll was a marked man in February 2009 at GAA headquarters. England's desire to loosen his focus brought to mind the image of a green ball bouncing repeatedly off a white wall.
The great stadium was etched with worry as, sporadically, medics were left fussing over his prone body after yet another hit of near homicidal intensity left him struggling to get to his feet. Yet, for all the explosive attention, this – quite possibly – would be O'Driscoll's finest hour in an Irish shirt. Even with the huge English team unashamedly slapping a target on the Irish captain's forehead, 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 in a 14-13 victory.
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. To the rest of us, it represented far more than that in Ireland's Grand Slam year. It became a portrait of one man's utterly heroic selflessness for his country's cause.
SURVIVING WALES' BEST SHOT
My favourite O'Driscoll memory? Just how long is that piece of string? Tries, tackles, assists – take your pick. Was it the try at the death to beat the Wallabies or that crunching man and ball tackle to seal the deal against the Springboks? As for creating scoring opportunities so selflessly for others? Where to even begin?
For me, the memory that will forever sum up this great career took place a month ago. When Scott Williams caught O'Driscoll marginally late in the tackle he did so with full force and venom. The Ireland centre was winded... badly. It took him a few minutes to recover but typically he did.
Both sets of centres knew he had been dealt a sly one when at his most vulnerable. When the cameras had panned away I watched him closely as he struggled gingerly to get back into position. No remonstrating with the referee, no finger-wagging at Williams or Jamie Roberts, just a wry but loaded smile with 'okay, you've had your best shot and I'm still standing' stamped all over it.
Within minutes he was charging at both Welsh centres as Williams made his way ashore, and the rest is history.
What transpired against the Welsh summed up that extraordinary balance of physical and mental toughness possessed by so few. It represented the cameo that for me summed up a career of true greatness and with it a legacy to stand the test of time.
AN OUTSTANDING HAT-TRICK
I was a big O'Driscoll autograph hunter as a kid, I got him loads. His hat-trick against Scotland in 2002 was a big one, the Italian try where he went backwards half the field and then went up the other end. The two that he got against Wales just back after injury and changed that game a little bit.
There's been so many, but that hat-trick against Scotland stands out because if you score one hat-trick for your country there can sometimes be a little bit of luck, to do it again is pretty good. To be able to back that up is incredible.
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This week, O'Driscoll-mania has taken over the country. It's everywhere. You don't want to ignore it, but you can use all these things to your advantage.
I'm sure there'll be a swansong after the game. But if we lose that'll be called off, and as a team we have a responsibility that his last game is a win to give him the farewell he deserves, so it is as special an occasion as possible.
MISSING PRESENCE OF A LEGEND
It is ironic, sometimes, how the brain works. Ireland's greatest player of the last 30 years has left many indelible prints on the surfaces of Dublin's international rugby pitches, yet my overriding memory of him is of a wounded man hobbling in the winter of February 2007.
That day, Ireland took to the field at GAA headquarters against the arrogant aristocracy of France without their talisman. Ronan O'Gara scored all of Ireland's 17 points at Croke Park as O'Driscoll, with a hamstring strain, could only watch on from the sidelines.
In the dying seconds and with a four-point lead in front of 70,000 screaming fans, Ireland were cut open in their quest for a Six Nations championship in the most bitter of cruel ironies.
The feeling of stunned isolation at the final whistle seems strange to comprehend. But when Vincent Clerc skipped through the outside-centre channel; a space filled by a 19-stone Munster prop where O'Driscoll (below) should have been, Ireland's fate was sealed. France snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Ireland exhaled in despair.
I remember contemplating Ireland's rugby future at the full-time whistle. This was Ireland's first pivotal test without O'Driscoll and we had failed spectacularly.
Now, as the greatest centre of the professional era prepares to face the home crowd for one last time, Ireland must plan for a future without him. His absence from the game will be felt across all four provinces.
O'Driscoll's injury cost Ireland against France in 2007, but he will be gone forever in two weeks' time. We may never see his like again.
BOD holds the Triple Crown trophy aloft after victory over England at Twickenham, 2006
STANDING UP FOR A GENERATION
Brian O' Driscoll was 22 or 23 on the day I spotted him on Grafton Street. The kid's hair was dyed a streaky blond and he looked as if he was playing bass with a mad rock band.
"That's it," the lad with me said. "The fame has literally gone to his head. He's getting notions." But then I thought about it at all. Brian was asserting his own identity. The same as thousands more.
