'It's time for the Lions to kick on to the next level'
It is a dozen years since Brian O'Driscoll first pulled on a Lions shirt in anger. The 22-year-old Dubliner, a star in the making, played with a 15 on his back and ran in one of 18 tries as Western Australia were mauled in Perth. That star is still ascendant and it is once again in Australia's westernmost city beneath its clear, bright skies that O'Driscoll is likely to begin his final tour a week tomorrow.
The familiar red shirt was back on yesterday – the last member of the original party to be kitted out – covering a frame that is older, wiser, significantly more battered and, sotto voce, not quite possessing the turn of speed of old. But it is also one that is no less important to the success or failure of this expedition Down Under. O'Driscoll's presence on the plane that departed for Hong Kong last night matters as much as it always did.
It is a mark of his standing that only Willie John McBride and Mike Gibson have been on more Lions tours. But here's the rub for O'Driscoll. His two mighty compatriots both enjoyed a series victory. O'Driscoll was on the losing side in 2001, 2005 and in 2009, although the middle tour demands an asterisk as his part in the series in New Zealand lasted barely a minute before he was carried off, the victim of a brutal spear tackle.
It offers a rare failure on O'Driscoll's garlanded CV, as it does for all the party who assembled in London on Sunday for a farewell banquet. It is 16 years and counting since the Lions won a series.
"It is really important (to win)," says O'Driscoll. "I think we probably gained back a little bit of belief in what the Lions was about in '09 by creating such a great series, albeit we did lose it 2-1 (in South Africa). They were keenly contested games and could have gone either way, having come off the 3-0 loss to New Zealand in '05.
"But for the franchise point of view, we do need to win on occasion and I think that occasion has reappeared after 16 years. It's a long time to still be talking about '97 – we have to create fresh memories so people can talk about more recently than two years after the advent of professionalism! It's time to kick on to the next level."
Australia has been a persistent backdrop to O'Driscoll's career. He made his Ireland debut in Brisbane in 1999 and it was at the same venue two years later that he demonstrated to the rugby world at large just what he could do with a scintillating break from the halfway line to clinch the opening Lions Test.
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"It was all new to me back then," he recalls. "I was just delighted to be on the tour and then getting in the Test team. Now you're able to look back and realise what a massive missed opportunity that was, how we had them in that second Test and we didn't finish them off. You subsequently look back having been on two other tours and you realise how hard it is to win a series."
Skip over 2005 and take 2009. O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts united in a thunderous centre pairing that came painfully close to collecting a victory in South Africa. Both put bodies on the line and by the third Test those bodies were not fit for purpose. Fitness has become more of a concern for O'Driscoll in recent years; the sheer wear and tear of taking to the field 125 times for Ireland and six for the Lions – not forgetting weekly duties with Leinster – in a sport that becomes ever more physically brutal takes an inevitable toll.
He has an occasionally dodgy back – it kept him out of Leinster's Amlin Cup final victory but he was back for Saturday's Pro12 triumph over Ulster to secure another honour for the trophy cabinet – and had an up-and-down Six Nations. The opening-weekend win in Wales clearly demonstrated he still has it; the yellow card and closing-day defeat in Rome would have been no way to bow out of international rugby.
O'Driscoll may not be captaining a second Lions tour but recognises he will still be there to lead, not least because so many of the squad, from the youngest in Stuart Hogg upwards, look to him. The centres are perhaps the most competitive of the 15 Lions starting shirts. O'Driscoll and Roberts are joined by Jonathan Davies and Manu Tuilagi. Pick any two from four. Yet to Roberts, BOD remains the "father" and he and the other two his disciples.
"I'll certainly be adding my tuppence worth," says O'Driscoll. "There is a big onus on some of the senior players to help take some of the pressure off Sam (Warburton, the captain). He is obviously a good talker but he is also a followy-type of leader. He has a nice balance to his leadership. I've always found when I was captain when other people were doing the talking for me I didn't need to do as much, and when I did say one or two things people tended to listen all the more. We can help him out in that regard. All successful teams have four or five leaders littered throughout it – let's hope this one is no different."
This will be his last time on a Lions tour but there will be one more year for Leinster and Ireland when he returns from Down Under. Only then will he put an end to an adulthood so far spent chasing winters around the world.
Many had expected this season to be his last but for all that the body may have moments when it whispers stop, the mind is made up. There are more games to be won, legends to be written by the men in red shirts.
"The great thing about another opportunity is there's no boundaries to what you can achieve," suggests O'Driscoll. "I'm an eternal optimist." (© Independent News Service)