Kevin Maggs on Brian O'Driscoll: 'We could see he was special from the start'
Maggs recalls Brian O'Driscoll's instant impact on Ireland scene as a 'wiry kid' in 1999
Kevin Maggs remembers his first sighting as some kind of optical illusion. Of the kids called in to fatten up training-ground numbers before Ireland's '99 tour to Australia, the young centre from UCD looked like he had taken a wrong turn for the college library. Bespectacled and, frankly, scrawny, Maggs could never have imagined he was setting eyes upon the man who would be his centre partner for the looming first Test in Brisbane.
"He just looked like a wiry kid with glasses," recalls Maggs, capped 70 times for Ireland and one of the most explosive defenders seen in northern hemisphere rugby.
"It's funny looking back because I remember he could hardly see without his glasses. But then he togged out and, instantly, you just knew that he was going to be a handful to contend with.
"To be fair, he made an instant impression on everyone. Everyone could kind of see that he was going to be something special. He was unbelievably quick and looked immediately comfortable. But I think the difference right from the outset was that Brian always looked like he had time on the ball.
"And that's generally the sign of a true class player."
There had not, yet, been any dramatic drum-roll for the man who this Saturday will win a world record 140th international cap when Ireland take on Italy. He had played Irish schools, but the star of that team was scrum-half – Ciaran Scally – who, in '99, would also make Warren Gatland's squad for Australia.
Yet, O'Driscoll and Maggs would, over the next three years, become Ireland's established midfield partnership as Gatland surrendered the coaching reins to Eddie O'Sullivan.
Maggs was on the wing in Paris 2000, Rob Henderson playing inside centre that day, for the famous 27-25 Six Nations victory adorned by O'Driscoll's hat-trick. But he was restored to the No 12 shirt in '02 when Drico repeated the trick against Scotland at Lansdowne Road.
The two roomed together at the time and, to this day, keep in touch.
"Brian became a very big part of my experiences with the Ireland team," remembers Maggs. "And, to be honest, it's just been an honour to be a part of his story."
It was O'Sullivan who would identify the leadership qualities that, over time, came to define O'Driscoll as a player. Approaching the '03 Six Nations, Ireland captain – Keith Woods – was sidelined with a shoulder injury that even jeopardised his participation in that year's World Cup. Compelled to appoint an interim captain, O'Sullivan opted for one from left-field.
In his autobiography, 'Never Die Wondering', he explained: "I've always believed that you can't manufacture a captain. My view is that leaders are born, their qualities becoming self-evident the more you deal with them. Even with a group of strangers, you can pretty quickly identify the leaders present. They're not necessarily the people who speak most or loudest, because leadership isn't about shouting. It's about radiating natural authority.
"I could see that quality in O'Driscoll from day one. There was a maturity in him beyond his years. I knew for sure there were other guys in the group who could have made decent captains. And there were certainly raised eyebrows when I appointed him. He was young and relatively inexperienced. But one of the first boxes you tick with a captain is: 'Is he respected by the other players?' Drico was, unquestionably.
"Maybe some people couldn't quite see it. They just looked at this kid in his early 20s with a Dublin 4 accent and a background in Blackrock College. Silver spoon material. What they didn't see was the warrior behind the image. This guy always put his body on the line. He had all the skills, but it was his attitude that marked him down as different. He never flinched, never backed down. Routinely, he played through the pain barrier.
"It already struck me that Brian had a habit of speaking at the right times. It might be in the dressing-room or at training.
"He would take ownership of a moment and invariably say the right thing. That's not something you can teach. It's either in a guy or it isn't."
O'Driscoll's captaincy would hold for the next decade through a period of unprecedented success for Irish rugby, ending only with Declan Kidney's controversial decision to give the role to Jamie Heaslip before last year's Six Nations.
Ireland won four Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam through the period of O'Driscoll's captaincy, statistics that seem barely reconcilable with the country's broader rugby history.
O'Sullivan recalls a difficult day in Paris eight years ago as, perhaps, the one that defined O'Driscoll on his watch. Ireland made a disastrous opening to that game at the Stade de France, trailing by a ruinous 43-3 with half an hour still to play. It looked like becoming the most humiliating defeat in the country's Championship history.
Having sustained what his coach referred to as a "horrendous dead leg" in the game, O'Driscoll had a gilt-edged invitation to remove himself from the carnage. It was an invitation he rejected, Ireland storming back to score an unanswered 28 points in the closing half-hour.
"Anyone else in his position would have left the field and been fully within his rights to do so," wrote O'Sullivan.
"I don't know how he played on, but Drico did. He knew we were in trouble that day and that he was needed as captain. People rightly raved about his performance at Croke Park against England in the 2009 Six Nations, but, for me, that day in Paris was every bit as heroic."
Donncha O'Callaghan recalls the emotion-charged '07 game with England at Croke Park and the sense of facing into an occasion that far transcended Six Nations rugby.
At their team meeting on the day of the game, O'Driscoll captured the imperatives now facing the group perfectly. "If you think this is just another international match, you're 100pc wrong!" he told his troops before that storied 43-13 win.
That would become the essence of O'Driscoll on a battlefield. Not alone was he a world-class rugby player, over time he acquired almost statesmanlike authority in his off-field communication.
He admits himself that the haul of a single Six Nations Championship crown (secured with the '09 Grand Slam) represents a disappointing return. Hence the quiet prayer that, under Joe Schmidt, a second might yet come to O'Driscoll in his farewell campaign.
Maggs believes that his team-mates will strive fiercely over the next two weekends to deliver such a prize for the Irish No 13. "They'll be doing everything in their power for him, I'm sure of that," he says. "It would be just a fantastic way for him to sign off from international rugby. I think everyone sees him as the best centre in the world, basically, an icon of the modern game and Ireland's stand-out player in the professional era."
That is a tone echoed by Jonathan Sexton.
In his book 'Becoming a Lion', the Irish out-half said of O'Driscoll: "Sometimes you forget that we're privileged to play with someone they'll still be talking about a hundred years from now. The greatest Irish player ever."
O'Driscoll admits himself that '09 was the high-point of his Ireland career with the country's first Grand Slam win since '48 and a personal contribution to the narrative that, in the Croke Park game against England especially, flew into the realm of heroism.
The record Six Nations try-scorer, O'Driscoll scored touch-downs in four of Ireland's five games, including utterly critical scores against England and Wales. Yet Ronan O'Gara believes that his defensive work was, often, incomparable.
"That is what has set Brian O'Driscoll apart from everyone else for the last 10 years," O'Gara reflected last year in his book 'Unguarded'.
"His ability to come up with the right decision at the right time can make any defensive system look good. It's only the one time in 10, when he might make the wrong decision, that you see the amount of space and opportunity that he covers. The flip side of that is nine times out of 10 he's stopping the opposition. In this regard, he is the best I've seen, without a shadow of doubt."
For Maggs, the realisation that his old friend is now coming to the end – a full nine years after his own international career finished – seems scarcely believable.
"I think he's going to be hugely missed," reflects the Bristol man. "And the big challenge for Ireland is where do they find the next Brian O'Driscoll."
The equivalent of lottery winners beginning their search for a second magic ticket.