Paul O'Connell: Brian O'Driscoll transformed the face of rugby in Ireland
With that familiar mulish obstinacy, Brian O’Driscoll is primed to savour his latest helping of history at Twickenham.
Whether it was springing, leopard-like, out of Scott Williams’ lusty challenge on home turf – a tackle that left the Wales centre requiring three months’ convalescence – or overcoming a virus that forced him to miss part of training this week, the Leinster leviathan has fought his way to a record-equalling 139th Test appearance, one that could yet be adorned with his fifth Triple Crown for Ireland.
From eclipsing Ronan O’Gara’s Tests record for his country, to moving alongside George Gregan as the most capped international of all time, O’Driscoll is passing landmarks at a dizzying rate in his final Six Nations.
Joe Schmidt, the Ireland head coach, was not about to deprive him of this particular distinction, stressing that the 35-year-old had “trained well” at their Carton House base yesterday as he named an unchanged team from the 26-3 triumph against Wales. The path towards a profoundly emotional farewell to his Dublin disciples against Italy on March 8, when he could seize the record from Gregan outright, remains intact.
For the past month Ireland has accorded O’Driscoll such a degree of veneration that it is tempting to wonder if his green ‘13’ jersey might, in the manner of Michael Jordan’s ‘23’ at the Chicago Bulls, be retired once all the valedictions are over. The rugby establishment here is already struggling to compute the repercussions of his exit. Even Paul Kimmage, who last month stepped down from writing his memoir over an exclusivity dispute, heralded him as a “sporting god – I can’t express greater admiration for what he has given us”.
The measure of the man, though, is best gauged by his fellow hardy perennials over a decade and a half of Ireland duty. Paul O’Connell, another imperishable oak at O’Driscoll’s side for all but three of those years, argued that his contribution had nothing less than transformed the face of Irish rugby.
“Brian has spread confidence across the whole set-up,” the captain said. “I believe that any team taking the field with Brian involved always feel they have a chance of winning. You see that confidence now spread across the provinces – guys like Jonny Sexton, who have watched him and learned under him.”
Sexton is not the only one to regard all that O’Driscoll has done, from his 46 tries to his readiness to clear out a ruck, as a template. O’Connell explained: “You realise that this is how you need to play the game, to be the complete player. You have to defend as well as you attack, to be an elite member of the team off the pitch as well as on it. Many of those who come through now are in the mould of Brian, in terms of the way he has carried himself. They have modelled themselves on him.
“That has led to an Irish team with a lot of leadership in it, and a lot of capability looking further ahead, even though we might not always have had the success we would like.
When Brian finishes, that will still be present in the Irish squad.
“What he does on the pitch is incredible. Very often your best attacker isn’t necessarily your best defender, but Brian is. He’s an incredible attacking player but equally incredible at defending, and poaching the ball. He is brilliant at the ruck, has a great work ethic and is very unselfish. Behind it all he is also an extremely understated, quiet guy.” Might there be another flamboyant try or two left in him? “We have another three games left,” O’Connell replied. “We wouldn’t write him off yet.”
O’Driscoll will be bedecked in green for the 131st time, in addition to his eight caps for the British & Irish Lions on four separate tours – astonishing for one who has confronted more than his reasonable share of setbacks, not least a career-threatening shoulder injury.
Wing Andrew Trimble, another relative Ireland veteran at 29 and one who has observed many of O’Driscoll’s 62 Six Nations matches – one shy of another O’Gara record he is soon to surpass – is still taken aback by how rapidly he recovered from the juddering collision with Williams. “Everybody gasped the other day when he took that back, as if it was a case of ‘whatever you do, make sure Brian is on the pitch’,” he said. “Even at this stage of his career he is still so important for us. He has such an influence, and the way he got up from that challenge was an illustration of how tough he is, too.”
Schmidt, likewise, had little doubt that O’Driscoll could rally from his bout of sickness to galvanise Ireland’s Triple Crown quest at a febrile Twickenham. “Brian trained fully with us, and could have trained on Tuesday had he not been feeling the after-effects of an illness. With his experience and know-how he is in a good position to know what he needs, and he has brought that to bear. He is fully ready to go.”
Gregan’s record, from which O’Driscoll should haul himself two clear if he stays fit until his very last curtain-call in Paris on March 15, has been among the finest in the book since 2007. Even the former Australia scrum-half has felt inspired to acclaim O’Driscoll’s emulation of his feat.
“Brian lives and breathes the game every time he plays,” Gregan said. “It embodies the kind of person he is – competitive and extremely resilient. He has come back from so many injuries, and whenever he competes he does so at a very high standard. There is a certain level you expect from Brian, which he is never far off. That’s what the great players do.”
The experts name the greatest players they ever saw
Sir Ian McGeechan
Gareth Edwards: I was fortunate enough to have played with Gareth on the 1974 Lions tour to South Africa. He had an incredible pass which put his fly-half way beyond any back row. He could break from set-piece or phase play with natural speed and upper-body strength and once past a defender there was no stopping him.
Philippe Sella: I played against some great centres in my time, but the best of the lot was Sella. He had pace, poise and balance – the complete player. Fittingly, he reminds me a lot of Brian O’Driscoll because he had a similar build and skill set.
George Gregan: He was the first real professional rugby player, even when the game was an amateur sort. He rewrote the role of the scrum-half. I always said that George never left the field with a pair of dirty shorts. Nobody ever caught him.
Kel Tremain: The All Black flanker was a lantern-jawed, chiselled Kiwi, hard as nails, unsmiling, forbidding, a man forever in pursuit of the ball. God help you if you got in his way.
Brian O’Driscoll: The ultimate mix of talent and character. His longevity at the very top end of the game is staggering. He is an absolute warrior – defensively brilliant but with deft skills too.