Saturday 7 December 2019

Imperious O'Driscoll defies march of time

Heart, class and nous more than make up for diminishing pace, says Paul Rees

Brian O'Driscoll was making what was probably his final appearance at Twickenham, one of the leading players not just of his generation but the history of the game, defying injury to help inspire a complete team to a third Heineken Cup success in four years.

What has marked him out over the years has not only been his rare talent, one of the few who has defied a largely defensive era, but his competitiveness: even at the end of an ultimately comfortable victory in the all-Ireland final, he was coaxing and cajoling. Too much has never been enough for him.

O'Driscoll was 33 in January, the sort of age for a centre when first your legs go and then your friends. Initially it was the Ulster No 13, Darren Cave, capped twice by Ireland in 2009, who made the running, twice getting behind the defence and then making a try-saving tackle on Eoin Reddan.

O'Driscoll looked like a player who had had keyhole surgery on his right knee eight days earlier. His first contribution was to be swatted aside by Ulster No 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, and he spent most of the opening quarter clearing out rucks, receiving treatment on his knee 21 minutes in which allowed Ulster to create space on the left, but not enough for Stefan Terblanche to get around Rob Kearney.

O'Driscoll appeared mortal but he has demonstrated throughout his career that he is a player who waits for his moment. He would have freed Isa Nacewa on the left wing but for a poor pass, which went slightly behind the Fijian, and he got through Cave's challenge with a subtle change of pace.

It showed how O'Driscoll had adapted his game to accommodate the rigours of time; pace may be on a short lease but nous carries a freehold. The Ireland captain, who is aiming next year to join a select band of players who have been on four Lions tours, showed the essential difference between the sides nine minutes before the break. Leinster were 7-3 ahead. Ulster had enjoyed the bulk of possession and, surprisingly, kept the ball in hand. Leinster dropped two or three players back for the expected kicks, but Ulster preferred to run from inside their own half, threatening only through Cave and prop John Afoa. They lacked someone with O'Driscoll's calculation and the occasion got to Ulster out-half Paddy Jackson, who was substituted five minutes into the second half. O'Driscoll's composure contrasted with the younger player's naivete.

Leinster's first try had come from a turnover and their second had its origin at an Ulster scrum. When O'Driscoll received the ball, 35 metres out, the defensive line looked unbreakable but he held up the ball, slightly checked his run and cut back inside and through the gap he had created.

As Ulster struggled to react, O'Driscoll slipped the ball out of the back of his right hand to Sean O'Brien. The flanker was hauled down just short of the Ulster line, but Cian Healy finished off the score that effectively decided the match.

Ulster produced a spirited riposte after Andrew Trimble came into a driving maul and helped collapse it just short of his line, earning a penalty try rather than a yellow card, but Leinster had too much polish and belief.

O'Driscoll went off with 13 minutes to go. His limp had became increasingly pronounced in the second half but with Jonathan Sexton about to give the holders a 13-point lead, he walked off the field and down the tunnel, taking what appeared to be his final exit from Twickenham.

He was back five minutes later having gone off with a bloody injury and was involved in the moves that led to Leinster's final two tries. It was not the Bok influence, as in Ulster's quartet of South African internationals that proved decisive, but the man called Bod.


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