Sport Rugby

Monday 18 November 2019

It's just a hunch but I think this is O'Driscoll's finale

A successful tour against Australia would cap the glittering career of an Irish icon, writes Neil Francis

O'Driscoll, nah, lost a yard of pace. Once I hear that comment it is the key for me to surreptitiously reach into my coat pocket and release the safety catch on my luger.

The "he's lost a yard of pace" brigade have been saying so for the last four years. On that basis he is slower than me. It really is a stale remark and utterly belies the fact to the masses that Brian O'Driscoll has always traded on speed of thought. Predatory reactions and a sensory perception which is not common in 99.9 per cent of international players. His instinct is still feral. I still wonder how many inside backs are quicker than him in Ireland's provincial squads over 10 metres, which is the distance he needs to be quick over.

One of the things I admire about O'Driscoll is that he hasn't surrendered his talent to structure, it is still as raw as it was as a schoolboy. He still tries to do the improbable or the unlikely. He is also symmetrical and well balanced despite a decade or so of praise and flattery. It only distorts I suppose if you inhale.

Champions rarely doubt themselves. In many ways this season will tell us all about what kind of a man he is, it is a seminal moment not just in his career but his life.

It is pure speculation on my part, I have no inside track on the matter, but I do think that this will be O'Driscoll's last season. My hunch is based on the empirical evidence of what the doctors see on the MRI images of his C1 to C5 area of his neck. I had a spinal fusion too but it was much closer to my wobbly bits, O'Driscoll's is at a junction with too much wiring and delicate matter to gamble with on a sustained basis.

O'Driscoll's Irish contract ends in June 2013 at which stage he will be 34 and a half. My six-year-old has told me over the last couple of months that he is six and three-quarters. The regular reminders have two points: don't forget my birthday and I'm dying to be seven because six-year-olds aren't cool. The half year in O'Driscoll's case is significant, because notionally he shouldn't be where he intends to be, even at 34 years of age, and the extra half accentuates the gap between his exulted position and player mortality.

Nobody else in Europe could contemplate going where he is going -- Australia in June. Even the only other centre in Europe who could hold a light to him Yannick Jauzion was dispatched in his 33rd year before the 2011 Rugby World Cup. A tournament you would have reckoned that would have been a fitting finale for such a magnificent player. The French don't do sentiment. Neither does Warren Gatland.

O'Driscoll continues to play at this level because he is still the best centre in the northern hemisphere. His value to any team supersedes what he does with the ball. Very few people can do justice to the term 'icon'. Human nature dictates that we are drawn to natural leaders or champions. This is a natural virtue earned by and bestowed upon O'Driscoll -- people react to his presence.

In the movie As Good As It Gets, Helen Hunt is fishing for a compliment from Jack Nicholson at the dinner table and after many tangents and waffle he pinpoints her quality, "you make me want to be a better man". Most players who play in a backline are probably subconsciously distressed by their own perception that they lack the skill and ingenuity to play alongside this guy, but it has a galvanising effect which compels them to out-perform on a given day. It has the effect of making them want to be better players.

The backline hums when he plays because nobody wants to throw a shoddy pass or over-shoot the play when he is on the pitch. Ireland would have no 2009 Grand Slam without him and Leinster might not have three stars over the harp without his influence. Those teams reacted to his excellence and when their response wained, he went off and won the match pretty much on his own. The 2009 Grand Slam is his.

What are his targets for the domestic season? Well we have France and England here, so the Grand Slam is on. Leinster are a decent bet to get out of their pool and the Rabo final defeat at the hands of the Ospreys seemed to irk most of the senior players in Leinster. So a Grand Slam, a Heino and a Rabo -- not a bad haul.

The real prize though is the Lions tour to Australia. This one might be a personal crusade, three losing tours just would not sit right with him. The stigmata of O'Driscoll's World Cups will be something he won't gain absolution from but this Lions tour is very winnable -- a last time into the breach.

Getting selected is his first challenge. The Welsh, in particular, have a surfeit of centres gagging for a spot -- Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, Ashley Beck, Andrew Bishop and James Hook -- not because they are particularly brilliant but because they are Welsh will mean that two of that lot will go, Roberts and Davies most likely.

I see Richard Cockerill waffling about Manu Tuilagi. "He is on course to be the best 13 in the world," he reckons. Nurse Ratched must have been late with the pharmaceuticals round at Welford Road. Tuilagi will probably go, but I'm just not gone on having Samoans in a British and Irish selection. England might press for Owen Farrell, he is not good enough. The Scots have nobody and alarmingly neither do we. I don't think that Gatland will bother bringing D'Arcy, Earls or McFadden.

I hope Gatland doesn't pull any surprises or rationalise too much about what he wants from O'Driscoll. He should pick him if he is fit to go and play him in the test series. Gatland's only thoughts will be on winning the Test series. It is a Gatland trait to blood players. He did it when he was here and he has just done it with Wales and Lions manager Andy Irvine remarked on it last week.

I think there's so little time to blend that it would be such an ask for an inexperienced squad to gel. It would be imprudent to leave a three-time tourist at home. Gatland can be unpredictable, however, particularly if O'Driscoll's selection, or non-selection, becomes a hot topic.

Robbie Deans's Australia are struggling and he might not even be in charge come June 2013. They are vulnerable and strangely anaemic in attack. What odds Tony McGahan to be in charge by the time the Lions arrive? The touring side would be unbackable.

I am fairly certain O'Driscoll will go and this is the best chance of four attempts to win a series. If that happens, you could not stage manage a more natural curtain call.

Personally, I hope he plays till he is 54. The rugby world is a far more interesting place with him in it. Very few of the greats get to go out on their own terms. Particularly someone who has led with such precept and good example. I think providence decrees that he should.

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