Brian O'Driscoll: 'Turning 40 doesn't scare me - it's just a number'
…that's the surprising stance of former British & Irish Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll as the tour - the first he hasn't been involved in since age 18 - kicks off today. But, from turning down Strictly to mowing the neighbours' lawns, it's not the only unexpected thing about the retired sports star, as our reporter discovers
Brian O'Driscoll's face crumples, not into that familiar smile - its ratio of bashful to beaming so endearing - but instead into a look of disdain. I've just suggested that the former Leinster, Ireland and Lions captain might be considered Ireland's greatest 'influencer'.
After all, the description - which nowadays has become a career path in itself - was surely made for someone with 867,000 followers on Twitter and 183,000 on Instagram. Even his own website states that, aside from his expertise in the sporting and business worlds, O'Driscoll has "a keen interest in food, health, travel and lifestyle".
So, does he aspire to be an #influencer? "That's the first time that I've thought about that," O'Driscoll replies, distaste flickering across his features for a milli- second before he finds an on-message answer. "I have always tried to take pride in being an influencer from a rugby perspective because of what I did naturally, but I'm really not trying to be that in anything else. Those are literally just things that I have an interest in as a pastime, but I don't take myself overly seriously with them."
He enjoys social media and the opportunity it gives him to converse with rugby fans. Is it always him on the other end? "I have never let anyone send a tweet on my behalf," he says emphatically. Not even, it seems, his wife, Amy Huberman, who is regularly hailed as one of the funniest Irish people on Twitter/Instagram. Does he feel the pressure to have equally witty output? "That's an impossibility! I only pick battles that I have a hope of winning."
But what of his credentials to be like Joe Wicks - the personal trainer-turned- online fitness guru with three best-selling cookbooks to his name? Will we see BOD become the next Body Coach? O'Driscoll snorts with laughter as he shakes his head. "I started following Joe Wicks in the last while, actually, and I'm impressed. He's in outrageous condition. I did try his whey protein porridge the other morning and it was absolutely rank. Now, that could possibly just be the way I made it…"
He'll need a strong cooking game if he's to take over Instagram, I interject. "I'm not Joe Wicks in the kitchen but I get by," O'Driscoll says. "I like it. I don't really have a speciality. I'm on a bit of a health kick at the moment. I had a change of mindset about a month ago, where I started training harder again and just eating very well."
As we talk, O'Driscoll is artfully balancing a Caesar salad on his lap since the table - one of those minuscule and frustratingly impractical glass-topped structures that you only get in hotel lobbies - is filled with cups and the remainder of my suddenly embarrassing bowl of chips. He still looks trim but two meals a day, at 12pm and 6pm, and once-a-week sessions with a personal trainer to "get smashed" in the gym have resulted in new bulk on his frame.
"Recently I decided I want to be in better condition. I wanted to feel better and be physically fitter and just put a little more size on. I didn't lose any weight - I just redistributed it.
"I do reformer pilates a couple of times a week too, and I love that. No two weeks are ever the same, but that tends to be one of the consistent things - provided I'm in Ireland. My back would be in trouble if I didn't do it."
And what about his head? Does he enjoy the mindfulness aspect of pilates? "I'd love to be able to allow my head to go there, to find that other place. I've tried lots of things but I'm just not that person. I'm not saying I'm a cynic, but I can't seem to let my imagination go in those places. I wish I could."
Perhaps it's because he doesn't need to. Relaxed and softly spoken, O'Driscoll is the calm in the storm that surrounds us at the Hilton hotel on the grounds of London's historic Syon Park estate. The day we meet is the first time that the British and Irish Lions have been brought together since the announcement of the squad, and there are press conferences, group and one-on-one interviews, live TV broadcasts and even suit fittings going on all around us.
In the hotel's lobby, impossibly tall players in shorts and the red tracksuit tops they've just been issued with skirt around large trolleys - borrowed from the garden centre next door - brimming with logoed rugby balls. Everybody is running behind schedule, resulting in O'Driscoll having to chat to me while he eats his lunch, while behind us the hulking figure of Martin Johnson enjoys a few moments alone with his food.
Despite the sizeable crowd and overloaded schedule, the whole scene plays out in relatively hushed tones. Perhaps it's the British stiff upper lip at work, but to me it seems as though everyone is wary of spooking the squad of thoroughbreds.
It must be strange for O'Driscoll, now put out to pasture - it's the first time he hasn't been involved in a Lions squad since he was 18. He insists, however, that he's not emotional about it, sounding bemused by the very notion. If I was looking for a lament about the days of glory past, then I have come to the wrong sports star.
The same goes for any hint of controversy: O'Driscoll is a skilled interviewee who negotiates questions with the kind of deft footwork he showed on the pitch. Awkward questions are sidestepped or batted away with a shrug and a laugh. Answers are lengthy but not revealing. Talking to him is pleasant, and often entertaining, but you can't penetrate the professional veneer.
