Is this the beginning of the end for O’Driscoll?
As Ireland’s captain faces into surgery and six months out, fears grow that he may never return
It was the news that everyone has been expecting but feared would never happen.
Brian O'Driscoll, a genuine Irish sporting hero, will soon submit to the surgeon's knife in a desperate attempt to prolong a career that is already one of the most garlanded in rugby history.
For all the brave words that decried those who suggested retirement might prove the better road for the Irish captain, surgery now presents irrefutable evidence that his sporting mortality is closer than at any time in his 13-year international career.
It was the moment that he dreaded. And yet, like the manifold struggles that have previously attempted, and failed, to permanently hinder him, O'Driscoll will confront it with the unsurpassed valour of a veritable warrior.
What is the exact injury?
O'Driscoll has been suffering for a year now from an injury that is quite common in rugby -- a 'stinger', in O'Driscoll's case, a trapped nerve. A 'stinger' affects the nerves in the spine and dispatches shooting pain down one's shoulder and spine.
It usually occurs in the tackle area -- as a player tackles, the downward motion in contact pushes the head away from the shoulders, causing a resultant stress on the big nerve above the collar-bone, which then transmits a shooting pain akin to pins and needles, an initially frightening feeling.
Often the nerves can renew themselves in time -- players, particularly front-rows, regularly receive these types of injuries during matches -- and O'Driscoll has, as Leinster coach Joe Schmidt has explained, been managing to play through the pain barrier in an effort to see if the problem could amend itself naturally. However, it is apparent that nature is not taking its course and there is no option other than surgery.
What is the prognosis?
Both player and club reported optimistically yesterday a deadline of six months out, which would culminate in the business end of Leinster's domestic and European campaigns -- should they make it that far.
However, given O'Driscoll's age profile and medical history, it would appear churlish to risk him in any high-profile competitive action next May and, despite his desire to have a crack at New Zealand next summer, Ireland will need to be careful not to push him into a premature return to competitive action.
Essentially, the player will perhaps be realistically eyeing up next season to return at full tilt, keeping alive his well-publicised target of appearing in a fourth Lions tour in Australia. The rehabilitation will concentrate on a specific programme to strengthen those muscles that the nerve supplies.
Contact sessions will be one of the final areas of rehabilitation. Surgery also influences O'Driscoll's quality of life post-rugby. His predecessor as Irish captain, Keith Wood, had 15 operations in his career, most to his shoulder, and often said he wanted to be sure he could pick up his children once he had retired.
Is the injury common?
During the 2005 Lions tour, Dr James Robson told the travelling media corps that it was quite likely that every single one of that year's extensive travelling party had probably suffered stingers at some stage in their career. Surgery for the ailment is less common, however.
The renowned injury-afflicted Jonny Wilkinson regularly suffered from the problem -- once receiving six in a single game -- before undergoing career-saving surgery in 2004, although he was much younger (25) than O'Driscoll (32).
What does it mean for Ireland?
The immediate impact is to lessen Ireland's chances of repeating their 2009 title success in the forthcoming Six Nations -- or of achieving a first win in the three-game tour to New Zealand next summer.
O'Driscoll is that important and that he was able to function for nearly a year with the problem is testament to his bravery. He is irreplaceable, but national coach Declan Kidney must improvise the best way he can.
The first priority will be to name a stand-in captain -- the obvious replacement is the man who has predominantly stepped into the breach during O'Driscoll's absence, Munster's Paul O'Connell, with hooker Rory Best the likely vice-captain.
Kidney must also fast-track the nascent plans for life without his midfield maestro -- with Gordon D'Arcy's powers waning, the coach must now search for viable alternatives.
Keith Earls has been tried at outside-centre with limited success, Paddy Wallace similarly so at No 12.
Fergus McFadden and Darren Cave are other midfield prospects, but they remain largely untested.
Tommy Bowe, who has played at No 13 successfully for Ospreys, is the most obvious short-term candidate. Luke Fitzgerald, a prime contender this time last year, couldn't even make the World Cup squad and needs to concentrate on a return to the Six Nations panel.
What does it mean for Leinster?
Like Ireland, Leinster have previously had to soldier without their talisman -- last season, they did so successfully in the initial stages of their ultimately successful Heineken Cup tilt when O'Driscoll went off injured an hour into their opening fixture.
Fitzgerald initially filled in before young Eoin O'Malley stepped successfully into the breach for the difficult away trip to Clermont, where he performed excellently in a bonus-point defeat.
As well as O'Malley, Brendan Macken is one of a number of outstanding young prospects that have been ushered through the Heineken Cup winners' excellent Academy development project.
McFadden is currently in situ though, so a combination of D'Arcy and Fitzgerald or McFadden seems more likely, with Fitzgerald likely to remain on the wing.
Is this the end for O'Driscoll?
O'Driscoll's typically upbeat tweet to his supporters -- "Thanks for all the lovely messages. Very disappointed about having to have surgery but them are the breaks'! #whatanerve #painintheneck" -- indicate a remorseless spirit to return stronger than ever.
Having forcefully rejected calls for his retirement only last week, O'Driscoll has responded sanguinely to the latest of a series of medical blows. He has previously recovered from career-threatening shoulder injuries and a debilitating hamstring problem.
The manner in which he repeatedly puts his body on the line is testament to his unyielding spirit and offers a compelling insight to a great sportsman.
He regularly speaks of the fear of a life without rugby. Indeed, he feels the surgery could even prolong his career.
The ruthless arrow of time has taken aim to destruct that which has for so long seemed indestructible.
But if anyone can repel the tides of time, it is the man for whom courage has for so long been his calling card.
Wear and tear
Brian O'Driscoll's tour as captain of the 2005 Lions was over before the first minute of the first Test against New Zealand had elapsed.
Poised for the biggest moment of his career to that point, he suffered an infamous 'spear tackle' at the hands of Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu in Christchurch.
The Lions tour subsequently went awry and O'Driscoll was out for nearly seven months. Had he played in that period, he would have become the second youngest Test centurion of all time, behind only Australian flanker George Smith.
Cracked eye socket
In what was a sign of things to come, O'Driscoll suffered a cracked eye socket in the 2007 World Cup warm-up game against Bayonne when Kiwi journey man Mikaera Tewhata punched the Ireland captain.
However, O'Driscoll recovered in time to play in each of Ireland's ill-fated pool games.
Both O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy injured their hamstrings in the 2005 Six Nations games against Italy. However, a specialised stretching regime has seen that problem ease significantly for the former in recent seasons.
O'Driscoll has consistently buried bigger men over the course of his career, but he picked up a nasty knee to the head from team-mate Paul O'Connell during the 2010 Six Nations win over England at Twickenham which forced him from the field.