Saturday 16 December 2017

A talent that broke the mould

Brian O'Driscoll is our nation's calling card, writes Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

At 2.32 yesterday, a few minutes behind schedule, Brian O'Driscoll entered the arena a few metres in front of his team-mates and 81,340 people stood to salute him. His 100th cap for Ireland and his 106th Test match -- it is a unique achievement in Irish rugby history by a unique player.

When it was over and Ireland had sorted Wales yet again, O'Driscoll will have been happy that he was able to leave the field in one piece, having made a modest contribution to the win. It's not often you would say that about him. His commitment was typical but his radar was out by a few degrees. And yet had he been forced off before Wales had been put to bed it would have changed the mood of the place. Not because it was his special day, more like it would have been like leaving the house unlocked.

Last week a Welshman, interested in how Ireland went from being also-rans to a nation that frequently runs over the top of Wales, asked us a pertinent question: "How important was O'Driscoll in Ireland getting to where they are now?"

The journey could not have been completed without him. Simple as that. Keith Wood was the most important Ireland player as we got to grips with professionalism in the late 1990s. He was the first to understand what the new game demanded of the new breed; the first to cop on to the returns if you got on board wholeheartedly. And the point was that Wood was old school.

Although he had only made his debut on the tour to Australia in 1994, his mentality was rooted in the amateur era of giving it as big a lash off the field as on it. The sight of Wood, a passionate and emotional player from Co Clare, taking off for Harlequins, the club of the 'City' in London, was illustrative of the changed world. That he would become their captain told you what could be achieved.

O'Driscoll's debut came only five years after Wood's but already the new era was changing again and he provided us with something different. Wood was world class, but O'Driscoll became our calling card. This worked on two levels: domestic and foreign.

Soon after he had stunned the Six Nations with his hat-trick in Paris in 2000, Brian O'Driscoll fetched up to Lansdowne Road for a schools cup game. He had gone along that day as a punter and went home as an icon. The day had started quietly enough as he was hanging out with a few pals on the Havelock Square terrace. Initially only a few kids spotted him and went over for an autograph. Soon it turned into a swarm of ants working their away across from the bottom tier of the West Stand. Autograph hunting on this scale was a new phenomenon in Irish rugby. A star had been born.

This moved up him from the back pages to the gossip slots. If it had an element of glamour for him initially -- he is a social animal after all -- it quickly lost its appeal given the amount of intrusion in his life. On a positive note, it was contributory in its own way to increasing the profile of rugby in Ireland, but the downside was that he was being snapped on the social circuit more than was healthy.

Interestingly one of the pictures that provoked most comment was taken at an Ireland session which revealed him to be carrying more ballast than was good for knifing through choppy waters. It provoked quite a bit of talk but then O'Driscoll has never gone through any period in his career when we weren't commenting on him in one way or another.

If it wasn't his match-saving tries then it was his dodgy hamstrings. And if it wasn't his chances of recovering fully from the spear tackle in the Lions versus New Zealand series in 2005 then it was the chances of him still playing his rugby in Ireland through to the 2011 World Cup. Soon after that Lions tour he took himself off to the Basque country for a little break, a sojourn that revolved around a day with the great and the good of the Biarritz club, all recorded and presented as the stepping stone to his leaving of these shores.

Bargaining tools come in various shapes and sizes. This one was short and blunt. The previous month he had been installed as Leinster captain and the next thing he was shaping to go to France? Accepting the captaincy hadn't been one of his sharpest moves for he had enough on his plate already. Agreeing to the tasty deal the IRFU put on the table for him to stay, however, was the best bit of business he has done.

The beach and the sun and the change of culture all had their attractions, but the slog of the Top 14 would have rendered them redundant.

So he stayed, and the country breathed a sigh of relief for Ireland's chances of success in any competition were always predicated on the fitness and form of Brian O'Driscoll. And that was where his calling card enhanced our foreign policy: as long as he was in the team then the team would be taken seriously. He lent further credibility to the whole exercise of self-improvement that was Ireland under Eddie O'Sullivan.

The only time that constant came into question was when his tries for Leinster dried up in 2008 and his form for Ireland went south as well, with only one try from his nine Tests that year. And questions were asked about his future. His reaction to that told you something about his personality.

O'Driscoll likes proving people wrong. There is a belligerent side to him that makes him the player that he is. It completes the composite of a brave, talented athlete who has become the best rugby player this country has ever produced. Perhaps the enduring image of him comes from Paris -- not setting the place alight in 2000, rather refusing to go off in 2006 when Ireland were being beaten out the gate.

It was scarcely credible that he stayed on in the first place, and contributed handsomely in the second half to what was a remarkable comeback, for he had suffered a dead leg that would have driven most mortals to the physio's room. And it was midway through the first half when it happened.

"If he'd walked off the field at that point you couldn't have criticised him," says Eddie O'Sullivan. "But he dug in because he knew we were in trouble. He had an 'out' and he refused to take it. You know he was in so much pain afterwards he could barely touch his leg."

He'll be sore enough this morning too but the pain will fade, knowing that he is a game away from his fifth Triple Crown. It wasn't the target at the start of the season but combined with last year's Grand Slam, it's something he will gratefully receive. And there is the prospect of more to come.

Sunday Independent

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