Oliver Brown: Brian O'Driscoll's curtain call won't now have the resonance it deserves
Published 22/02/2014 | 19:39
There shall never be any other like Brian O'Driscoll, of that we can be certain. No outside centre accomplishes the longevity of 139 Test caps, emulating the total of former Australia scrum-half George Gregan, without lashings of insuperable resolve.
But his forlorn retreat here into the Twickenham night, after his final-minute replacement by Paddy Jackson, brought the unhappy task of separating the man from the aura.
His farewell Six Nations is one to demonstrate that where the heart might ever be willing, the legs and the lungs are, at the age of 35 and worn down by a decade-and-a-half of international punishment, sadly unobliging.
O'Driscoll did not come close to to producing the timing that might have yielded his 47th try or his 27th in this tournament alone, but he has chosen the moment of his retirement from this stage with perfect precision, even if his last Six Nations will not now be decorated with his fifth Triple Crown.
That endangered species, the O'Driscoll detractors, believe that Ireland's beloved No 13 reached his apogee with the three tries in Paris in 2000 and that everything since has constituted the longest farewell tour since Frank Sinatra.
He has not produced a memorable individual turn for club or country, they claim, since Leinster's Heineken Cup triumph two years ago. But this would be to neglect his capacity, even in this advanced autumn of his career, to serve up the odd masterpiece of unselfish, understated brilliance. Unfortunately, this was not it.
O'Driscoll showed early promise on the occasion of his 130th appearance in the green jersey, making 23 metres, three tackles and three gain-line breaks inside the first 20 minutes. One sudden surge where he left Billy Twelvetrees in his contrails was electrifying, suggesting that there might be some responsiveness left in those legs yet.
He was also quite the midfield general, engaging in a diverting little shoving match with England's Mike Brown and taking one chip-kick on the volley with such aplomb that one could tell why he was once a highly-regarded soccer player at Blackrock College.
At one point, with a typically solid take under the high ball, he indulged himself in a little gratuitous bicep-flexing. Here was a man determined to relish his 12th and final confrontation with England as part of an Ireland team that, courtesy of Joe Schmidt's scrupulously attentive coaching, must be bracketed with the finest he has known.
The fact that O'Driscoll boasted 33 more caps than the entire English back line combined at least gave him a weakness to exploit. Luther Burrell's drop to end England's attack on the cusp of half-time accentuated the chasm in Test-level savoir faire.
Then again, Ireland's imperishable centres partnership of O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy eclipsed England's equivalent of Burrell and Twelvetrees by a ratio of 216 international caps to 12.
But his great virtue, as England forwards coach Graham Rowntree has been at such pains to stress from their time together with the Lions, is a readiness to refine his game even with just Six Nations contests remaining in his extravagantly garlanded career.
It would remiss not to record how, in the attritional heat of the second half, O'Driscoll began to fade gradually into anonymity. His willingness to weigh into the defensive effort is unstinting, but where he made three tackles - including one teeth-chattering hit on Danny Care - and missed three, D'Arcy was successful in all 12 of those he attempted.
One significant error in attack also indicated that his reflex judgments are not quite what they were. Profiting from a two-man overlap as Ireland sought desperately to erase their three-point deficit in the closing stages he opted, bizarrely, for a reverse pass to Jonathan Sexton that strangled the momentum.
In a battle so tense, the platform might in the distant past have been O'Driscoll's to seize with a sumptuous, sashaying try. Instead, the denouement to his day in the winter sun was distinctly anticlimactic, as he hobbled from the pitch to make way for Jackson.
His achievement of moving alongside Gregan as the most-capped player in Test history was a seminal one for the sport, but it was not an afternoon to be entered in his personal scrapbook on any other grounds.
Gregan had paid him a lavish compliment upon this landmark, noting that O'Driscoll has never failed to compete to the highest of standards, but this had been a ragged affair by his own exacting measurements.
He is still poised to walk away from this Six Nations with a quite astonishing 141st cap in Paris next month but, the opportunity of the Grand Slam wrested away, his curtain-call will not carry quite the resonance it deserved.