I ask whether he feels free to express his true opinions now that he's retired from rugby? "I can say a little bit more what I really think but you have to take the repercussions of what comes of that, the positives and negatives." Has he learned that the hard way? "No, not really. Of course there are a few things I look back at and go, 'You idiot,' but I don't think you stop making mistakes. You just have to make sure they're not big mistakes."
Somehow I can't imagine O'Driscoll making a mistake that would threaten the brand he has so carefully, and admirably, cultivated. Today, he's here in his role as global ambassador for Land Rover, which is a principal partner of the Lions tour to New Zealand this month. Outside the hotel, a row of imposing, glossy vehicles - emblazoned with the Lions' crest on bonnets and doors - sit below Syon Park's emblem: a well-chosen golden lion.
To the casual Irish rugby supporter, the Six Nations and World Cup have always been the competitions that drew the attention, but today's gathering of media and sponsors goes to show how big, and how commercial, the Lions has become. "It's become a year-long event. You start talking about Lions potentials in September when the season kicks off. If you picked your team back then, you'd be 10 or 15 players out through form, injury and multiple other things. But they are going down to the most difficult place in the world to tour. And the chance of winning a series? If that doesn't whet the appetite, then I don't know what does."
The tour begins at 8.35am this morning, with the pack lining out against the NZ Provincial Barbarians. Their first test against the mighty All Blacks will take place in Auckland's Eden Park on June 24. When asked whether Ireland's defeat of the All Blacks in Chicago in November has levelled the playing field at all, O'Driscoll sees "a tiny little bit of hope" for the Lions against the overwhelming favourites.
"The Lions will need a lot of luck too, with injuries, but if you look at that squad it's the strongest squad we've ever seen, and the calibre of player and the depth of talent. If it can all be pulled together… I'm growing in confidence."
It's the Lions' first visit to New Zealand since 2005, when O'Driscoll's captaincy - he was the first Irish man to hold that honour in the pro era - was cruelly ended just 41 seconds in the first test by a now infamous spear tackle from Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu. Public outrage at the tackle - and the fact that the All Black players were not sanctioned because of it - has far outlasted the effects of the injury for O'Driscoll.
In the intervening years, he has made it very clear that he is sick of being questioned about his feelings on the incident. I ask instead whether he's frustrated that this tour has caused the old spectre to be raised again?
"No," he says simply, no hint of irritation or weariness in his voice. He says he's been pushed on the subject several times recently and accepts that he will likely be throughout the tournament. "It has never gone away. It's just going to be heightened because it was 12 years ago that the shoulder dislocation happened. I'm a realist." We move on, as there is simply no more to say.
Recently, O'Driscoll called on the 2017 Lions to put national differences aside and embrace the strength of unity. Do those friendships endure after the tournament ends? "The day that the plane lands when you come back home, it's all forgotten," he reveals. "I had a great time in '09 in particular - when we lost the series 2-1 - but I made some really good friends. But once the tour is over, you are not teammates any more."
Now retired, he feels that same detachment about rugby, insisting he doesn't miss playing at all. It's a statement I can scarcely believe since I still feel a pull toward the junior camogie I quit 15 years ago - and I was only a sub.
"I think it's because I had a great run at it, and because of my body. I know I dragged every last sinew out and I was on the wane towards the end. I'm able to compartmentalise it and think, 'I can't do it anymore, so why should I want to?' It doesn't mean that on days like this, and seeing the excitement that it generates, you don't have a bit of envy."
He baulks at my suggestion that it's living the dream to be retired in your 30s. "I don't think that's at all living the dream. Your energy that you have while you are still young and ambitious, you just point it in another direction. I want to be able to add value in the things that I'm doing."
He has a hectic routine of speaking and sponsorship engagements, as well as rugby punditry - not to mention two small children. I wonder whether life was easier in the days where he had training to disappear into for periods of the week. "Sometimes when I'm explaining what I'm doing, it would be easier to have rugby as a career. When I say I'm working on five or six different things, people kind of go, 'He's still finding his way,' and almost feel sorry for you. There's a great variety to what I do and I love not having any two weeks the same. I love owning my own diary and being able to go to events, and go on holidays. Not that that's always the case when you have an actress as a wife!"
O'Driscoll got his own taste of the movie world recently, as rugby choreographer for Irish coming-of-age story Handsome Devil, in which Amy plays a support role. "They needed someone to give a little bit of shape and legitimacy to the plays they were going to be filming. So I went along for an hour-and-a-half one day and rehearsed a load of plays. There was quite a good standard - they knew what I was talking about. And they did a good job.
"There's always a danger with sports films that the re-enactment of it looks pretty brutal. I haven't seen Invictus, but I have seen some of the rugby scenes, and I wouldn't be in a rush to go and watch any more."
