Tuesday 21 November 2017

'I don't want to take the jersey off because I know it will be for the last time'

Brian O'Driscoll
Brian O'Driscoll
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip celebrate
Brian O'Driscoll with the Six Nations trophy after the match at the Stade de France
Brian O'Driscoll celebrates after the game with former teammates Shane Horgan (L) and Ronan O'Gara
Brian O'Driscoll in the dressing room after the game
David Kelly

David Kelly

From a boy to a man and back again. Like a reluctant child who doesn't want his birthday party to end, Brian O'Driscoll (35) is still wearing his jersey as he emerges late in the gloaming to speak.

He simply dares not remove it – for what then, when he finally discards the garment that has defined him for his entire adult life?

"I think he'll be good at whatever he does," muses Joe Schmidt. "In the short term, that's probably a house husband!"

Throughout his career, it has been everyone else that has defined him; O'Driscoll has latterly, though, become more than comfortable enough to be able to define himself.

And yet, though this has been Ireland's day, it has also been O'Driscoll's life. And now this portion, this rather significant slice of his being, has concluded.

That it did so in such joyous fashion makes it natural that the little boy in the man did not want the party to end.

"Just sheer delight," he exhales; as happy a sigh as ever was emitted. "I played on for one more year and was hopeful of getting a victory against the All Blacks, but it didn't happen. And then to win a Six Nations and that did happen.

"You can't have it all, but you take the bits that you get. It has been a fantastic Six Nations for us and I have enjoyed every second of it.

"Whatever it is, an hour and 45 minutes after the game, I don't want to take this jersey off yet. Because I know when I take it off, that will be the last time.


"It would be weird if I put it on at home and started walking around in it, so I'm dragging the arse out of it a little bit."

Someone asks if he will part with it; not a hope. He'll always have Paris – and the jersey that defined him for a generation.

In the Irish dressing-room, a congress of wildly extreme emotions were fused together from the start of the day to its exhausted conclusion, from the almost quietly confessional pre-match ceremony to, finally, the almost Bacchanalian scene that greeted onlookers as the detritus of beer cans, pizza boxes and champagne corks formed a pile of giddiness.

O'Driscoll choked on his own thinly concealed emotions a few times on Saturday; when he spoke to RTE's Claire McNamara, he almost coughed up a frog as he referred, ever so briefly, to the hushed sanctuary which the Ireland team had entered many hours, it seemed like days, earlier.

"I don't know if he cried," Schmidt revealed. "I just tapped him on the shoulder and said: 'It's a special day, you don't know how many special days you're going to get in a career or in a lifetime.'

"This guy's had some special ones. But he'd have loved for this one to be particularly special. Then I said to them, let's make sure we do the best we can to make sure that happens."

It had been the only reference to retirement all week; Italy had catered for that expressive excess. This was about the purposeful process. The emotion would wait.

"Joe just told us that he's one of the best players that ever pulled on the jersey and it was kind of up to us," informs Devin Toner, before checking himself. "No, it wasn't up to us, it was up to everyone, to make it a good day for him.

"You want to get your own job right, you don't want to let your team-mates down. But at the back of your head, you know that it's his last international, that this is his last season.

"Yeah, deep down it is. But we don't really speak about it to be honest, because we're all professional players and we all understand what's going on."

This squad could hardly be compelled to freight the baggage of an expectant nation, never mind shoulder the burden of a team-mate.

But when the result is delivered, the immediate joy is as limitless – albeit so brief – as the satisfaction is deep.

And, in that moment of lachrymose release, O'Driscoll, who had helped to transport so many to such a special place, returned to himself.

The man was a little boy again.

"You're not yourself sometimes when you're being interviewed," he told us. "It feels like you're trying to present a certain way and after scenarios like today, it comes out a bit more. And you are yourself. Particularly, when it is the end.

"You just have to be as natural as you can be. There was some emotion. And I'm sure over the next minutes and hours and week, when it sinks in, there will be more.

"I know when I pull off this jersey in a few minutes time – and I actually do have a shower because I know I have to shower tonight! – then it will be hard.

"There were some great emotions in the dressing-room and I am sure there will be tears later – when there are multiple beers on board probably.

"It's a lovely way to finish out in a jersey I have had so much fun in over the last 15 years. I feel very grateful to be able to finish on such a high after a lot of nearlys."

The gratitude will be generally and generously shared.

Paris in the spring will always hold a special place in the heart of O'Driscoll and also those of so many of his compatriots.

The planets of sporting achievement rarely align so adroitly; O'Driscoll in 2000 ushered in fresh promise of a golden age in Irish rugby; his departure will not necessarily conclude it.

The broader popularity of the sport now, as opposed to then, owes as much to O'Driscoll's immense presence as it does to the qualities to which so many of his contemporaries have aspired.

"It's the work ethic," explains Schmidt, as if detailing the job spec of an Irish rugby pro as authored by the departing Dubliner. "Knowing you have all these special attributes, but still maintaining that desire to work harder as you get older.

"He'd make a great coach," the Kiwi adds deeper into the night. "He's intelligent, he's got great values, he's hard-working, he's a great role model for people and he knows the game inside out. Certainly I've learned a lot from him."

"For me it was a pleasure and an honour to play against Brian O'Driscoll, because for me he is my reference as a centre, along with Tana Umaga," says the hulking French 13 Bastareaud.

"I remember when I was younger, I watched him on TV and today I played in his last game. Good luck to him. He is maybe the most clever. You watch him, his peripheral vision; in defence and in attack, good skill. He is very complete.

"His aura is very impressive. I think a lot of players will be happy to see the back of him."

O'Driscoll will now turn to Leinster and the quest for more titles, beginning back in France and another meeting with Toulon's Bastareaud next month. Such is the ephemeral nature of sporting success; the race is never over. O'Driscoll's marathon has entered the final laps.

Bastareaud speaks selfishly when reminded of the renewal of the duel.

"Poor me!" He puffs. The broad grin betrays the mood of the day. Enduring respect for a man, not so much out of time, but simply timeless.

His moment has passed; even for folk who never left their armchairs, the memories will re-awaken in so many for some time to come.

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