BOD: 'I'd enjoy retiring more if we were walking around Stade de France with the trophy'
O'Driscoll focus is on job at hand but he admits he will miss camaraderie most
Published 04/03/2014 | 02:30
THE long goodbye enters its penultimate phase on Saturday as Dublin gets its last glimpse of Brian O'Driscoll in green.
Italy at home is usually the IRFU's hardest sell at Six Nations time, but there was no fear of there being an empty seat at Lansdowne Road as the nation prepares to mark the great centre becoming the world's most capped rugby player while also bidding farewell.
It is all sitting a little uncomfortably on the 35-year-old's weary shoulders. Pointedly he said yesterday that he wanted to be remembered as a "team player" more than anything and, while the obituaries are being written at a rate of knots, he feels very much alive and ready for a tilt at a second Six Nations title to round off a stellar Test career.
The mind, he admits, is still willing but his body is not. He wants to continue beyond the end of the season, but knows that it is not really an option.
The time to go is imminent and, while he conceded that the fuss was making things that bit tougher, he is maintaining the same focus that earned him the adulation in the first place.
Asked yesterday if there was any part of him looking forward to stepping out of the limelight, O'Driscoll replied: "Absolutely not. The head is still willing, but the body not as much. I want to get out of the game relatively unscathed and I think now is the time to do it, at the end of this year.
"I haven't got bored of answering questions or signing autographs or doing pictures or any of that. I would go on for another dozen years at that. It is just simply that age does catch up on you and physically you can't do what younger guys can do.
"That is just the life of a rugby player. There are other sports that you can manage well into your forties but rugby is not one."
It looks pretty certain that O'Driscoll will partner Gordon D'Arcy yet again this weekend, partly because his Leinster team-mate's main rival for the No 12 jersey Luke Marshall has suffered yet another concussion – his fourth in 12 months.
The latest head injury is a further indication of the increase in physicality in a sport transformed since then UCD student O'Driscoll pitched up in a baggy jersey back in 1999 and changed the game in this country.
The attritional nature of the game is a concern to many, but, while O'Driscoll acknowledges that the young Ulster player is unfortunate, he says that head injuries – of which he has had his fair share – are a workplace hazard.
"I think we are very lucky that we have got great medical teams in all of our set-ups," he said.
"And it's not ideal for something like that to happen to a young guy like Luke, but the most important thing is that he is looked after and the return to play doesn't happen too soon.
"I know that's what is happening at the moment and that's why the decision was taken to have the return to play done up in Belfast, but you're going to have situations and you're going to have guys who are more prone to head bangs.
"Unfortunately that is the physicality of the game – that's going to happen. And we have to live with that for the joys it brings us.
"The game is getting more physical and becoming more power-orientated. Maybe there is not as much opportunity for guys of my size or Darce's size.
"At the same time, I would like to think there is always going to be a place for good thinkers in the game and they will be able to adapt to situations when the game modifies slightly, which some of us have had to do.
"The game will be vastly different in 10 years again. How it will change is hard to know, but it will and we will look back on old footage of this weekend and think 'God, they had it easy back in 2014'."
Those of us looking in are already reminiscing about the great moments and, while O'Driscoll wants to focus on the remaining games and the chance of a Championship, the centre acknowledged the four-game home winning streak against England from 2005-2011 was a particular favourite, while playing at Croke Park was something to treasure.
But, rather than focus on the on-field moments of magic it is the camaraderie that he will miss when the curtain comes down.
"I think you remember the laughs that you have with your team-mates – some of the best memories are the ones in the dressing-room after games, not actually out on the park. Just being in really high spirits, that is something unique that is hard to replace," he explained.
"It's just us. I think you can be yourself amongst your team-mates, particularly when you've played with them for a long time. When we did win silverware, it had been a long road towards winning it – particularly the Championship in 2009.
"To have that feeling of satisfaction of really having dug in... and only the players really appreciate how hard it was out there because they lived the moment with you.
"That is a special bond you can't have with the guy on the street because – as much as he was there for the atmosphere and was part of it – he can't fully have the appreciation of what it took to push yourself to the limits.
"That's why it's very special, the relationship you have with your team-mates."
O'Driscoll has two more chances to share that moment with his Ireland team-mates, before a couple more in blue.
Getting his public speaking out of the way early in the week allowed him to move himself out of the limelight and focus on the job at hand.
After all, this is no testimonial. Ireland have a trophy to win. "I'd enjoy it a lot more if we were walking around the Stade de France with a trophy," he mused.
It would be a fitting way for it all to end.