Thursday 19 April 2018

'I want to go and try and win the Grand Slam. It's all to play for'

Before legend O'Driscoll enters his rugby afterlife he's determined to exit the Ireland stage on a huge high – second best just won't do

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

'Afterlife. Oh my God, what an awful word. After all the breath and the dirt and the fires are burnt.

'And after all this time, after all the ambulances go. After all the hangers-on are done hanging on in the dead lights of the afterglow.

'I've gotta know ... Can we work it out? Scream and shout, 'till we work it out'

We don't know if Brian O'Driscoll is an Arcade Fire fan, but his choice of words at yesterday's pre-Six Nations press conference brought the above lyrics to their current hit to mind.

By describing his impending retirement next summer as 'The Afterlife', the 35-year-old brought his rugby mortality into sharp focus. A maximum of five more games remain in green before he crosses over and he is of a mind to take full advantage.

His Lions experience means he is more acutely aware that you sometimes don't get to choose how you bid farewell. He looks at the people who tell him they've booked flights to Paris for the final game of the Six Nations as if they have learned nothing. "Maybe they're sages," he says with a shake of his head.

For arguably Ireland's greatest rugby player, the next eight weeks are the long goodbye.

BITTER

We've already had the curtain coming down on the long friendship with Australia and the bitter parting with New Zealand. On Sunday, selection permitting, the Clontarf native will face Scotland for the last time; then Wales. England and Italy will follow and then it will be the final farewell on St Patrick's weekend in the city of romance.

It won't just be O'Driscoll's last game against France – it will be his last game for Ireland. All that will remain will be a lifetime of magical memories.

The end loomed large over last season, too, as the centre contemplated his future, but this time around there is a definite end date.

Leinster will provide the coda, but while club rugby has been good to the 35-year-old, it is in the green of Ireland where he has soared highest and a final flourish would prove a fitting climax.

That he is reporting for duty in far better nick than November is good news. Then, he had less than 80 minutes under his belt and spent the first two Tests chasing form, found it against the All Blacks and then suffered another of those concerning concussions.

A clear run since has given him plenty of minutes under his belt, but the ball has, at times, appeared to have eluded him. That is something he wants to change in the coming weeks.

"I probably haven't had my hands on the ball a huge amount over the last few weeks," he said. "So I am going to try and do that a bit more and try and get back to some of my strengths; try and take people on and beat them and get the ball out of the tackle, off-loading – it is not about trying to star it is about doing the job as best you can and being a cog in the wheel.

"It is about trying to play to your strengths and, you know, my strengths haven't changed dramatically over the years and I need to just focus on making sure I'm doing the best I can for the team by doing those things."

Those strengths have seen him become one of the most recognisable faces of a tournament he has featured in over 13 of the past 14 seasons in the Ireland No 13 shirt.

That he has only one Championship to his name seems almost cruel for the competition's greatest try scorer. Triple Crowns may have been novel in 2004, but Ireland have moved on and, given the standard of player he has rubbed shoulders with, O'Driscoll admits that his silverware collection could be more substantial.

"I would say that's fair," he acknowledged. "I would say it's disappointing considering the calibre of players, the number of seconds we got. Looking back now, the last play of the Championship in '07 where France were playing Scotland and we needed Scotland to win. It went to the TMO and the whole Championship was called by a TMO on a decision that could have gone either way – it just shows how close these things are.

"Unfortunately, we've been second a lot of times. I think it is fair to say that out of 14 seasons to have only won one Championship is a bit of a disappointment. But, there are always possibilities when you're walking into another one.

"The Six Nations trophy has been around a long time – granted it has gone from five to six – but it is definitely a competition that is very difficult to win.

"That heightens the excitement of the players and also of each of the countries and their supporters and the realisation of the Grand Slam or the second best of trying to win the Championship is a very hard thing to come by.

STYLE

"If you are in the mix come the last weekend to do that, then you must have done okay and played some good stuff."

If that is the case, then O'Driscoll would be looking at signing off with style in Paris, the scene of his greatest moment in green.

Indeed, it was the French who provided his first taste of the old Five Nations when he first went to the old Lansdowne Road as a spectator.

"I didn't really have a clue what was going on. You can't help but feel that atmosphere," he remembered.

"There have been question marks about the atmosphere in the Aviva, yet the atmosphere for the New Zealand game is now the benchmark. There is an onus on us, but also on the crowd to generate that.

"If we can play well and get them behind us we can make the Aviva a difficult place to play.

"And that's what I remember as a 12 and 13-year old going to Lansdowne Road and feeling that vibe from the crowd. It's exciting and you can feed off that as a player."

As for the future, he feels that life without him won't be so bad, naming Robbie Henshaw, Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls, Jared Payne and, after a gentle reminder from team manager Mick Kearney, Darren Cave as worthy successors.

Whether he will be expected to dove-tail with any of his successors remains to be seen, he insists Joe Schmidt is as hard to read for him as he is for the rest of us and maintains New Zealand could well have been his last game.

After his Lions heartbreak, there will be no counting of chickens, but as hard as life without O'Driscoll beyond the end of this Six Nations is hard to imagine, seeing him cruelly dropped before his own intended exit would be beyond the pale. It has been said in the past, in the aftermath of those heroic last plays and moments of genius, that O'Driscoll writes his own scripts.

"If you offered me the Triple Crown now only, I would probably say 'no'," he concluded yesterday. "I don't want to win just three games out of five. I want to go and win the Championship. I want to try and win the Grand Slam. At this moment in time, everyone is on zero, everyone is on a level pegging, so it's all the play for."

The afterlife is looming, but he can send Ireland into heaven one last time if the creaking body can deliver. If anyone can work it out, O'Driscoll can.

Irish Independent

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