Sport Rugby

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: Goodbye boy burns bright as ever as the torch is passed

Centre's brilliance unlocks obdurate Italy defence,

Brian O'Driscoll helped Ireland secure a convincing win over Italy
Brian O'Driscoll helped Ireland secure a convincing win over Italy
8 March 2014; Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll, with his daughter Sadie, leave the pitch after the game. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v Italy, Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll watches the game from his seat after being substituted, with Jonathan Sexton and team masseur Willie Bennett, right. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland, greets former Ireland player Ronan O'Gara after being substituted during the second half. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Amy Huberman, Brian O'Driscoll's wife, with their child Sadie Huberman O'Driscoll before the game. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v Italy, Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Amy Huberman, Brian O'Driscoll's wife, with their baby Sadie before the game. Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Amy Huberman, Brian O'Driscoll's wife, with their baby Sadie before the game. Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Amy Huberman, Brian O'Driscoll's wife, waves to him just before the game. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v Italy, Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland, in action during the game. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Brian O'Driscoll arrives at the Aviva today
Leonardo Sarto of Italy celebrates after scoring his team's first try of the game during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy
Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, on the way scoring his side's first try
Ireland's Andrew Trimble and Italy's Quentin Geldenhuys during the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland passes ahead of Gonzalo Garcia of Italy during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy at Aviva Stadium
Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland in action during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy
Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland waves farewell to the fans after his last home appearance the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy
Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland is applauded off the field by his team mates after his last home appearance the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy
Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland breaks away during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy
Gordon D'Arcy of Ireland is tackled by Michele Campagnaro of Italy during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy
Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland in action during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy
Irelands Jamie Heaslip and Sean Cronin celebrate his try during the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Sean Cronin scores a try during the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton scores a try during the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Andrew Trimble scores his side's second try despite the attentions of Italy's Tito Tebaldi and Joshua Furno (right) during the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll carries his daughter Sadie on the pitch after his final home international at the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll carries his daughter Sadie from the pitch as his team-mates form a guard of honor after his final home international at the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll with wife Amy Huberman and daughter Sadie after his final home international at the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll carries his daughter Sadie on the pitch after his final home international at the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll kisses his wife Amy Huberman as she holds daughter Sadie after his final home international at the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Man of the match Brian O'Driscoll leaves the pitch with his daughter Sadie during his last home game during the RBS Six Nations match with Italy at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll carries his daughter Sadie on the pitch after his final home international at the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll carries his daughter Sadie at the end of the Six Nations rugby union match against Italy at Aviva stadium
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll heads down the tunnel after his final home international at the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll carries his daughter Sadie at the end of the Six Nations rugby union match against Italy
Irelands Jamie Heaslip and Sean Cronin celebrate his try during the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll is embraced by his mother Geraldine along with his wife Amy Huberman (left) holding their daughter Sadie after his final home international at the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll applauds a late Ireland try during the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll after he left the field during the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium
Man of the match Brian O'Driscoll leaves the pitch during his last home game during the RBS Six Nations match with Italy at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll leaves the field after beating Italy in the Six Nations rugby union match at Aviva stadium in Dublin
Ireland's Sean Cronin (bottom right) scores a try against Italy
Amy Huberman, Brian O'Driscoll's wife, with their baby Sadie Huberman O'Driscoll before the game
Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland, offloads the ball to Jonathan Sexton leading to his side's fourth try
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll with his mother Geraldine after the game.
Brian O'Driscoll's wife Amy Huberman, with daughter Sadie,look on after the game.
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll with teammate Gordon D'Arcy after the game.
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll with teammate Jonathan Sexton after the game.
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll salutes the fans after the game.
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll looks emotional after the game.
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll after the game.
Ireland's Jack McGrath, left, is congratulated by team-mates Paddy Jackson, right, and Eoin Reddan after scoring his side's final try
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll sings the National Anthem with team mascots, Oran Richardson, age 7, from Malahide, Dublin, left, and Katie Kennedy, age 7, from Terenure, ahead of the game.
Leonardo Sarto of Italy runs in his team's first try of the game during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy
Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland looks on during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy
Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland is tackled by Luciano Orquera of Italy during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy
Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland breaks away during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy
Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland in action during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy
Cian Healy of Ireland scores a try during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Italy
Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland is applauded off the field by his team mates after his last home appearance
Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland is replaced by Fergus McFadden in the second half
Paul O'Connell, Brian O'Driscoll and Mike Ross of Ireland sing the National Anthem
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

All that stuff about Ireland winning games for Brian O'Driscoll was a bit weird, wasn't it?

