Saturday 16 December 2017

O'Driscoll continues to put his body on the line

Brian O'Driscoll spilled blood for Ireland's cause against Wales
Brian O'Driscoll spilled blood for Ireland's cause against Wales

AS an afternoon of wonderful theatre momentarily paused to allow 73,000 to catch their breath and the TMO to adjudge whether there was going to be yet another dramatic lurch in the narrative, a notable aside caught our attention.

With the Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny lining up what he fully expected would be confirmed as a conversion opportunity for Craig Mitchell's touchdown, Brian O'Driscoll queried the matter with referee Romain Poite.

"Is the time off?" he wondered. O'Driscoll was ensuring that Wales wouldn't be able to eke out any extra advantage as they desperately scrambled to engineer the greatest of escapes.

Monsieur Poite immediately deferred to the Irish centre's intervention. Could there really ever be another Irish captain while O'Driscoll is on the field?

Even towards the end of the first half, when Ireland chose to kick up the line, the official captain, Jamie Heaslip, was seen to look to the former skipper as he and his out-half briefly scrambled their minds for the best option.

The pointed gesture of the 34-year-old with two dodgy ankles and a surfeit of bruised limbs, but an untrammelled spirit and limitless genius, brooked not a second of argument.


As if we needed confirmation that O'Driscoll remains the real spiritual leader of this Irish side.

And we also knew that it would be nigh on impossible for Wales to even contemplate divining the most improbable of sporting miracles while Ireland's greatest ever player remained on the Millennium Stadium's rutted surface.

For, on this day, the miraculous was housed only in the visitors' dressing-room. It would have been almost unforgivable to even contemplate shutting the stadium roof and so deny the deities another opportunity to glimpse one of sport's rare jewels.

Only the brittle bones that have so recently sidelined O'Driscoll can deny him a place in this summer's Lions tour to Australia, a lone consolation for the watching Warren Gatland.

On this evidence, one would not be surprised if O'Driscoll himself piloted the plane to Australia. Or, perhaps, walked the oceans to get there.

On Saturday, as he slotted in at scrum-half, we wondered why he hadn't also thrown in from touch when Rory Best saw yellow.

Even when swathed in a bandage that made him appear as a cross between Terry Butcher and Basil Fawlty, the impossible is always within reach for this great warrior. Now more than ever.

Irish coach Declan Kidney stoutly rebutted any notion that removing the captaincy from the centre – a decision that now becomes even more courageous and bold – was designed to provoke a response from the player.

Indeed not. What further motivation does a master of his art require? If Kidney was guilty of anything other than prompting an overtly sentimental reaction in Irish people who treat O'Driscoll as if he were a cherished family member, it was perhaps to remind us all of the player's sporting mortality.

That O'Driscoll has himself so recently returned to the subject of when, rather than if, his retirement date looms illustrates the fragile grip that he retains at the highest level of the sport.

Around these parts, they revere their legends too. Within the bowels of the stadium, the faces of legends bedeck the walls. When it seems as if the faces seem to come alive, it usually is because they do, particularly when there are corporate functions around every corner.

JPR Williams jinks into view, bemoaning the fact that Wales seem to have selected on reputation rather than form. O'Driscoll's name is mentioned. "He," Williams intones, "is always an exception to the rule."

With O'Driscoll, temporary form and permanent class are indelibly wedded.

"Brian is brilliant," says Kidney, in a tone bordering on the elegiac. "Always has been. Always will be."

A beacon for that often uncomfortably tagged golden generation who, in international terms at least, remained unfulfilled, O'Driscoll now stands sentry to usher in another production line of talent.

He will not be around to see them fully mature, but his influence on a wave of seemingly irrepressible and fearless talents cannot be underestimated.

Simon Zebo, as we mused in these pages on Friday, may have already become a global phenomenon thanks to his 'tekkers'. But it is to the legacy of O'Driscoll that he owes so much.

Is it that impossible to conceive of the precocious Cork schoolboy practising such tricks in his back garden, all the while imagining himself in the role of someone who all schoolchildren adored?

Now they share the same field and, as we witnessed so wonderfully at the weekend, the same extraordinary vision for seemingly impossible feats.


The torch is being imperceptibly passed on to generation next; O'Driscoll may soon be generation ex but he clearly intends to wring the most from every ebbing fibre of his being.

The gift of telepathy that created Zebo's opening try was a rare thing indeed, prompting Shaun Edwards, Wales' defence coach, to mutter darkly that he wished "somebody had left him back in Ireland".

O'Driscoll deployed the body of the flailing Alex Cuthbert, as a soccer player might use a defensive wall as target to curl a shot on target, before drifting a sublime pass that, when it left his hands, survived in a momentarily ethereal space, for the intended receiver was barely in the picture.

"I'm not going to say it's classic Brian O'Driscoll," he laughed afterwards. "I just saw it was a set play and we just tweaked it a little bit because the option that we usually take wasn't on and it was on the outside.

"Simon had to run a great line, he had to trust that I was getting through the gap and putting the ball there and he's got a striker's potency.

"He just likes to finish tries and you could just see his skill level with the second try, it was a joke, you know – keeping the ball up with his foot, it's nice to watch.

"It's nice having those guys on your team rather than playing against them."

That intense belief that Zebo – with whom O'Driscoll has only once played with before and never with the Munster man on the wing – would be in the right place at the right time mirrors the conviction slowly coursing through this team once more.

Having belatedly produced back-to-back international performances of consistently high quality, Kidney's uncanny ability to extract still more from himself and his players could announce another campaign of potential achievement.

It will seem like a new era, but a familiar sentry will be the guardian to the transition.

"I don't think it makes any difference," he adds of his post-captaincy status after a 10th success against Wales and a fifth try on Welsh soil.

"I still see myself as a leader within the team and helping Jamie out where I can. And I don't think you play any differently if you have the captaincy or not, you just go out to play the best you can and lead by the way you play."

This is the soldier's creed.

O'Driscoll may have been stripped of his captaincy. But his genius can never be removed.

Irish Independent

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