Wednesday 13 December 2017

O'Driscoll out to make his final lap one to remember

Leinster legend's swansong season set to kick off in style against struggling Cardiff

David Kelly

David Kelly

And so the final lap begins for Brian Gerald O'Driscoll.

Aptly enough, the greatest player this island has produced will begin his swansong season on the very ground – the RDS – where the repeated exhortations of his name by adoring supporters swayed him to prolong his gilded career for "one more year".

With a glittering testimonial in the pipeline, another autobiography due to hit the shelves and a spectacular 'Late Late Show' mooted, it promises to be a frenetic few months for the Dubliner.

Oh, and then there's the small matter of some ball too.

Lest it be remembered, his impact off the field only derives from his immeasurable influence upon it.

And so, in a season which threatens the burgeoning promise of an Ireland farewell with the coach who he has admitted has been his greatest influence, and the beginning of another key relationship at provincial level, O'Driscoll will seek salvage in a familiar resource.

Himself alone. For O'Driscoll made this comeback not for the fans, or Joe Schmidt, or Matt O'Connor. But for himself.

This evening will offer the slimmest glimpse into what the final year may hold for a player who will continue to defy the dying light with every sinew of his being. The only detractors he must thwart are those within his own head.

There is little to suggest from his recent past, at least not since his last period of vivid introspection some five years ago, that this will prove beyond his remarkable powers of productivity.

The perceptions from the outside will, as always, intervene in those discussions. This is a player whose last professional appearance was a fitfully inglorious occasion, as he mingled with a winning Lions squad in Australia despite his most brutal omission from that successful congregation.

Neither Ireland nor Leinster can boast such a magnificence of resources to dole out the same curt, professional dismissal of his genius; nevertheless, his displays will be initially, and predominantly, viewed through that prism held up so coldly by Warren Gatland.

WALLOW

O'Driscoll, however, will not wallow in the past – his decision to play for one more year was predicated on what might happen in the future, not what had occurred before.

It is the ageless quandary of the pro; how to choose a departure at the time of one's own choosing.

Gatland's culling of him might have added a sour note to the epilogue of a wonderful career had he stuck with his original instinct to quit last summer; by staying on, he will hope to formulate one final, sensational chapter.

This evening will provide an aperitif to the feast of Heineken Cup and November clashes to come with, amongst others, those pesky New Zealanders, against whom he remains lucklessly winless.

However, with O'Driscoll joining a fab four of returning Lions – Cian Healy and Rob Kearney make their first full starts after cameos last week while Jamie Heaslip appears for the first time – there is an authentic sense of the real business of this season kicking off tonight.

With this in mind, it is perhaps fitting that Ian Madigan finally gets his chance to convince the new headmaster that he can verify the out-half's self-stated claim to be the long-term successor to Jonny Sexton in the pivotal role.

Jimmy Gopperth has filled in satisfactorily enough but there were enough chinks in the side's recent travails against Ospreys and Glasgow to provoke a sense that Madigan's promptings could be more urgent.

For a player not lacking in self-confidence, Cardiff will offer a sustained test but tonight could kickstart a significant month in this new phase of Madigan's career as he seeks to bed himself down ahead of the upcoming Munster clash and Heineken Cup games.

His season as first-choice 10 was always slated to tiptoe into full gear; the coach's cajolings have been a tad over-stressed in certain quarters.

In a further boost to Leinster, Ireland back Fergus McFadden and second- row Quinn Roux have recovered from their respective injuries to also take their places in a starting line-up that shows 12 changes to last week's cast.

The warring Anglo/French factions tearing away at the fabric of European rugby can only sit and seethe at such largesse; Leinster's languid introduction of their big hitters only adds fuel to their fire.

The hardest working man in Irish rugby, prop Mike Ross, is named on the bench.

Cardiff, whose decline as a serious force was marked by their gift to Zebre in offering the Italians their first ever win in Pro12 rugby last weekend, welcome back their own significant Lions representative, captain Sam Warburton, ahead of schedule.

"We're playing the champions in their own back yard," said director of rugby Phil Davies. "That is a pretty big challenge and we're looking forward to it. We're a proud bunch of players and we want to go out and perform."

Aside from Ulster, no side have emerged from Dublin with a win in 17 attempts but after stuttering against two of their title rivals in the last fortnight, ceding a 10-match unbeaten run in all competitions, they will be keen to restore their winning ways.

With or without their greatest player, such an outcome would be a formality for Leinster. O'Driscoll will just gild another notable landmark in his career.

And more portentously, he will dearly hope, a positive start to a season of high watermarks.

Verdict: Leinster

Leinster – R Kearney; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll, N Reid, D Kearney; I Madigan, I Boss; C Healy, S Cronin, M Moore; D Toner, Q Roux; R Ruddock, D Ryan, J Heaslip (capt). Reps: A Dundon, J McGrath, M Ross, T Denton, J Murphy, J Cooney, J Gopperth, B Macken.

Cardiff Blues – L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, O Williams, D Hewitt, H Robinson; R Patchell, L Williams; S Hobbs, M Rees (capt), T Filise; L Reed, F Paulo; J Navidi, S Warburton, A Pretorius. Reps: K Dacey, T Davies, S Andrews, J Down, R Copeland, L Jones, G Davies, C Allen.

Ref – M Mitrea (Italy)

Leinster v Cardiff Blues,

Live, TG4, 7.35

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