Though clearly amused and delighted that he got a credit at the end of Handsome Devil, O'Driscoll cringes when I propose that it could be his first step into an acting career. "Oh God, no! I can categorically say that I am going to stay in the field of what I know. I'll leave that to the more talented individuals in my family."
But what about other types of choreography - would he be tempted to step onto the Strictly dancefloor? "I wouldn't. I did get asked a few years ago. And you know what, if you were going to do one, that would be the one because you'd learn a new skill and get incredibly fit, and you'd probably have a good time. But, the reality TV thing…"
I suggest that the off-screen drama involved in many modern reality shows would be an unenticing prospect. "Exactly. If it was solely about the dancing, fine. But…" He trails off before doing a swift change of tack. "Anyway, I wouldn't have time to do it even if I had the ambition to."
Taking time off can be a challenge for the busy couple, who are parents to Sadie, four, and Billy, two. "Amy has to react late, not knowing what's coming up with auditions and stuff, so we have to book holidays a week or two in advance. We try our best not to be away from home together very often. Sometimes schedules conflict so you have to have a really good back-up, and we're lucky that we have that in our families and in our childminder."
Fatherhood, he says, has changed him. "You reprioritise what you think is truly important in life. And I think it mellows you - not that I wasn't mellow. I love spending time with my kids and I certainly don't see them as a chore. I have an office at home and I like them having access to the office and running in. I'll roll my eyes but secretly I love it. I think I've got a really good balance on that side of things."
Should the IRFU be keeping their eyes trained on the next generation of O'Driscolls, then? "My little fella loves footballs of all shapes and sizes. He does like his rugby ball a lot. I think it's probably because he sees rugby on TV a lot because of the games that I have to watch.
"And then my little girl is just her own person. She's only interested in a ball sport if it looks as though myself and Billy are having fun with it."
These days, his own idea of fun is a good holiday. "You live your life vicariously through your kids, so it's wherever they have a good time. We went away somewhere recently and they had a ball, and it was very different - hardly any booze, early enough nights, box sets. Seeing them laughing in the pool and the fun that they had, that's what your life becomes. And there's a massive contentment with that too."
'Contentment' seems a fitting word for O'Driscoll. Undoubtedly, there's drive and ambition and steel there too, but he's not someone who gets entangled in self- analysis. So is it frustrating when interviewers push him to be introspective? "I know all this stuff about myself," he answers plainly. "So it's good that there's some form of interest still in it, but I'd still rather be the one asking the questions because I'm not winning from it. I'd rather be learning." Well, what, then, can we learn about Brian O'Driscoll? Is there anything that would surprise people about him? He thinks for a few moments. "I quite like the 20-25 minutes of cutting the grass - maybe even longer if I cut the neighbours' too." I collapse into giggles.
"Usually the kids will come out and push their lawnmower out with me. We take turns doing the front with our neighbours, so I'm probably due a rotation. But even if someone's done my front, I'll need to do the back."
He's warming to the subject now, a broad smile on his face. I can't tell whether he's just laying it on thick or I'm being completely wound up. "Realistically, you need to do it every 10 days during the summer. You want to make sure you catch it on a good day. There's nothing worse than having it too long. I like to be able to cut it just when it needs it."
It's a classic Brian O'Driscoll answer - friendly, funny and inoffensive. Relatable without revealing, well, anything at all. Small wonder he's Ireland's greatest influencer.
Brian O'Driscoll is a Land Rover Global Ambassador. He will be supporting Land Rover in its role as Principal Partner as well as Official Vehicle Partner of the British & Irish Lions Tour to New Zealand 2017. See landrover.ie
Brian O'Driscoll on…
Being a morning person:
"I couldn't think of anything worse than hitting the 'snooze' button. I don't think my alarm had the chance to do the second ring this morning."
"I got myself a fast-track card for Dublin Airport. It's the best €200 that I have spent since I retired. I hate waiting in security - I can't handle that. I'm a bit anal on time."
"I was never very good at anything individually: I've always been a team player. Like, my golf is pretty crap. It's only okay when I realise it's just me and the ball. I thrived a lot more in needing the support base of a team. In all the things that I do now, I try to look for teamwork, and good people."
"The last really great film that I saw was La La Land. I thought it was absolutely epic. I really wouldn't be a fan of musicals but I didn't even notice that this was a musical. Amy was saying to me that the opening sequence was shot in one take. That is just so incredible. When you're married to an actress, you start to understand cinematography and stuff. Before, a film was good or bad; now you pull it apart a bit more."
"Off the Ball [the Newstalk show on which he has a regular slot] is probably the aspect that I enjoy most about my post-rugby career. It's just going in and having a conversation, and having a laugh."
The prospect of turning 40:
"It doesn't scare me. I don't feel like I am 38 and I don't feel like I am married to a 38-year-old woman. It is a number. And it will be fun to celebrate."