George Hook: O'Driscoll can walk on water
Great man one step away from dictating perfect ending to career in green shirt
Published 10/03/2014 | 02:30
When Italy selected their team last week, they guaranteed an Irish victory and pole position going into the final week's fixtures.
They are also guaranteed that, barring an incredible series of results, Ireland would only need to beat France in Paris to be crowned champions, based on points difference.
What was not guaranteed, and in fact seemed a distinct possibility based on the first three games of the tournament, was a magical farewell from the Aviva by Brian O'Driscoll. Incredibly, the reality outdid the fiction of 'Roy of the Rovers'.
Frailties in his game had been obvious in the early rounds of this championship. He also had been fighting injury in the build up to Saturday and there was a real possibility that he might leave the game early without being a dominant figure.
In his post-match interview, O'Driscoll suggested that he was surprised to be awarded the man-of-the-match award having just completed 60 minutes of the game. It was a testament to his performance that there was simply no other contender as he walked off the field to a standing ovation.
He rolled back the years by creating tries with some magical handling and passing; for the first time this year his trademark flanker-like bravery at the breakdown was in evidence; and he dominated colleagues and opponents alike with the magnificence of his talents. It was a completely unexpected tour de force.
Without the centre's contribution, Italy might have presented a much stickier challenge. The first half was a real contest, despite Ireland having the lion's share of possession and territory.
When Leonardo Sarto scored a try to put the sides level, it looked as if the biggest rugby party was going to end if not in tears, then perhaps in anti-climax.
The 'great man' – having made the first try for Johnny Sexton with a superb running line – calmed Irish nerves on the stroke of half-time by creating a try for Andrew Trimble with a magician's sleight of hand.
With two thirds of his afternoon's work completed, he had demonstrated that even in the final days of his career he was irreplaceable. Tom Kiernan, Willie John McBride and Mike Gibson did not show that in their last appearance in green.
Even at the remove of 48 hours, O'Driscoll's performance was a thing of beauty and awe.
The second half meandered to its inevitable conclusion and as Ireland racked up the points, one sensed the crowd willing the final whistle so that the real celebrations could begin. For the first time in his career, the mask of self-control slipped and O'Driscoll gave in to his emotions.
It was a day like no other in Irish rugby.
In the midst of the euphoria, O'Driscoll was quick to point out that there was still a championship to be won.
At least part of the job has been done as it is unlikely, though mathematically possible, that another team could end Saturday with a superior points difference. Thus, Ireland need only to beat France to be crowned champions of Europe.
Everything – except history – points to an Irish win. France are appallingly coached and selected; the players seem to have no emotional investment in the team; and at centre, half-back, hooker, back-row, there are better options available, but ignored by Philippe Saint-Andre.
Yet one win in 42 years is hardly a recipe for confidence and France, like their club sides, are a completely different proposition at home.
It beggars belief that Saint-Andre can be so pig-headed and self-centred as not to see the talent that is in profusion in the Top 14 competition.
If Gael Fickou, Francois Trinh-Duc and Morgan Parra came in to the back line and Louis Picamoles was added to the back-row, Ireland would have a real cause for concern.
And surely the French coach can find a better hooker than the hapless Brice Mach, who succeeded in delivering eight misthrows at the line-out out of 12 attempts.
Conversely, Joe Schmidt has no selection issues other than the return of Peter O'Mahony on the flank, where Iain Henderson looked uncomfortable. The young Ulster player's future probably lies in the second-row.
In losing to England, Ireland showed some important qualities, which may well bring victory.
Most importantly, against a physically aggressive home pack, the men in green traded blow for blow. One can imagine no less this Saturday.
If, as is distinctly possible, O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy will be faced by the same midfield combination that opposed Scotland, then we may see the flowering of the Irish partnership that in recent times has stuttered.
Man for man, every Irish player is superior to his opposite number, with the possible exception of the wings.
That has not been the case in my lifetime and bodes well for the weekend, providing Saint-Andre plays ball and continues down the path to his team's destruction and his exit.
There is an inevitability about the O'Driscoll story. He seemingly really can walk on water and dictate that his career finishes the way he desires.
If Ireland win in Paris, his departure will not only rival, but also exceed, any other moment in his illustrious career. I, for one, will not be betting on France.