Monday 11 December 2017

Managing spare hours will be icon's most daunting challenge as time catches up with him

O'Driscoll heading for brave new world, but legendary centre may find it impossible to escape clutches of game he loves

Brian O'Driscoll
Brian O'Driscoll
David Kelly

David Kelly

"To say goodbye is to die a little."

– Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

THE great Aussie Rules coach Allan Jeans was a tad starker than the jaundiced crime writer.

"The hardest time in a man's life is when he faces death," Jeans opined. "The hardest time in a footballer's life is when he faces retirement."

Brian O'Driscoll has experienced death within his intimate circle, so he would spurn Shankly-esque observations such as these.

In his case, retirement has been a well-planned venture – it has been cleverly stage-managed for much of this season despite the player's good-natured grumblings. This particular leaving has not featured the unbidden assault of a thief in the night; the steady accumulation of carriage clocks illustrate that O'Driscoll has managed to control the timing of his exit to almost clinical perfection.

Time has ruled his professional life. When to eat. When to rest. When to train. When to sleep. Kick-off times. Photo-op times. Training times.

Time has kidnapped more than half his life. From late this evening, he will have unburdened himself of its remorseless grip.

Time will then be his to bend to his own will in whatever way he sees fit. He will, as 'Satchmo' once sung in that smoky voice of his, have all the time in the world.

What happens next? In the absence of the routine that has dominated his life for so long, it will be fascinating to see how he, like so many others in the professional sports world, manages the surfeit of hours at his disposal.

If he is not careful, even though no longer rigidly bound by its grip, time could easily become his captor again, simply because he will have too much of it.

As the great New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton put it: "I spent my whole life gripping a baseball, and in the end I found out that all along it was the other way around.''

Can O'Driscoll prise his fingers from the oval ball with any less difficulty?

Every time he wakes up in the middle of the night with a stinging rebuke from his aching limbs of the many battle scars accrued during his unforgiving commitment to the game, it will serve as a lasting reminder of his past life.

"Trust me, I'm not worried about the next three months, they're going to be a laugh," O'Driscoll said last month.

"It's what happens after that. Trepidation is probably too strong a word, but I did use that, you're not putting words in my mouth.

"It's coming from something that you're so comfortable with, feel totally at home with, in which you offer so much. Then going into something else where others feel you still have as much to give, but in your own head you have to adapt.

"You have to understand that new role. It's about getting that right and I will have to get myself out of the comfort zone a little. I've done that a little recently, I've pushed myself in a few different ways. That's exciting for me."

The personal transition of O'Driscoll will be fascinating to behold.

So too the transition faced by Leinster, one that continues to be freighted with ripples of anxiety, notwithstanding the quite conceivable conclusion to their season this evening which could see the province raise their seventh trophy in seven years.

Not to do so, as one of their senior players this week averred, would represent a "step back" for the province; others have routinely tossed the word "failure" into convenient soundbites.

While Jamie Heaslip's more holistic view would seem to be more appropriate to an organisation that continues to shed so much of what has made them great in recent times – Isa Nacewa, Joe Schmidt, Johnny Sexton, Leo Cullen, O'Driscoll – his temperance rarely finds solace when so many supporters have become wedded to unprecedented success.

If it was difficult to bridge the gap bequeathed by such rampant, influential personalities as Sexton and Schmidt, in particular, how much more imponderable the task to adequately compensate for the greatest player this country has ever seen?

The new coach, Matt O'Connor, will have to deal with this reality next season with the same ruggedly Antipodean stoicism with which he has coped this season.

The temptation for O'Driscoll to retain a link with Leinster is endearing, if fraught with peril. He is naturally wary of the opaque, vague association rendered by the catch-all term of 'ambassador'.

The steely competitor within would rage against such a folly. Comrades have suggested a coaching route would appeal but only O'Driscoll, in his quieter moments following his summer family beak, can tussle with this invitation.

Of all the memories of O'Driscoll in blue, two less memorable, if highly significant cameos, stand out for this writer.

The first is the hat-trick he scored against Agen in a Heineken Cup game at Lansdowne Road, one of the scores a race to the corner with the storied Rupeni Caucaunibuca, who nearly caught him despite offering a 10-metre start.

At one stage, O'Driscoll, who had been ill all week, churned the contents of his stomach on the half-way line.

The second is a meeting in Dublin when the newly-announced Lions captain had, a day before, shrugged off a hamstring injury that had so debilitated him he had sought refuge for the first time in sports psychology.

Both of these instances highlighted an integral truth about O'Driscoll. Just when it seemed like he might have no more to offer, he offered much, much more than anyone could ever contemplate.

And so, while tonight may mean goodbye, it may only be a farewell. O'Driscoll will leave the game but it will be impossible for the game to leave him.

Irish Independent

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