Friday 6 December 2019

Vincent Hogan: 100

Vincent Hogan talks exclusively to Brian O’Driscoll about the Irish captain’s path from rookie to centurion, the sacrifices made along the way and his thoughts on what the future holds in store

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

HIS first cap. He has forgotten many things, but not Ben Tune and how the world seemed to grow small around the big Wallaby that day in Brisbane.

Brian O'Driscoll had gone to Australia fixated on Tim Horan, the best centre in the world and a guy he would, 11 years later, nominate as the greatest player he ever faced. But Horan all but fluttered compared to his team-mates in '99.

Maybe he just got sucked into the worry of the day. Now, he can let an occasion float over him like familiar music, but O'Driscoll was 20 that evening in Ballymore; a tough, game kid who had yet to even play for his province.

And part of him wondered if he might be about to snap like a brittle branch in a gale.

"You had Dan Herbert and you had Chris Latham and you had Joe Roth," he recounts now with a smile. "And I honestly never realised how big Ben Tune was. Like, Horan was the smallest guy they had and he was one of the best players in the world.

"And I remember thinking, 'These guys are monsters!'"

Since Twickenham, they have pored over him like gas workers over a traumatised main. It's been tedious and funny. A bit like being transported back to primary school and re-kitted with short trousers. The specialist, Tim Lynch, warned that he'd be asking him "some stupid questions". These are called cognitive tests. A virtual stock-take of your faculties.

So they began. What day is it? What date? Draw this picture. Memorise these words. Then the coup de grace. "In one minute, give me as many words starting with the letter S as you can think of, excluding people's names," said Lynch.

And the Irish captain suddenly found himself at the foot of Kilimanjaro.

"Em, soliloquy, significance, em ... ."

They began assembling like stones in his mouth. In one whole minute, no word of less than four syllables seemed capable of forming in his brain. He is laughing as he recounts it now. "All I was coming out with were these bizarre, left-field words. I wasn't saying, 'so' and 'said' and 'sad'...

"I did so badly in the test, we had to do another. And I'm thinking, 'Jeez, maybe the bang on the head has made me deeper!'"

The bang was, of course, delivered by Paul O'Connell's knee. He remembers trying to get back on his feet and things feeling "a bit spinny." He remembers the medical people and their questions. Do you know where you are Drico? What day it is?

"Listen, I'm grand..." he could hear himself protesting. But 'grand' was less than what he needed to be. In Pretoria last summer, during the Lions' second Test with South Africa, he'd launched himself at the giant Danie Rossouw and got back up, declaring himself 'grand'. And it turned out he was anything but. Soon after, Bryan Habana scooted by for a Springbok try.

"I just made a really bad read that let him in," O'Driscoll recalls. "He should have been my man. The problem is, you feel you can play on, but you're easy pickings in a defensive line. Sometimes it takes you four or five minutes to fully adjust after a hit like that.

"So, if I learnt anything from that, it was not to play the hero. And maybe the real deciding thing in Twickenham was that I'd just been under the weather for a day or two; just some bug that had me feeling brutal. I'd been in bed the whole day before and lost a bit of weight.

"So, I just asked if Darce was okay to finish the game, because we couldn't lose both centres. And maybe I argued a little. But, deep down, I was definitely conscious that I wouldn't have been fully right for three or four minutes and I wasn't willing to put the team at risk, knowing that Andrew Trimble's on the bench and he's going to come in and do a great job."

Head injuries worry medics. They don't present themselves visually and, sometimes, they can conceal worrying little secrets. So it's best to explore every possibility and that's what the Twickenham people did.

O'Driscoll was stretchered to the medical room and placed on a bed, a pulse monitor clamped to a finger. He couldn't see the television behind him, but the commentary kept him up to speed.

He heard the commentator describe Wilkinson's drop-goal. He heard Tommy Bowe's try and Rog's conversion.

And, eventually, his nerves just couldn't stand it.

"I just pulled the pulse thing off my finger, went around and watched the last four or five minutes," he smiles. Then he went out to greet a winning team.

That evening, as usual, O'Driscoll delivered the captain's speech, but he took his leave of the banquet before dinner. His head was clear, but the remnants of that bug still tugged at him like a gentle fever. So, he headed back to the team hotel, ordered a burger and chips and was tucked up in bed by midnight.

