Many will be happy to see back of him – Bastareaud
Published 17/03/2014 | 02:30
The train journey to St Denis is a blur of graffiti, walls daubed with the hieroglyphics of young French angst. In times past, it seemed to fuel the Irish pessimism for a trip to Stade de France, a million secret oaths declaring it to be no place for frail hearts.
Then throw in the familiarly wild stadium din of matador trumpets and Mardi Gras drums and you routinely had the feel of travelling down the barrel of a shotgun.
But on Saturday, the show began with and adhered to a reverence towards one visitor that, palpably, altered the dynamic of this relationship. From the reverential pre-match collage of tributes on the big screen ("Merci Brian"), to the voice on the tannoy welcoming "Briiiaan O'Dreeesscolll," to the TV camera following his journey from dressing-room to pitch, as if fearful he might duck out through a fire exit, this had a difference that was difficult to process.
It wasn't that France were ready to play meek courtiers to an Irish farewell. They weren't.
You only had to glance at the cauliflower-eared glare of Pascal Pape in the tunnel to know they were here for business.
But there was a sense, too, of a nation finding room to recognise that the evening represented something broader than simply Six Nations combat. The first time they set eyes on O'Driscoll, he wore a shirt two sizes too big for him and looked like a kid who should ideally have had a note pinned to his collar with the names of next of kin.
But he destroyed them that evening, becoming an irresistible symbol of something new in Irish rugby.
Over the years, he would win trophies in small multiples and all but come to find his place in the game measured by calendars and sundials. But O'Driscoll did not win again in Paris. Not until Saturday night, the light bleeding from a rich blue Paris sky.
And, as he wrote the closing page of his story as an international footballer, O'Driscoll received the ultimate tribute from Mathieu Bastareaud. For the French centre ran at him all night like a bull charging at a picador.
A slab-like figure with acceleration of terrifying velocity, he was France's best player and one whose physicality would concuss Jonathan Sexton.
But in chasing O'Driscoll's scalp, Bastareaud was registering the respect of one warrior for another.
Asked afterwards if the Irishman was the best centre he had ever faced, he reflected in perfect English: "Maybe the most clever. You watch him, his peripheral vision; in defence and in attack, good skill. He is very complete.
"I remember when I was younger, I watched him on TV and today I played for his last game. Good luck to him. His aura is very impressive. I think a lot of players will be happy today to see the back of him."
The end had been trumpeted so relentlessly at home that it became only natural to wonder if we might, somehow, be cursing the faith of a nation. To win the Championship in his final game, the world's most capped player would have to be part of some glorious aberration in all we know of France v Ireland.
So, the contest came to compress all the daft contradictions and insecurities that go coursing through the Irish rugby psyche.
Men and women who had set sail with robust optimism were waxy-faced by kick-off. It was as if the conceit of what we hoped for was now, suddenly, beginning to dawn. The first ball Bastareaud got, he tore a great gash straight through the Irish midfield like a man marking out his territory.
France weren't planning a contest here. They were preparing an opera.
History backs them to achieve that trick against Ireland, but, even in those fraught early minutes, one small signal spoke of difference. If the French were replying upon individual trickery to make ground, Ireland were stealing yards with method and sure handling. If the French were off the cuff, Ireland looked to be playing to a script.
And what unspooled would leave behind all manner of indelible snapshots.
After Maxime Machenaud put France 6-0 clear, Paul O'Connell's overhead fetch of the restart was the equivalent of drawing a line in the dirt. It licensed Ireland to push into enemy territory and, soon, two Irish tries bookended the most extraordinary of knock-ons by Louis Picamoles.
The game was thundering forward at irrationally high pace now, the French opera glasses down.
So, it became what all great battles must, wild and mistake-ridden and fed by the energies of a prize fight. When Sexton scored his second try of the night just after the resumption, the 'Fields of Athenry' went splashing around the great bowl. Andrew Trimble had almost put O'Driscoll in and was becoming an unlikely general to the green platoon.
O'Connell and Cian Healy both ran to him after a great chase and leap forced a Picamoles turnover; moments later he scythed through the French cover only for Sexton to be intercepted by an unscrupulous border patrol; then team-mates were again queuing up to laud Trimble after brilliantly contesting yet another Garryowen.
But Dimitri Szarzewski's 64th minute try reawakened all those old ghosts of a mediocre past. Joe Schmidt responded by emptying his bench and some of those departing understood how whole careers were now about to be defined.
For Mike Ross, there was a sense of something even bigger unfolding. "I suppose when you're walking around the Stade de France and you're looking... God, it was packed with us, there was Irish everywhere and the 'Fields of Athenry' was outweighing 'Allez les Bleus' at one stage, you can see what it means to the country as a whole," he smiled later.
"You know I think we've been through some tough times and if we can give them a little boost with this then we'll be delighted with it. A lot of people helped get you where you are today and that goes for everyone and you think of them.
"For a lot of people, what we do will make or break their days for them. There's a lot of guys who, if we get a good result, it will cheer them up for the weekend. Those lads are putting their cash on the line – they're coming to the games, making the flights, journeying and supporting us. If it wasn't for them we wouldn't have jobs, so it's important that we give them something to cheer on and give them good days out."
When it came to the end-game, he was sitting, spinning on a bike by the touchline, hands covering his eyes. Nearby, Healy too was refusing to look, reduced to gleaning pictures from Rory Best's commentary.
Then, with everything on the table, that French attack spinning right and Pascal Pape's spooned pass seeming to angle marginally forward before bouncing up for Damien Chouly to dive over. Devin Toner's stomach lurched as, from where he stood, the pass looked good.
The TMO, Gareth Simmonds, reading the terror of the moment, chose to take his time. And, suddenly, all that talk of O'Driscoll and glorious farewells had fallen away like courtroom gossip when the judge comes in for sentence.
Then the sound of, perhaps, the two most welcome words in the English language..." forward pass"!
Within seconds, it was over and grown men began losing themselves in delirium, the tannoy declaring Ireland Six Nations champions. And, with a touch of almost indecent hospitality, O'Driscoll heard himself declared 'Man of the Match.' He had been many things on Saturday, but perhaps that was not among them.
Then the lights dimmed and, a spotlight following them to their coronation, the Irish players stood and commenced an orgy of bear-hugging. Healy seemed reluctant as first man called to the podium.
"Ah jeez, it was tough," he told us later.
"I was kinda very, very fringes on the last one (Championship win) and there was kinda a lot of envy watching the lads do that and being close with Jamie (Heaslip) and having shared a lot of wins with him.
" He has always (had) that one up on me, so it is nice to have a level playing field now."
The photographers fussed, naturally, over O'Driscoll and he met everybody with that familiar, open smile.
Watching you couldn't but feel that, while he has been our greatest player for many reasons, prime among them is the simple truth that he is – above all – a good man.
Had the team been mindful of delivering on his last day?
"It's in the back of your head I think," said Toner.
"But you want to get your own job right, you don't want to let your team-mates down. Yeah deep down it was, but we didn't really speak about it."
But then they couldn't, could they? Not heading to a place they'd known only for its pain.