Because that's not how things worked for the past decade and a half. Instead, time after time, it's been Brian O'Driscoll winning games for Ireland, making the difference in tight games when the contribution of one transcendentally gifted individual was enough to tip the scales.

And, while you can't really claim that O'Driscoll made the difference between victory and defeat in a game which Ireland were always going to win, he made a very big difference to the way the match unfolded. Because on three occasions during the course of the first hour at the Aviva it took the goodbye boy's brilliance to unlock an obdurate Italy defence which was holding on like some West Clare pier battered by waves on Wild Wednesday.

First came a classic look one way pass the ball the other move in the sixth minute to send Johnny Sexton galloping over the line. And three minutes before the break, when it looked as if another Irish move was about to break down, it was an overhand pass to Andrew Trimble, a kind of transposed basketball assist, which worked the oracle.

Best of all was his intervention for Ireland's fourth try just before the hour, a backhand off-load while wrapped up in a tackle which kept alive a move that ended with Sexton crossing in the left corner. It was not just classic O'Driscoll, but classic Joe Schmidt era Leinster, an evocation and summation of a swashbuckling life in the centre, a farewell as fitting and moving as The Beatles playing 'Get Back' on the roof of Abbey Road Studios.

After a week in which he'd been portrayed as a kind of cross between Mother Teresa with a sidestep and The Book of Kells in shorts, O'Driscoll reminded us that he's always been all about what happens between the touchlines. Or, to paraphrase what was said about another famous Brian, he's not the messiah, he's a very great rugby player.

The searing pace may not be there anymore, there was one poignant moment a minute before that fourth try, when he burst clear into the sort of position from which he'd once have scorched all the way to the line and under the posts but now had to turn back and wait for support. What we saw from O'Driscoll in his Aviva farewell was his Late Style, all the experience of a career distilled and concentrated into moments of pure artistry. The legs may not move as fast as they once did but nobody's mind is quicker.

When he went off on the hour, preserving himself for the titanic challenge of trying to sign off by winning the Six Nations in Paris, the result was beyond doubt. But what followed in the final 20 minutes was as important as what had happened in the first 60. We had a glimpse of the future without O'Driscoll and it looked far from hopeless.

In that final period the squad members took over and added another three tries which meant that, barring the most bizarre scorelines elsewhere, all Ireland need to worry about now is beating France. Among the try scorers was Fergus McFadden, O'Driscoll's probable heir. Life goes on. There were glimpses of the future too in the tries by Jack McGrath and Sean Cronin, front-row tyros whose energy in the loose helped Ireland go up a gear.

And how vital the latest impressive cameo by Paddy Jackson may yet prove to be. He landed a touchline conversion to the fifth try and then set up the sixth with a perfect touch-kick before having the presence of mind to drop-kick the resultant conversion and ensure Ireland would have the opportunity to come in search of a seventh. They got that seventh as they have achieved most of their targets this season.

That final flourish made this Ireland's biggest Six Nations win over Italy since the 60-13 victory at Lansdowne Road in 2000, the first year Italy entered the championship. As had been the case against Wales, there was a hunger to put the points on the board right up until the end which indicates a new ruthless attitude at the heart of the team. Chances are they'll need every bit of that ruthlessness next week but it says something about the way the team have grown that we're now looking at Paris, not as Mission Impossible but as Mission Eminently Doable.

Paris was where a young man called Brian O'Driscoll catapulted himself into the national sporting consciousness with a hat-trick of tries in 2000 which announced the beginning of a new era in Irish rugby.

In six days time, The Age Of O'Driscoll will come to an end but right now the era which comes next looks like it's going to be every bit as exciting. And in those final twenty minutes yesterday the players who were only kids when O'Driscoll began his gloriously exciting journey showed how much they've learned from him.

The torch has been passed.

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