"I've actually been very lucky," he reflects. "Even when I got that bang in South Africa, which was definitely worse than getting hit by Paulie's knee, I just felt a little unwell that night. But I've never really gotten sick after a knock. And I've never had any memory loss the next day.

"Actually no, I had it once, playing Leinster schools. I got knocked out and I think I was talking mumbo-jumbo. I couldn't remember any calls or anything. That was the only time I've experienced anything that made me go, 'Wooooaaah here...'

In this week's blizzard of tributes and homilies, you could readily believe that an audit of honours won might take you to the essence of Brian O'Driscoll. You'd be wrong. Greatness in sport is identified as much by grace as arithmetic.

Eleven years and 99 caps on from Brisbane, he lives in a world where white light bounces off just about every last cuticle of his being.

We demand maybe more than we are entitled to of our heroes. We covet humility. Somewhere beneath the national skin, resides a tiny implant that makes us nauseous at the faintest braggart exhibition.

O'Driscoll, somehow, skirts two worlds now. He is profoundly confident, yet resolutely respectful. That warm Cardiff embrace with Jackie Kyle last March would have been natural and easy to him. He understands dignity.

Today, he is the marquee name of Northern Hemisphere rugby and a virtual national institution. Over the years, we've slavishly studied and monitored the life he leads, fixating on his hair, his girlfriend, his social circle, his contract. We've built him up as a celebrity and tried to slap him down.

In a sense, we've done what we always do with our high achievers. We looked to dismantle the fairytale.

And O'Driscoll has answered us with a decade of sublime rugby and impeccable grace. Oh, he lives a full life too.

He lets off steam. When time allows, he likes nothing better than taking refuge in a beer or eating the kind of stuff that might give a dietician hives.

But he represents the same, driven mindset that will set Ruby Walsh and AP McCoy and Barry Geraghty apart over in Cheltenham next week. The hunger for achievement destined to propel Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy towards Augusta shortly.

O'Driscoll admits he loves meeting these people, if only to feed off their mindsets.

The construction of his own confidence can be traced back to different stage-posts. Winning the U-19 World Cup with Declan Kidney in '98. Warren Gatland putting him in that Test team in Brisbane '99. Eddie O'Sullivan identifying him as captaincy material in the autumn of '01.

He thinks of individual games too. Beating England at Lansdowne Road after the Foot and Mouth outbreak in '01. Then again at Twickenham three years later, just after their World Cup win. Beating South Africa at Lansdowne. Then Australia in his first game as captain.

"All of these things were like building blocks," he says now. "You can't just go from zero to a hundred. You have to go through the gears."

Yet, he looks at Harrington especially and marvels at the absolute clarity of the golfer's focus. "It's Jonny Wilkinson-esque, isn't it?" he says.

"I enjoy meeting other sports people because it's always interesting to see the difference between them as competitors and as private people.

"But Padraig is some man for soaking up information. I'm not for a second saying that he's ever taken anything from me. But I've seen how he operates, always asking questions, trying to find out what makes others tick.

"I think he's different to everybody else. He's so phenomenally driven. Throughout my career, I've definitely taken aspects from other rugby players, whether it be captaincy or different little things you might see done well on the playing field. And, probably in my subconscious, I've taken things from other sports people that I've met.

"Maybe even things that I've read about them. You steal little components and implement them. Some work and some don't.

"But I don't think I could do what Padraig does. I like to switch on and off. I can go home from camp and happily just hang out with me missus or friends. I'd go insane if I thought about rugby the whole time."

Last year changed everything, albeit imperceptibly. So much of O'Driscoll's professional life has been energised by the pursuit of a Heineken Cup with Leinster and a Grand Slam with Ireland that the capture of both, within weeks of one another, felt almost like a door slamming shut in a sudden wind.

He remembers feeling a pang of mild regret in Edinburgh after the European final that he couldn't just immerse himself in the sense of deliverance and fly home to a vast blue party. But Lions duty was transporting him immediately to South Africa.

"God, I envy ye going home," he said to Shane Horgan. And, soon as he had uttered the words, he regretted them. Horgan, he knew, would happily have swam an ocean for the privilege of wearing a Lions shirt.

