Sunday 21 January 2018

Brian O'Driscoll still leading charge in his final furlong

Centre remains a shining light in the twilight of a stunning career

Brian O'Driscoll in action against Samoa last weekend
David Kelly

David Kelly

A sense of an ending as well as a beginning in Dublin 4. Something for everyone – albeit more to endure than enjoy. Mercifully, its chief author was able to sum up it more neatly than anyone else. "Untidy," said Joe Schmidt.

There was more of the past on show here than the future. Still, even the renaissance was more about rehashing old ideas as opposed to discovering new ones.

Schmidt was an educator in a past life; he still is. It's a different classroom, but the same philosophies apply. There are few new methods – only different ways of deploying them.

A record victory against a Samoan side, goaded into battle by the chiropractor himself, ex-Munster man Brian Lima, should be more than satisfying, but it left a queer taste in the mouth.

"As an appetiser, the victory tastes okay, but its appearance on the plate wasn't so good," the Kiwi noted drily.

Five tries, a dominant set-piece and a more than competent display from an out-half Schmidt would have preferred not to have played edged the ledger of his opening day's accountancy into credit.

But, with Australia to come, such laxity in securing their own ball in the breakdown, some appalling kicking and some shocking defence – even from Ireland's greatest players – would have made Schmidt's stomach rumble uncomfortably.


Saturday was a failure to launch for much of the piece; it was indicative that a more effectively soaring paper aeroplane provided the biggest cheer of the opening hour.

It was left to Brian O'Driscoll, as has so often been the case in Irish rugby, to elucidate the sort of acclaim that folk had so unrealistically demanded of the new Schmidt era.

Coach and player will overlap for just one season in the green of Ireland; the country should relish every second.

Starting with his selfless decision to waive any inkling that he may want to be captain in his swansong season, this week reminded us of how much the great one will be missed.

His audacious pass between his legs, spurring on the move that led to Ireland's second try, represented yet again confirmation that he can produce magic of which few others would dare even conceive.

"I suppose you always have to be aware with Brian in those sorts of situations," noted Fergus McFadden, the surprised beneficiary of the genius, with Sean O'Brien then putting the icing on the cake.

"Training with him and playing with him, you are used to him getting the ball away in those tight scenarios. Thankfully, I just caught it and recycled."

Then there was that moment when O'Driscoll off-loaded without looking in the first half, almost creating an opening. And, while he still wasn't looking, George Pisi uploaded him and almost created an opening in the turf.

A reminder that sometimes the only way to stop O'Driscoll is illegally.

He had played less than 70 minutes this season and barely managed the same on Saturday; he wanted the full 80, yet he was a spent force by the hour. His will dragged him the extra few yards.

Yet, not all bowed at the feet of Ireland's greatest player.

Schmidt, outlining the vivid sense of honesty that will drive this collective forward – similar to the potentially volatile forthrightness that already defines the Irish soccer management – is indifferent to the sentiment of the multitude.

"It wasn't vintage Drico, but it was a step towards it," he noted.

Earlier, asked to convene in the general swoon at O'Driscoll's outrageous sleight of hand, Schmidt demurred.

Instead, he pointed to a "couple of defensive reads" on the player's behalf, as well as a forced off-load.

This was the teacher effectively telling his star pupil that the homework wasn't good enough.

It was the theme of the day, players trying too hard to impress the new man. Perhaps, the new man had imparted too much knowledge himself this week. Reality dictates that this team will take months to evolve, not weeks or days. The deprecation of the coach devolved to others, too. Jamie Heaslip was roundly critical of his team's display.

Even young Jack McGrath, who survived a flock of butterflies nestling in his stomach just hours beforehand to become a popular man of the match on his debut, reckoned that his day didn't go as well as popular opinion had decreed.

Dave Kearney scored a brace on his debut, but even amidst the general bonhomie, it didn't seem impolite to gently aim darts at the bubbly enthusiasm of it all.

Schmidt reckoned that the elder Kearney might have provided his brother with another try had his pass been more accurate; for his part, Dave decreed that perhaps he could have done better in his attempt to receive it.

Schmidt also implied that it may have been better for all had Dave switched hands when dotting the ball down in the right-hand corner.

If one hadn't gleaned the evidence from his Leinster days, one might fear that this incessant demand for excellence from the coach might hinder his players.

"The great thing about Joe is he is not negative, but he does focus on things you can do better," demurred McFadden.

"It is a really good mentality to have. You can come off the pitch after doing eight things well, but when you are a player under Joe you think, 'f**k it, I could have done those two things better'.

"That performance wouldn't be good enough to beat Australia. We are under no illusions there.

"The first half was filled with errors. He told us we had made 67 tackles to their 25, so it just showed we weren't holding onto the ball and any time we did we turned it over with some silly play.

"Thankfully, we got some fluency in the second half and I think we did score some nice team tries.

"We'll have to be a lot better next week against Australia.

"But we saw what England did against them, so we'll take encouragement from that; it is going to be a massive challenge."

They haven't yet seen what Australia did to Italy in Turin hours earlier, though – though Heaslip joked that Schmidt had already watched it 20 times by Saturday evening.

The cramming from the new class will continue apace this morning; Saturday, according to Schmidt, represented a pass mark.

One of the few unanswered questions remaining was the crushing realisation that, as one era dawns, another will soon close.

"He's a legend," offered McFadden of O'Driscoll.

"In my opinion, the greatest Irish sportsman of all time, regardless of what he does this year. It has been amazing and long may it continue.

"Hopefully, we'll have a bit of silverware at the back of it as well."

Few will remember Saturday's fare should his prediction indeed locate a trophy at the end of this season.

But, then again, all endings must begin somewhere.

Irish Independent

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