Sunday 25 February 2018

Love-in as rival icons face off in final battle

Mutual admiration between O'Driscoll and Wilkinson stands out ahead of titanic tussle

Brian O'Driscoll
Brian O'Driscoll
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

MUCH has been said about Brian O'Driscoll's script-writing abilities over the past number of months, but the man appears to have a gift for casting as well.

Retirement Part I concluded with a Six Nations title in Paris, but like Francis Ford Coppola with the 'Godfather II', the director is looking to up the ante for his sequel, with Jonny Wilkinson adding some Robert De Niro-style quality to the character list.

Few players have rivalled the Clontarf native for profile during his decade and a half of top-level rugby, but England's golden boy is definitively A-list.

In a country where the sports pages are filled with Premier League football, there are a few names rugby writers can drop to get themselves that precious bit more space.

Two of them meet in Toulon this evening with the full-time whistle bringing an end to one of their European careers.

Before O'Driscoll's last home match for Ireland, Jamie Heaslip compared him to Jonah Lomu in terms of his iconic status.

In Ireland, the centre transformed the sport and brought professionalism with him; English out-half Wilkinson did something similar.

On the afternoon after he dropped the goal that landed the Webb Ellis trophy in Sydney, the football stadia of the Premier League forgot where they were and sang 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'.

Eleven years, on it seems hard to believe.

England have never hit those heights since, while Wilkinson's international star faded in the midst of injury and a loss of form that was rescued by his move to the south of France.

O'Driscoll never got near the high of that World Cup final, but he has longevity and consistency of achievement over the fly-half. The Irish centre is five months older than the Surrey native and has a slight weight advantage over the taller Wilkinson.

That neither clears 100kg makes them unusual in the modern-day game, but neither let that hinder their efforts.

Asked to sum up the English fly-half's attributes this week, Leinster coach Matt O'Connor highlighted his tackling.

"He's an unbelievable defender, incredibly brave and you look at the opposition most weeks and you have got instant gain line in that No 10 channel just because of the nature of it, but he is unbelievable in that space," he said.

"He is a 90pc-plus goal-kicker. He kicks goals with both feet. It's tough.

"In the quarter-final down there last year (when Wilkinson kicked all 21 of Toulon's points to knock O'Connor's Leicester out) he didn't miss – two or three of those kicks were missable but he just delivers on that.

"We will have to make sure that we are incredibly accurate in everything we do."

While the goal-kicking and defence are two instant hits for most when asked about what makes Wilkinson special, it is his handling skills that O'Driscoll admires most about a man he played alongside in three and a bit Tests for the Lions.

"I didn't get to win any World Cups like Jonny," he told Sky this week. "I didn't get to drop a goal in injury-time with my bad leg to win a World Cup.

"There are lots of great attributes to his game: he is a great kicker, a devastating tackler, but one thing that stands out most for me is his quality of pass.

"He was an exceptional passer and still is. He could cut teams apart with the range of his passing and the delicate nature of his hands. I had a big admiration for it when I played with him, because I understood the subtlety to his game."

They dovetailed together on the 2001 Lions tour of Australia and were cruelly denied the chance to do it all again when O'Driscoll was taken out in the opening seconds of the first Test in New Zealand four years later.

The Irish player has the edge in the times they played against each other over their careers and he will be hoping to keep that run going after overcoming his neck and calf problems to take his place in the team tomorrow.

Neither man was presented to the wider media this past week, so their thoughts were confined to a beautifully put-together segment as part of Sky's build-up.

There was a tinge of sepia about the whole thing, but when they do cross that white line they will ensure that any thoughts of the end are pushed to one side, as will the mutual admiration that clearly runs through their relationship.

"I thought I'd be playing forever," Wilkinson said of playing alongside O'Driscoll in 2001.

"It's nice that, 13 years on, we're both still here at a level that we would have wanted to be at.

"I've loved playing against Brian when we have done against Ireland and Leinster a few times, at the same time I've enjoyed playing with him. You end up being more of a spectator when you watch him do his thing, you go 'is that really happening?'.

"There's also the slightly super-human angle to his game when he does something that transcends the game and you go 'hold on, that's very, very special, I'm glad I was alongside him to see that'. I has made the game of rugby a better spot."

While O'Connor knows full well what to expect from the exceptional trio that Bernard Laporte has named at Nos 10, 12 and 13, the former France coach has been given enough nightmares by O'Driscoll to know what's coming.

"We started almost at the same time, him as a player and me as a coach," the Toulon coach said.

"He started against me in Paris by scoring three tries, which isn't a good memory for me and he ended is international career by wining once more at Stade de France.

"He's one of the most talented centres of all times. He's a legendary player, like Jonny, (Richie) McCaw or (Dan) Carter. And he remains a tremendous player and a great competitor. I have a lot of respect for him."

The list of achievements for both men stretches on, but there is a lingering question mark over what Wilkinson might have achieved had he moved away from Newcastle Falcons earlier.

He spent most of his European club career in the second-tier Challenge Cup, only collecting some prized silverware in Dublin last May with Toulon.

His arrival at the nouveau riche club has lifted their standards.

"Playing and training with Jonny," scrum-half Michael Claassens said this week, "I have never seen anyone practise so much. He is always giving advice on little skills and things like that. He's a great example to any young guys coming through: the more you practise, the better you get."

That example has led Toulon to the promised land once and they are on course to do it again, with a home draw right up to the Cardiff finale.

With an evening kick-off in the port city on the Cote d'Azur, the sunset looms for one of what O'Driscoll described as "two granddads playing against each other, both of us probably surprised that we're still going and still in the mix."

One will walk away from Europe, the other will march on.

Once more, it's time to dim the lights and draw the curtains. Let's see what the scriptwriter has in store this time.

Irish Independent

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