Saturday 24 March 2018

Kevin Myers: O'Driscoll's time as captain might be over but he's still a true leader

A BAD few days for Brian O'Driscoll: replaced as Irish skipper on Thursday, out of the Heineken Cup on Sunday, and easing into his 35th year yesterday. Moreover, the new skipper, Jamie Heaslip, is clearly his own father's son. Colonel Dick Heaslip is one of the finest and most scandalously under-promoted soldiers this Republic has ever produced. It's not appropriate here to describe his achievements: suffice to say that his military career was defined by a heroic sense of duty. So I have no particular fears about the future captaincy of the Irish rugby team under his son. But it is, however, a terrible shame that the concluding period of the career of the greatest Irish player ever should have been so clumsily signalled.

Brian O'Driscoll has been the star of Irish rugby through the lunacies of the Celtic Tiger and the ignominies of financial ruin, and he treated those two imposters just the same. Moreover, he arrived on the scene as rugby was changing forever. I got an insight into the future during the South African World Cup in 1995, when I was staying in the same hotel as the New Zealand team. The white players looked like a cross between a giraffe and a Mormon elder, whereas the Islanders apparently had rhino genes. Each morning in the restaurant, via blank, untroubled faces, they assimilated vast amount of protein as silently as grazing herbivores. Every player rose from the table an inch taller, apart from the Islanders, who'd gained a stone each. Well, I thought: that's that – Irish rugby can't compete with these GM athletes.

However, by more modest European standards, Irish rugby has certainly changed. In the 1980s, on the tear in Dublin the night before a match, I decided to pop into the Swan pub, off Camden Street, where I knew the players always drank. Sure enough, at 1am, the team was there, skulling pints. I felt it right somehow that I should give them the benefit of my profound rugby wisdom. Instead of booting me up the backside, the skipper listened gravely to my suggestions and, having delivered my bracing team-talk, I resumed on my lunatic nocturnal odyssey.

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