Kiwi first to see something special in the UCD student
WHEN Warren Gatland included a fresh-faced Brian O'Driscoll among the replacements in Ireland's squad for their friendly with Italy in 1999, very few people knew who he was.
He was four months past his 20th birthday and had yet to play a senior game for Leinster. He had made his Ireland U-21 debut two months previously – against France in Musgrave Park when he lined up at inside centre.
He went on to play four times for the U-21 side to add to his three Ireland Schools caps and his appearances for Ireland at the U-19 Rugby World Championships. Plenty of players had trod that path before without completing the journey to senior level.
Gatland saw something special in the UCD scholarship student and, in the summer of 1999, he was included in the Ireland senior squad that toured Australia. He started the first game of the Tour against New South Wales and he scored a penalty and a conversion.
He also started the game against the Waratahs before winning his first senior cap in the first Test against Australia.
He also started the second Test a week later. His first try for Ireland came in the World Cup warm-up game against the USA in Lansdowne Road and his place in the team was cemented by the time Ireland travelled to France for the 1999 World Cup.
The last game of the 1999 tournament was the nadir of Gatland's tenure as Ireland coach as they lost 28-24 to Argentina in their quarter-final meeting in Lens. The tournament offered a major compensation, however, for it confirmed that the young O'Driscoll was the real deal.
The high point of their association came in Paris less than a year later when O'Driscoll announced himself to the rugby world with his hat-trick of tries as Ireland beat France in Paris for the first time since 1972.
It was a magnificent individual performance and one that hastened his elevation to the world-class standard he carries to this day.
His performances for the Lions in 2001 also won rave reviews, with his try in the first Test in Brisbane a particular highlight.
It is astonishing to realise that this memorable score will now be recorded for ever more as his only try in a Lions Test after eight appearances spanning 12 years.
His and Gatland's paths crossed again in 2009 when the Kiwi was one of Ian McGeechan's assistants on the Lions Tour to South Africa.
O'Driscoll commands enormous respect among the players of all nations and his presence is such that it was suggested that he was a leading candidate to captain the tour party this year. He was expected to captain the team on Saturday in Sam Warburton's absence.
Instead, Gatland has brought the Lions career of one of the game's greatest ever players to a premature end by omitting him from the 23-man match-day squad altogether.