O'Driscoll's noble defiance lifts spirits on bittersweet day for Irish
Heroic display underlines folly of captaincy call, writes John O'Brien
IF yesterday was truly the last time we see Brian O'Driscoll perform for his country on home soil – and forgive us for being sceptical – then the former Ireland captain left us with some valediction. Not with a flash memory, a dashing feint past a clutch of mesmerised defenders, a stealthy manoeuvre through the narrowest of gaps. But with a sense of noble defiance and indefatigable spirit. True to the integrity of character that has always defined him.
Inside the breathlessly frantic final 10 minutes of the game, O'Driscoll's story told something of the frenzied nature of the exchanges.
71:49: O'Driscoll off to be replaced by Conor Murray. 75:31: O'Driscoll on again to replace Murray. Back to marshall his defence again and see them home against a French side growing in strength and scenting blood. If not quite to victory then at least to the sanctuary of a draw.
O'Driscoll's initial departure came at a hugely tricky time for Ireland. Moments earlier they had lost Luke Marshall, their other centre, to injury. Fergus McFadden was gone too and, now, they were down to the bare bones. At the end Sean Cronin had come on to replace the unfortunate Eoin Reddan and Ireland had a hooker playing as a back. That was how threadbare they'd become.
And while you wouldn't over-state the significance, it was still noticeable that it was during the four minutes that O'Driscoll was off the field that Ireland's brave resistance finally wilted. They lost possession when France managed to wheel their scrum around in a dangerous position and, from it, Louis Picamoles made a successful dart for the line and Freddie Michalak kicked the conversion to tie the game.
Observing O'Driscoll as he left the field, it was a wonder that he was able to return at all, let alone four minutes later, but then the former Ireland captain has forged a long career creating such wonders. How effective he could be was open to question, perhaps, but it was palpable how his mere return lifted the crowd and that, in turn, translated to the team. It was, as someone noted, as if he was being held together by sticking plaster.
Of all the contentious decisions Declan Kidney made as Ireland coach this winter and spring, it is the removal of O'Driscoll as captain that still grates the most, where the absence of logic seems to be the most glaring. It's not that Jamie Heaslip seemed all that bad a choice and the new skipper had his moments yesterday. In everything O'Driscoll continues to do, however, there is the stamp and authority of leadership. Stripping him of the title still seems an odd thing to do.
There was a sign, perhaps, that Heaslip could be growing into the role. With 28 minutes gone yesterday, Ireland won a penalty on the right side of the field, just a metre or so outside the French 10-metre line. Paddy Jackson strolled over, looked at the posts and you could see doubt in the young out-half's mind, thinking of his Murrayfield nightmare perhaps, not chomping at the bit to be thrown the ball.
But Heaslip was as decisive in the situation as he needed to be. The wind was behind the kicker so distance wasn't a problem. The issue was confidence. And with the confidence of his captain behind him, Jackson struck his kick well and with unerring accuracy. When he lined up a penalty in almost exactly the same position three minutes later, you never doubted for a second that he would nail it. That's what confidence can do.
Yet while he took his try in the 10th minute well, Heaslip did not have the kind of influence on the game he would have liked. It is tough for any No 8 to be compared to Picamoles, but the Ireland captain did not emerge well in the comparison. In a total of 13 ball carries yesterday, the Frenchman made gains of 68 metres. In seven carries, Heaslip only made a total of 10 metres, hardly a contribution he could be satisfied with.
Neither did O'Driscoll top any of the statistical charts yesterday. He didn't make many carries. He wasn't towards the top on the tackle count. The neat grubber kick that brought Ireland deep into French territory laid the groundwork for Heaslip's crucial try and that was largely the extent of his creativity, but it wasn't really that kind of day anyway. For his sheer presence alone, and the adversity against which it came, O'Driscoll continues to give his team so much.
And, of course, it was only natural that the memory slipped back yesterday to a game against France long ago when he dashed over the line three times and firmly planted himself in a nation's consciousness. He doesn't have the pace of those days now, or maybe even the brazen skills, and yet he doesn't seem diminished as a player. And that, perhaps, is the true measure of his greatness.
As Kidney spoke yesterday, detailing the long list of injuries in his squad, he came belatedly to O'Driscoll and gave a diagnosis. "He took a heavy blow to the leg," Kidney said. "And a couple of stitches to the ear." And that was it. Nothing to lay O'Driscoll low. Nothing to keep him from coming back and rejoining his troops at the battle front.
"Yes, he has," Kidney resumed, agreeing that his former captain had shipped his fair degree of punishment. "But Brian has been doing that for Ireland for years. Please God it won't be [the last], but that will be a decision for Brian. I'm hoping it won't because he is such a huge asset to the team." And, for once at least, the Ireland coach was speaking for an entire nation.