Rising to the challenge
HOW do you replace an icon? Ask Mick O'Driscoll. The build-up to the recent Heineken Cup quarter-final against Northampton was a head-wrecking exercise for the 31-year-old Munster second-row.
Paul O'Connell had not played since Ireland's anti-climactic finale against Scotland at the end of March and the media frenzy centred on whether the Munster's captain's groin injury would allow him to face the Saints.
Northampton were coming to Thomond Park bullish after a run of victories across the water and spoke confidently -- and imprudently -- of how the Limerick ground held 'no fears' for them after their January visit for the pool game they felt they should have won.
English brio was further enhanced by Leinster's victory in Thomond in the much-hyped Good Friday game when the home team, sans O'Connell, were comfortably contained by the European champions.
The medics were working hard to get O'Connell fit and he was named in the team on the Friday, but O'Driscoll (right) had a fair idea by Tuesday that he was likely to start.
He had played well against Leinster, had been playing well all season, in fact, when he regularly captained the side while O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara were away on international duty.
And yet all he was hearing was how much Munster needed O'Connell against the giant Northampton pack. Courtney Lawes, his Northampton counterpart, was being talked up incessantly -- it seemed the young Englishman could leap like a salmon, burst through concrete and eat a whole calf at one sitting while playing the spoons.
Without O'Connell, it was posited repeatedly, Munster were in trouble. They had lost their 'Roy Keane factor' their 'once more unto the breach' leader and the Saints were in town to make them pay -- not a word about the man who would start in O'Connell's stead.
Munster overwhelmed Northampton with a performance that was a physical lesson in the perils of talking yourselves up before you come to Limerick and O'Driscoll was pivotal in the second-row. There was plenty said about O'Driscoll afterwards among delighted fans and colleagues, with coach Tony McGahan singling him out for special mention.
"The forwards were tremendous as they have been under scrutiny all season. Following the loss of Paul we needed to step up to the mark and we did that. Mick O'Driscoll was excellent coming in for Paul."
O'Driscoll has never been one to seek or hog the limelight and he was not about to do so after Northampton. But, privately, there was a massive sense of relief and self-justification.
If Munster had lost, the post-mortems would have honed in on the absence of O'Connell and he would have been tainted by association irrespective of how he played.
Instead, the focus was on how well he had performed, a hugely satisfying moment in a long career that has had its share of peaks and troughs.
O'Driscoll's rugby path is the classic Leeside one of PBC Cork, University College Cork, Cork Constitution and Munster. He was on the radar from his school days, but failed to make the Ireland team and it was when he joined the skull-and-crossbones ranks of UCC that O'Driscoll -- as the victory chant goes -- began to make them "gasp and grin."
Even in university sides characterised by their youth, it was unusual for front-five forwards to go straight from school into the senior side. The customary route was via two years with the U-20s, but such was O'Driscoll's impact on joining College that coach Brian Hickey lobbed the teenager straight into the second-row.
It was a good UCC side that would develop into a European title-winning outfit a few seasons later.
Some players, like their will o' the wisp scrum-half with the bullet pass and the footballing centre who always took the right option, would go on to enjoy productive careers with Munster and Ireland. But, besides Peter Stringer and John Kelly, there were other talents such as out-half John O'Mahony, O'Driscoll's second-row partner John Fitzgerald and openside Donnacha Murphy who would grace the club scene for years afterwards.
The All-Ireland League was an uncompromising place in the 1990s. Teams would look for a weakness and try to exploit it ruthlessly and the gangling teenager in the UCC second-row was singled out for heavy treatment.
However, for all the attempts to rough him up, O'Driscoll was unfazed -- helped by the fact his older brother John, a quality tight-head prop who would go on to enjoy a long career with Con, was there to help out if required. O'Driscoll's reputation soared, in keeping with his line-out and restart play, he was on the Ireland U-21 side two years running and Declan Kidney gave him his Munster debut in August 1998 when he was still 19.
That was the first of 157 appearances which took him up to last Sunday when he led a "team of kids" to Galway for a match they were expected to lose against Connacht and was superb again as Munster came away with a significant victory.
To make so many appearances is particularly laudable given the calibre of second-row he has competed with at Munster -- men of the quality of Mick Galwey, John Langford, O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan.
There were two seasons in Perpignan after the French club came calling in 2003, having been impressed by O'Driscoll's assured ball-winning abilities over the course of two pool games the previopus season.
It was a good time to try something different, O'Driscoll was in his mid-20s, the 'Big Os' were established in the Munster engine room and, despite injury issues meaning he did not contribute as much to Perpignan as he would have liked, it was an experience he thoroughly enjoyed.
It's a nice part of the world and O'Driscoll still has a house down there, while he remains good friends with the likes of Perry Freshwater and Manny Edmunds, other nomads who found a home at the Stade Aime Giral.
Kidney was back at the helm when O'Driscoll returned to play his part in their 2006 European triumph, making eight appearances (including four starts) on the run to the title. Two years later, O'Driscoll was even more influential as O'Connell fought injury, starting all six pool games without receiving the credit he deserved as the focus, inevitably switched to O'Connell's return.
Internationally, O'Drisoll has won 17 caps between 2001 and 2009, but only five of them were starts and only two of those in the Six Nations. Last year, Kidney called him up midway through the Grand Slam campaign in place of Malcolm O'Kelly, but O'Driscoll got no game-time. Repeated mention was made of the contribution of the squad members in training and around the hotel and O'Driscoll was glad to be involved in such a wonderful success, yet he also felt strangely removed from it all as he hadn't contributed on the pitch. This was summed up by his restrained pose in the famous Grand Slam celebration picture as colleagues whooped and hollered next to him.
But, though that was an undeniably weird experience, the second-row with the soft hands deserved to be proud of his role in the Irish rugby success story that culminated in that glory day in Cardiff last year and, 13 months on, he remains hugely important in Munster's attempt to land their third European title.
Last season, the emergence of the versatile Donnacha Ryan meant O'Driscoll suddenly found himself out of the Heineken Cup match-day squad and, with various clubs sniffing around, he considered a switch when his contract was up. However, as has been shown time and again, the Munster pull-factor is incredibly powerful with the bond among the players the foundation and impetus for their achievements. O'Driscoll is close friends with chief competitors O'Connell and O'Callaghan -- a situation which would not exist at many clubs -- and is the personification of the team ethic that defines this squad.
Married to Alice with a baby due in July, O'Driscoll is happy where he is and Munster are happy to have him. His standing in a dressing-room that demands the highest standards is beyond reproof and he is a man that younger players look up to and admire.
Now, Biarritz are looming and, once again, the papers and airwaves are full of speculation about O'Connell's fitness and how it affects Munster's chances in Spain.
But O'Driscoll has heard it all and done it all before -- the 'icon-replacer' is ready to cast his own shadow.