Eoin Reddan: 'Next week is chance for players to pay our respects'
Reddan determined to ensure legend ends career with nothing but 'good memories'
Published 10/03/2014 | 02:30
Maybe the most telling, the most apposite thing was seeing his game back on its accustomed track. Because the very last event Brian O'Driscoll would want the close of his career to become is some kind of delusional pageant running longer than a novel Marcel Proust might have found the stamina to write. He has the emotional intelligence to understand the difference between respect and sentiment.
And on Saturday, as the stadium glittered and rang with his name, there was no question of any blurring of his priorities. That was important because it reaffirmed all the reasons for the unprecedented outpouring of gratitude that went gusting around Lansdowne Road once his day's work was done.
In a TV interview later that night, Donncha O'Callaghan joked about how he now finds himself teased by Munster's younger players for his prehistoric status. "They call me Elvis," grinned Donncha, two months younger than O'Driscoll.
The creation of three Six Nations tries in a single afternoon is not something you could rationally ask of a 35-year-old. But we weren't dealing with the rational on Saturday.
You remind yourself that O'Driscoll's journey with Ireland began at a time when Boris Yeltsin was still sacking entire Russian cabinets. That Payne Stewart wasn't just alive, but reigning US Open golf champion.
At some point, O'Driscoll came to represent a kind of comforting permanency in the national psyche. Not simply because he was a unique rugby talent. But because he married that talent to easy courtesy. Because he could be uniformly pleasant towards the outside world without apparent fear that that might come at the cost of contacting some unpleasant disease.
It is difficult to know if what unspooled by the Dodder last Saturday could have happened anywhere else in the world.
O'Driscoll himself alluded afterwards to the surreal dimension of, mid-Championship, witnessing a Six Nations game being distilled down into something resembling a private function. He mentioned being "humbled" by it all and, on another level, even mildly "embarrassed".
Yet, you could tell a lot by the comportment of those around him. Professional sports people don't naturally warm to the individualisation of a team's story, but the enduring respect his contemporaries feel for O'Driscoll was palpable from the moment the Italian huddle momentarily broke to applaud his arrival on the field.
All day too, there would be surreptitious backslaps from colleagues, their minds tuned in some small, linear way to the history unfolding.
O'Driscoll has been so good in an Ireland shirt for so long, his story has become an assembly of cliches. Hence, as we wrestle endlessly in the press benches to avoid that sanctuary, it has been left to the man himself to shape the most compelling pictures.
And that was the enduring beauty of Saturday. Yet again, he created those pictures. Just when the day might easily have fallen into the realm of uncomfortable self-absorption, O'Driscoll met his audience with a performance of virtuosity. And all those murmurs about Joe Schmidt becoming compromised by the nation's lovesick embrace of one man dissipated like a discredited rumour.
If O'Driscoll had not quite summoned the best of himself in the three games prior to facing Italy, this was redemptive. That old David Blaine hand-speed was written all over his Leinster wrap-around with Jonathan Sexton for the opening try and the perfect timing of offload was fundamental to releasing Andrew Trimble for Ireland's second.
In between, Schmidt's men vainly piled up the phases against opponents whose scramble defence was surprisingly water-tight. By the 20th minute, Ireland had enjoyed 72pc possession, managed two line-out turnovers and a scrum against the head. Yet Leonardo Sarto's try was about to bring Italy level. Ireland needed to thread some strands of subtlety into their frenzy.
And O'Driscoll answered that call.
His offload for Sexton's second and Ireland's fourth try was world class, pitching the audience to a perfect setting for his ceremonial departure on the hour.
And, as he prepared to replace the great man, Fergus McFadden turned to Alain Rolland on the West Stand touchline with mischief in his eyes. "Wait til you hear the cheer I'm going to get now," chuckled McFadden.
"I've never heard noise like it!" Chris Henry gushed. It was the sound of the nation repaying a grand debt.
Asked to articulate what it is that makes O'Driscoll different, McFadden – describing his Leinster and Ireland colleague as "the cornerstone of Irish rugby for the last 15 years" – replied "I think he's got a massive heart. You know it's something from training, doing really tough training sessions and being in tough games with him, it's something probably I've taken ahead of a lot of the flair and the flash that he does produce that people write about."
There had, pointedly, been no concession to the O'Driscoll angle in Schmidt's match preparation. At least not until Saturday's final team-meeting before they left the Shelbourne Hotel. Only then, was the shadow of history allowed filter through.
"We said it is Brian's last game at Lansdowne Road, but it's also a first for Brian," recalled Schmidt later. "He's the first man who's got 140 Test caps, so let's make sure we're first in everything we do today."
That prayer was soundly answered and so – almost a decade and a half after the game that first got the rugby world giddy about Brian O'Driscoll – he returns to Stade de France in the north Parisien suburb of St Denis next weekend, hoping to write the fairytale ending.
Eoin Reddan has known him long enough to understand that this cannot be mistaken now for pre-ordained romance.
"Brian's story for the squad will start at the final whistle next week if we do it," reflected Reddan. "That's got to be the biggest way to pay respect to his career, to focus on delivering that bit of silverware.
"Today is for the fans and for everyone to appreciate him, but – for us – there is no point in clapping him off if we don't deliver next week. That's irrelevant.
"I'm pretty sure if we didn't deliver next week Brian would probably have two very clear memories of the last two weeks of his Irish career, one would be the great day today and the other would be a very bad day next week. And we don't want that to happen.
"Next week is the chance for us, as players, to pay our respects. And we won't be standing back applauding people."
They will follow his flame then. But then the nation has been doing so for a small lifetime.
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