Eamonn Sweeney: Goodbye boy burns bright as ever as the torch is passed
Centre's brilliance unlocks obdurate Italy defence,
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.
Sunday Indo Sport