Friday 24 November 2017

'Every rival centre will be happy if he quits'

The man on the tannoy sounded like he'd seen Clint Eastwood come over the horizon on horseback. A buoyant France had just drawn level and the five minutes that remained stretched out before us like a small eternity.

Then, suddenly, dizzy news from the look-out post ... "Brian O'Driscoll has returned to the field of play!" The triumphal delivery suggested we might interpret this as the equivalent of rescue.

Sure enough, a momentous roar erupted and, as great, wind-blown sheets of rain anointed the gathering, you had to think that life is going to be pretty strange when the great man decides he's had enough with all this selflessness and pain.

He'd just gone off to warm, emotional applause after making two successive tackles on a great wardrobe with eyes called Vincent Debaty.

O'Driscoll had been limping off his right foot for some time before that and matters were now reaching crisis point, with Luke Marshall also sidelined.

Then, suddenly, the comforting whistle of friendly fire. Think Eastwood in 'High Plains Drifter'. He still wasn't walking straight and that bandage around his forehead gave the faint air of a wounded soldier returning to the front in search of lost colleagues. Even the French were smitten.

Smiled

"When he go off, I say 'Yes'," Mathieu Bastareaud smiled later. "When he come back, I say 'Non!'"

Bastareaud is a one-man essay on the bulking up of rugby backs. He stands six foot tall and weighs almost 17-and-a-half stone. That makes him heavier than five of Ireland's starting forwards. He is the human equivalent of a jetty.

Yet Bastareaud does not see an opponent when he looks at O'Driscoll. He sees history.

"For me, he is a legend," he reflected. "I read the paper last week and realised that when he started I was 11!

"I remember he scored those tries in Paris (the 2000 hat-trick). I was watching on the TV and cried. Everyone in France cried that day.

"So for me to play against him is something that I will tell my children."

Bastareaud's Test debut came in the 2009 Six Nations that delivered Ireland and O'Driscoll a Grand Slam.

"He is a legend of a centre," smiled the man from Creteil. "When I watch TV, it's O'Driscoll, (Tana) Umaga, Tim Horan, these players who amaze me. And O'Driscoll changed a lot of things for the position we play.

"I think all the other centres in the world will be happy if he stops!" (laughing).

Which, of course, invites one simple but utterly compelling question. Why should O'Driscoll stop? Because the digits on a birth certificate deem it time?

Vincent Clerc once seemed to consider it his life mission to inflict misery on Irish rugby. He is a little more than two years younger than O'Driscoll and has won half as many international caps.

The two men have the kind of distant friendship that is sustained largely through post-match dinners.

On Saturday night, Clerc revealed that they communicate on Twitter too.

"So I appreciate him outside the field and I hope to keep the contact after (playing)," he observed.

For Clerc, this talk of O'Driscoll retiring simply creases the brow.

"It will be very bizarre to see him stop playing with Ireland," he reflected. "He's a great, great player. A great man. I cross him for 10 years now and he's a fantastic player.

"But I don't know why he stop, because he was one of the better players of this tournament.

"I think he has his reasons, so I congratulate him for all his career. I look at him with admiration because he's very regular all his career, all the time giving a good performance. He's a leader, he's a great captain, so it's a model for a lot of players."

Asked flatly if he believed O'Driscoll should continue, Clerc remarked: "I don't know. When you look at it from outside, it's difficult to understand why he would stop, because in this tournament he is brilliant."

Maybe we overlook the breadth of O'Driscoll's fame, the weight of his reputation in the outside world. Jamie Heaslip has struggled palpably with the concept of succession, his captaincy freighted with a silent understanding that the team has many generals, but one leader.

Heaslip, though, had some wonderful moments on Saturday and one in particular seemed to speak of a new coherence between old and new.

Feinted

Yoann Huget feinted to clear from his own '22', dummying Eoin Reddan. But just as the Frenchman lifted his head, Heaslip and O'Driscoll arrived in unison, cancelling any plan of escape.

That was the tenor of the day, even if – ultimately – it left the faint ache of disappointment.

O'Driscoll's last Ireland game in Dublin?

"The way the man's playing, I really don't see why he'd think this might be his last game," said Donnacha Ryan. "Age is but a number I suppose and to be fair to him he's playing really, really well.

"You could probably nearly sign him up for a development contract the way he's going and let him off for another 10 years!"

Would that it were possible.

Irish Independent

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