| 14.5°C Dublin

O'Driscoll genius signals return of the big guns

The season can start now. The big guns are back. And the biggest of them all -- Brian O'Driscoll -- marked his return to competitive action with a try likely to match any scored over the past decade and more of his pre-eminence.

After a cracking inter-provincial encounter at Ravenhill last Friday night, Leinster's seat-of-the-pants success in Treviso heralded the return of most of their international stars; arguably too many at once, as Joe Schmidt may admit.

There are now only three weeks to the Heineken Cup, the only competition involving the provinces that truly engages the wider Irish sporting community, rendering tomorrow's ERC scrum in Dublin one of the most crucial boardroom spats of recent times.

After that, the November internationals against South Africa and Argentina, slowly revealing themselves to be a grim struggle to maintain a mediocre standing in the world game.

Despite the unevenness of Leinster's display -- featuring a full seven returnees in the starting line-up, which clearly disrupted patterns against a quasi-international pack -- Declan Kidney will have been heartened by the evidence on show.

So too Belfast on Friday night, where assistant coaches Les Kiss and Gert Smal watched on as Ronan O'Gara sought to snatch another victory with a late drop goal. But Ulster pressed and repelled effectively.

Less than 24 hours later, impressive young scrum-half John Cooney combined with Jonny Sexton to deliver a more successful rapier thrust to harvest four points with the game's final play.

Earlier, Irish captain O'Driscoll had decorated a typically Italian arm-wrestle with an equally typical moment of midfield brilliance.

He began a move that featured as its highlight a trademarked diagonal run, as somehow he found a clear path through traffic as dense as the Piazza Venezia to cut a swathe through a dazzled defence.

If Ireland's greatest player secretly craves a second captaincy of the Lions and a fourth tour in all, Saturday's small but significant declaration ferries promising portents to his old mucker Warren Gatland.

For Sexton also, a wonderful display of place-kicking and a nerveless demonstration of nous in the final seconds bodes well for his form this autumn; so too, his outstanding credentials as the stand-out stand-off candidate to tour Australia next summer.

Beneath the shadow of the luminaries, lesser lights shone, no more so than the human lighthouse that is Devin Toner; without his remarkably athletic restart capture, there would have been no breathless finish in the Stadio Comunale di Monigo. Toner is one of those players Kidney, still reeling from the humiliation of Hamilton, needs to push on in what may be the coach's last full year, given that his contract naturally expires at the end of the season.

Punished

Aside from Sexton and O'Driscoll, five other Ireland internationals returned on Saturday; its newest member, South African Richardt Strauss, came out on the wrong side of a big collision.

Mercifully, despite being removed from the field, as is normally required, aided by the security of a neck brace, the hooker seemed to have fully recovered by the time Leinster headed for home late on Saturday evening.

With Friday's dynamic duel between Paddy Jackson and Ian Keatley also offering encouraging evidence that there are more green shoots on the horizon, there were reasons to be positive.

For a short while at least. Until the sudden intrusion of tragedy after the final whistles were blown on this weekend's fare offered immediate, jarring perspective.

Irish Independent