Still, last year lifted a weight off the shoulders. Maybe a monkey off the back?

"I think so," he agrees. "Life is easier. I don't have the stresses to the same degree that I had before last season. You know, the prospect of not achieving some of the goals that you wanted to achieve is a little bit sickening. It's weird. It just changes your mindset.

"It really doesn't mean that you don't have the same hunger. If anything, it just shifts momentum a little bit. It makes you a little bit selfish and wanting to experience it again. Because you had a taste of it and it was nice. And you want to taste some more."

In South Africa, the Lions Test partnership in the centre was O'Driscoll and Welshman, Jamie Roberts. A partnership that worked. Roberts travelled as a big, raw kid and came home one of the more coveted backs in European rugby. Six foot four and almost 17 stone of trouble.

O'Driscoll enjoyed the dynamic between them.

"One thing I really enjoyed about him was that he listened so much," he explains. "You could tell that he was taking everything in, taking heed. Not that I was trying to push anything on him, but, when you're trying to forge a partnership in a short space of time, you've got to get to know one another well.

"I think we were good for one another. We got on well as lads too, which is important. And, maybe, it helped that Stephen Jones was starting at No 10 because it was as if, between the two of us, we were nearly marshalling him. Jamie caused so much trouble, space opened up for me. And maybe I opened things up a little for him too.

"He's a big, big man and a very fine player."

Today, of course, they are direct opponents. O'Driscoll the senior figure, six inches shorter, maybe two stone lighter, yet still the one commanding a fanfare.

"I've always played against a lot of guys who are bigger than me," he smiles.

"But you learn to deal with that fairly quickly. I feel as though I can pack a decent punch when I throw it hard at someone, rather than throwing it half-cocked.

"It's just a case of trying to maximise what you have. I enjoy that side of the game."

Sometimes he finds himself wondering what shape his life will acquire beyond the dressing-room and it feels like a cool wind moving along his body.

He will be 32 next January and facing into his fourth and, surely, final World Cup. He and Amy are getting married. For now, he says, his future is a relatively blank page, but the thought of coaching doesn't exactly bring a tingle to his skin.

So, he knows these days are finite and precious and, in a peculiar way, deeply private. Something sacred and unspoken flies between players at this altitude. Something those of us on the outside will never quite access. The feeling he gets?

"Trust me, I've never even come close to being able to replicate it in any other form of life" he says.

"Just the contentment of being in a dressing-room. Not necessarily even talking to one another. Just knowing. The sense of achievement of people having put their bodies on the line for one another.

"Knowing that people have sacrificed themselves when they could have taken a break.

"Only you know that. When you're able to look at a guy and go, 'I saw him making a triple impact ... '

"You know he could have lay on the ground after the second tackle, but he got up again and made another. That's just a respect thing; an admiration thing.

"I don't think you can equal that in any other form of life. When I finish, I'm going to have to try to find a passion that goes some way towards filling that void. I suppose it's a bit of a worry. Trying to get that same adrenalin rush, that fix.

"I mean, going out and being able to play Test rugby and the hardness and physicality of that is what gives you the fix. It's like someone else's drug."

The end, mind, will bring the odd consolation. Like selfish time. Like holiday options. He laughs at how Denis Hickie can just toss an impassive line into their conversation about a holiday maybe booked on a whim.

Denis is almost two years retired and showing no signs of implosion.

"That's what appeals to me and excites me," smiles the Irish captain. "The prospect of being able to organise something in advance. Like, I talk to Denis and he might say, 'I'm going skiing for Christmas'. And I never know what I'm doing at Christmas time.

"You don't really own your time, which is one of the few downsides of this life.

"I had a week off last Christmas. We went to New York on the 28th and I booked it on the 21st. So, obviously, you get some good, cheap flights with a week's notice on December 28!

"So, little things like that. Missing people's weddings. Missing big days. Like, I've been to two of my pals' weddings out of maybe seven or eight. I haven't been to any of Amy's friends' weddings.

"Even my sister is having to arrange her wedding around when I'm gonna be available.

"You feel an element of guilt with that. What makes you so special that that has to be done?

"So, that's one of the things I'm looking forward to in time. Being able to plan."

We can but hope that day is many miles beyond the horizon.

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