HE'S supped at the top table of his sport, sipped the champagne of victory and received gongs and glory from his peers.
But the one last, great, driving ambition of Brian O’Driscoll’s fabulous, fantastic rugby career gets under way in New Zealand on Sunday and Ireland’s captain can’t wait to get started.
At 32, with 113 Tests behind him, O’Driscoll knows this will be his last Rugby World Cup. His greatest remaining desire would be to propel Ireland to their best ever performance in a World Cup campaign.
You can joke about optimism and pessimism. As they say, the optimist sees the doughnut, the pessimist the hole.
But Ireland’s supreme rugby man, a player good enough to share billing in a group with the likes of all-time greats Jack Kyle, Tony O’Reilly, Mike Gibson, Ray McLoughlin, Fergus Slattery and David Hewitt knows that for all the glories of Grand Slams, Triple Crowns and such like, he has never participated in an outstanding Irish World Cup campaign.
O’Driscoll has played in Ireland’s last three World Cups, winning 13 caps and scoring six tries. But heartache has dogged his every step. In 1999, they were losers in Lens to the wily Argentines. In 2003 in Australia, there was the heartbreak of defeat by a single point, 17-16, to Australia in the crucial pool game in Melbourne.
That defeat handed Ireland an early exit ticket, confirmed by the 43-21 defeat in the quarter-finals against France. And four years ago in France, they resembled a damp firework, spluttering to get going at all. Their limp exit at the end of the pool stage was an experience O’Driscoll has never forgotten.
In all, four times Ireland have reached the quarter-finals and each time they have crashed.
O’Driscoll’s personal heartache has carried on in New Zealand, too, his 2005 Lions captaincy being wrecked by that lethal spear tackle by Tana Umaga and Keven
Mealamu. Now O’Driscoll returns, not at the peak of his powers because that searing, initial pace off the mark that once brought him a hat-trick of tries against the French is no longer there.
But if we are denied now the chance to see again that exciting young foot soldier, that shouldn’t be a cause for regret. In his place, has come a General, and a mighty fine one at that.
O’Driscoll is the eyes and ears of the Irish back-line and the heart of the whole Irish team. Remove him and you tear away the Irish soul.
Even opposition coaches doff their caps in acknowledgement of his continuing qualities. “Such a key player for his team,” says Italy coach Nick Mallett. “He lifts all those around him not just by his personal example but his verbal encouragement. Ireland are just not the same team without him.”
No-one knows that better than coach, Declan Kidney. He would probably like to have wrapped his captain in cotton wool and kept him in the grandstand at New Plymouth during this Sunday’s World Cup opener against the Eddie O’Sullivan-coached USA.
But Ireland’s disastrous pre-World Cup warm-up programme has surely knocked that idea on the head. Four defeats in their last four internationals has left Ireland desperate for a morale-boosting win against the Americans this weekend before they take on Australia next Sunday in Auckland.
O’Driscoll is needed to get the ship back on course before they meet the in-form Wallabies.
With Brian O’Driscoll involved, Ireland won’t make the mistake of looking past their first group of opponents to think about the
waiting Wallabies. He knows that sort of approach has brought down his country on too many previous occasions. So the Americans won’t be under-estimated. Not that they should trouble greatly an Irish side with full concentration and momentum. But they’ll be fit and feisty, and will push Kidney’s men for at least the first 40 or 50 minutes.
After that, the gap in class should begin to show. But O’Driscoll well knows that, whoever the opposition, you have to earn the right to expand your game in modern day rugby.
Doing the hard yards up front first is essential, a point he will remind his men about before Sunday’s starter.