I had seen women go blonde. Bits of silvery foil hang from their head covered in thick, gooey white paste. The process takes hours. This was no whim from a bottle but a conscious decision. Then I thought back to Fergus Slattery, whose hair was down to his shoulders. He was of his time and so was Brian.
Ten years later he would say: "It was an outlet, not to vent a frustration but, inadvertently, to stick two fingers up and say, 'This is me. As bad a decision as this might be, I'm going to roll with it'?"
He was standing up for his generation and I knew this kid hadn't become institutionalised. Brian was a leader in waiting and as he walked off you could see the blond head was nearly ready for a crowning.
LIVING THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM
As a kid you dream of scoring tries that seem impossible. Largely because you have seen one person actually pull them off. In training you may even start to practise the skill, to see can they actually be done. Before realising how risky they might be, and quickly forgetting about it.
Brian O'Driscoll's try in November 2010 against New Zealand embodied one such skill, rarely seen. After 56 minutes and with Ireland trailing by 20 points, Rob Kearney's offload to Tommy Bowe didn't go to hand and it looked like the attack had broken down. But then a moment of absolute magic. Rather than adjusting his support line so that he could gather the ball securely in two hands, Brian chose to accelerate and take advantage of the gap in the All Blacks defensive line.
This meant that he would have to scoop the ball singlehanded without breaking stride and at top pace. A virtually impossible skill against an oncoming defender. Yet O'Driscoll managed to pull it off, seamlessly.
O'Driscoll's leadership came to the fore in the manner in which he stepped into first receiver to set up Kearney's break. He led by his actions and his hunger to support and follow his own pass. He then showed his strength and aggression to hold off Keven Mealamu and scrum-half Andy Ellis and finish with the touchdown.
O'Driscoll has it all and Lansdowne Road will never see his like again. Yet we may all still try to practise and recreate his genius.
Brian O'Driscoll in action for Blackrock College in 1997
OUT-FRENCHING THE FRENCH
'If O'Driscoll was French this afternoon we would surely have won the game."
Bernard Laporte had a first-hand view of the destruction the then 23-year-old reaped at the hands of his team, and watching the Lansdowne Road action from Corcoran's Bar in Paris it was impossible to disagree.
Having seen him bag a hat-trick in Ireland's first win in France in his own lifetime a year previously, the French were well warned of the centre's talents. While he didn't amass anything near the same points total in 2001, his 49th-minute try was something to behold and was a platform for a 22-15 victory.
The quality of the break off the shoulder of David Wallace as he slipped through the grasp of Fabien Pelous and then Richard Dourthe and beyond the cover before holding off Xavier Garbajosa's tackle to dot down...
The video referee got into the spirit of things by awarding the try even though the grounding was suspect and Ireland went on to complete back-to-back wins over France for the only time since 1953.
After decades of difficult days against the French, it was another statement of intent for an Irish team moving in the right direction under Warren Gatland but a disastrous defeat in Murrayfield after the enforced 'foot and mouth' break derailed the Grand Slam.
For this Leaving Cert student, watching an Irishman out-French the French is an indelible memory that will live long after the great man retires.
AN OFFLOAD OF SUBLIME GENIUS
Forgive us for we may have witnessed this one through goggles clouded with beer. Forgive us when we recall that, although O'Driscoll scored a hat-trick, it was deep, deep and deeper into the night that we waxed and warbled about that pass in a memorable 43-22 victory over Scotland in 2002.
Forgive us when we say that his tries were, well, pretty ordinary. Two of them were simple strike plays off set scrums, moves that would soon propel his and Eddie O'Sullivan's team towards a Triple Crown some time in the future.
Sure, the second was a thrill, scooping the ball up Parisien style and then launching a 100-yard dash – approximately – when Brendan Laney struggled to collect Bryan Redpath's pass and the Blackrock man scampered away from Andrew Henderson.
He made another searing break in a similar fashion that could easily have created another try. His Paris hat-trick two years earlier could have been a flash in the pan; the Lions took care of that shibboleth. He was the Flash Gordon of the rugby field. This Dublin day confirmed that even the marked man was unmarkable.
For us, however, the pass that he offloaded to Shane Horgan was the true highlight of the afternoon, a 25-metre offload from his left side out of contact which allowed the wing an uninterrupted run to the line.
This was our enduring highlight of a one-man destruction. A man operating at the peak of his powers. They would continue to plateau into a seamless sequence of excellence for some time yet.
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