Reputations count for nothing in fight to take centre stage – O'Driscoll
BRIAN O'DRISCOLL'S love-affair with Australia started 12 years ago when he made his Lions debut as a fresh-faced 22-year-old.
The Dubliner is the only survivor from that 2001 Lions squad, and yesterday he recalled how it all started for him in unfamiliar territory against Western Australia – "the one and only time in my career I've ever played at full-back".
O'Driscoll announced his burgeoning greatness on that Tour with an individual try in the first Test that is still raved about in these parts. He took a pass inside his own half and scythed through the Australian defence to touch down.
It was a try that gave the world a glimpse of his brilliance; 12 years on and he will captain a Lions side for the sixth time in his career tomorrow, an achievement that will be made more special by dint of having seven of his Ireland team-mates for company.
O'Driscoll's relationship with Australia actually dates back to 1999, when he made his Ireland debut against the Wallabies – "I played against one of my heroes in Tim Horan" – and was cemented when he toured the country with the 2001 Lions.
"In 2001, I was a young guy just starting out on my career. It was all very new to me," he recalled.
"I was just trying to go with the flow and feel my way into things, and pulling on the jersey for the first time was a very, very special moment and something I'll always remember."
O'Driscoll has always been generous in his praise of Australia and enjoys touring there.
"I like it because I enjoy the country, the people, the big mixture to it. I enjoy the weather, and I enjoy playing against some of the top opposition.
"When you play Australia and Australian teams, you have to really try and out-think them.
"That is another factor to the game besides trying to out-muscle them and being more physical than them. You have to be tactically astute both in attack and defensively.
"All of those things make it an exciting proposition. I have fond memories of good days, some not so good days. Some of my best memories of rugby are playing against Australia and in Australia."
O'Driscoll forms part of a potentially lethal centre partnership tomorrow alongside human wrecking ball Manu Tuilagi.
Even though he quipped that he will simply spend the match following the Samoan-born England international around the pitch to take advantage of his wave of destruction, there is no doubting O'Driscoll can benefit from his partner's strong running game.
"It is a very exciting prospect playing with him," said O'Driscoll. "He has got a really good range to his game. People see the strong ball-carrier in him and the destructive tackler when he makes contact, but he has an array of skills that probably don't get the credit they deserve.
"It's definitely an exciting feeling partnering him, and I'm looking forward to our first outing."
O'Driscoll believes that the performances of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts against the Barbarians have thrown down the gauntlet to him and the squad's other centres.
"Definitely. The competition for the centre is very strong," he said.
"Reputations don't count for anything. We're very, very strong in the centre. The two boys played well in very difficult conditions. Now the baton is passed to me and Manu to try and stake our claim."
The excitement at finally being in Australia was tempered by the confirmation that Rob Kearney's tour is in jeopardy.
"I hope he is able to prove his fitness over the course of next week because he can be a great addition to any side," said O'Driscoll of his Leinster and Ireland team-mate.
"That he has been given a bit of time to get it right speaks volumes for the calibre of player he is, and what a big impact he had on the Lions tour four years ago when he came off the bench in that first Test."
O'Driscoll brings a wealth of experience to the Lions, and his presence in the team outside half-backs Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray could prove significant.
The familiarity he has linking with his Ireland colleagues could be an effective element of the Lions' play.
It will be interesting to see whether O'Driscoll and Sexton can replicate some of the dynamic back movements that have been a feature of Leinster's play in recent seasons.
Familiarity breeds confidence and expectation, and the Irish players in this team tomorrow can strike a compelling case for a Test place if they bring the momentum and excitement that illuminated the end-of-season performances of Leinster, Ulster and Munster to bear at this level.
From an Irish point of view, this could prove one of the most significant matches of the tour.