Unflinching generosity a mark of O'Driscoll's brilliance
As Clermont Auvergne pounded the line in the dying minutes of the European Cup semi-final, the worry one felt as Leinster buckled quickly escalated into alarm.
But for me at least, the emotion was centred mainly on the man who wears their number 13 jersey. The alarm one felt as Clermont looked certain to score four weeks ago was that Brian O'Driscoll might be deprived of the chance to win another medal. Leinster survived and last weekend he went on to win his third European title.
There is a certain kind of sportsman for whom the public feels unconditional respect and affection. There aren't many of them. With even the best there is usually a quibble: a technical flaw, a character weakness, a personality issue.
O'Driscoll however has reached a state of grace with the Irish people. It is unanimous. He is admired without reservation. This kind of stature is rare in public life.
It is almost 13 years since he made his senior Ireland debut, against Australia in June 1999. In March 2000 he broke beyond the bounds of rugby union with his now-legendary hat-trick of tries in Paris. He became a national star that day and an international figure in his sport.
He was 21. A glittering future lay ahead of him that stretched all the way to the horizon. But there were many ways in which it could've gone wrong. He would have to do his growing up in public, in Dublin's goldfish bowl, and it could have undermined him. One bad injury could diminish permanently his unfettered talent. Or he could recede into a comfort zone, as gifted players sometimes do once they've established their credentials.
From the outside looking in, these seemed to be plausible scenarios. As it turned out, the only plausible source of jeopardy was injury. The rest wouldn't happen. But we weren't to know that at the time because we didn't know the young man in the billowing green jersey. Those tries against France were the work of a pure finisher: the instinct for a gap, the electric acceleration and lethal swerves to evade defenders. He had the makings of a fine career with those gifts alone. Finishers of that calibre, in any sport, are a luxury that teams cannot do without. They can surf their way to hundreds of games, and caps, riding that wave all the way. They are frequently solo operators within a team framework.
We weren't to know that O'Driscoll viewed this world class ability as just one service he had to offer amongst many. He has scored 45 tries for Ireland, the all-time record by a big margin. The next highest is Denis Hickie on 29. It could on its own be a career-defining statistic. Some of those tries, during the Grand Slam campaign of 2009 for example, were vital. His prolific strike rate could hardly be described therefore as incidental. And yet it has almost become dwarfed by his main body of work, to the extent that it can be seen merely as the cherry on top.
In June 2001, he scored another of his specials, slashing through the Australian cover for the Lions in Brisbane. And yet in that same Test match he also made 14 tackles. "My expectations are higher than a lot of other people's," he said afterwards, with a hint of youthful hubris. In hindsight it was a plain statement of intent from someone who knew how good he already was, and who planned to become great.
He fulfilled that plan a long time ago. And he fulfilled it not through his brilliance as a provider and finisher, but through his appetite for hard labour. He has taken unmerciful punishment in the tackle, both giving and receiving; likewise in the battle for the ball on the floor. He has been engulfed in pile-ups, buried in rucks; concussed, trampled, assaulted. And he has gotten up and played on. His resilience, physical and psychological, is amazing. The longevity of his career is another improbable achievement, given the battering he has taken.
The tries are easy to tot up; the personal bravery, work ethic and leadership have been unquantifiable. But it's these qualities, displayed for so long, that have endeared him unconditionally to the public. O'Driscoll is the embodiment of integrity in action.
He has become, in passing, an outlier, a path-finder. He has spoken in the past of Roy Keane's influence on him. Like Keane, he has set the standard for others to follow. It is evident in the younger wave of players who realise that they must do what he has done, in defence, at the breakdown, everywhere on the field.
The honours came late in his career. He was 30 before he won the Grand Slam and his first European Cup. He needed those achievements for his own peace of mind. But the public needed them also, to show their gratitude to him, and gladness on his behalf.
After last Saturday's victory over Ulster, he talked about wanting to win more medals before the curtain comes down. All serious sportsmen are selfish like that. But to win titles they have to give of themselves. Some give more than others. O'Driscoll has given more than most. He has been called heroic but it is a quality more human than heroism. It is generosity. He has been one of the most generous performers ever to wear a jersey.
Sunday Indo Sport