'I do believe he's the northern hemisphere's best ever player'
On Saturday in Stade de France, Brian O'Driscoll brings down the curtain on a Test career that first grabbed the world's attention on the same stage in 2000.
What had started in Brisbane in June 1999 exploded in Paris nine months later with a stunning hat-trick. A star was born. Brendan Fanning talks to a host of people who played with him and plotted against him over the course of a unique, record-breaking journey
I had played 17 Tests by the time Brian came on board in 1999 but he didn't need much looking after. We knew almost straight away on that Australian tour he was going to be special. After the first game he was straight into the Test team. All the lads rated him and he was so easy to play with – give him some space and he was off. At the start you kind of go out of your way to help new guys and everyone is staying out doing extras after training. I remember he was like a sponge and he learned things so quickly. There was an aura about him, an unbelievable talent. He was a good roomie as well. We were on a few tours together and he was popular with the lads. To be honest, I'm glad I was able to share some of the journey with him. I still think of the lads I know there in Test week and wonder what they're up to, including Brian. He's an icon isn't he? And he's getting out at the right time.
I remember playing against him on his debut in Brisbane. I was selected at centre but ended up playing most of the game at 10 when our flyhalf got injured. I threw a cut-out pass at one point and he nearly intercepted it. I remember thinking: 'Gee, who's this kid? He's got some toe!' He was a fresh face and made an immediate impression. He had time on the ball which most players don't have, and it's the difference between good players and great ones. Also he had a great vision of what he wanted to do ahead of time, and that's so important when you're under pressure. Like me he wasn't the biggest man in world rugby but his skills set him apart. It's a pity we never got to play more against each other – our careers overlapped for a few years – but even when I was with Saracens we weren't in the same pool as Leinster in the Heineken Cup. It would have been great to play with him for the Barbarians but unfortunately that opportunity never arrived either. I'd say he's not just a great ambassador for the game, he's a great ambassador for sport.
(New Zealand 2003- )
My standout memory of him actually is when we weren't playing against each other. That Test in Dublin in November, I'll never forget the look on his face when he had to come off the field early. You could see he was absolutely gutted and it went to show just how much it meant to him, that game, and how much he wanted it.
To have all that momentum against us and he so badly wanted to be out there. When he is there he leads by example. The really good players always seem to have more time than other players and are never rushed. So when we played Brian we wanted to do exactly the opposite: to get in his face and close down the space for him. We wanted to limit his options to as few as possible and we had to work hard as a team to do that. One thing that sticks out for me about Brian was that you'd think you're on top of him and going really well and suddenly a bit of brilliance and he'll create something from nothing. Next thing you know Ireland are back in the game because of something he did. He was able to create momentum through his all-round skills.
(Ireland coach 2001-2008)
I think there were four parts to his skill set. The first thing when he came on the scene was his speed – he was very quick and could beat you in a phone box. Then as he got older and developed other skills, he became more direct and was offloading more. Third was physical toughness, his ability to stay over the ball, taking a pounding, when he was poaching the ball. Lastly there was his mental toughness. The bigger the occasion, the better he was, the perfect example being the Grand Slam in 2009 and when he scored crucial tries against France, England and Wales, and tracked back 40 metres to make a try-saving tackle in the Scotland game. Any of those no-shows and there was no Grand Slam. His leadership was tremendous as well. He had gravitas, not on the amount of noise he made but on what he said and when he said it. I remember in particular in '06 in Paris and we were taking a pounding. He played nearly the whole game with a dead leg and could have gone off injured at any stage. He knew how important it was to stay on and so that's what he did.
There is an element of his career that truly astounds me: I'm looking at a photo this morning of him scoring his hat-trick in Paris in 2000, and here he is, still playing, in 2014. There are players historically who shine bright but fleetingly. There have been individual performances as good as Brian O'Driscoll's but in short bursts. Nothing can come close to matching his levels of intensity over such a long period of time, and with it his ability to adapt as the game evolved. The game was professional when he came on the scene and over the years we've had lots of advances in sports science and changes in the shape of players. He has managed to roll with it. I'll get shot for heresy here but when I came across him first, in '01, '02, '03 we were coming close to the top of our game and he was just another good centre. When I was playing against him he wasn't the national icon he is today. But you look back on it now and I've got his shirt in my cupboard alongside Frank Bunce's and Allan Bateman's, and there are certain shirts that don't go anywhere.
Without being romantic about it, he has the greatest body of work of any player in the northern hemisphere. I think it's so fitting that Brian is going back to Paris on Saturday, back to where it all started in a way with that hat-trick. It's been an incredible journey for him and the millions of followers around the world who have loved watching him play. You can imagine for the players who have played alongside him and against him – and those who have been fortunate not to have faced him – it's been a great journey for them as well. He's caused Wales no end of heartache over the last 15 years. At the start I would have been partnering Allan Bateman and we probably had a bit more experience than him, but my memories of him are formed by playing alongside him with the Lions in Australia in 2001. Watching him light up Brisbane was to witness an incredible feat. I think his resilience, his ability to overcome injuries and disappointment is the main thing. His ability to remain robust and keep defenders guessing at every juncture over his career has been amazing.
I played against him in 2007 in the World Cup when it was my last match with the Pumas. We had played three or four matches against each other and it was always me having to concentrate hard on keeping a watch on him. You needed to be focused on him all the time. Ireland needed to defeat us by lots of points that day in order to qualify. So we started winning the game and at once I remember early the ball being tapped from a lineout and Brian got it and immediately did what he knows how to do: he gets the ball one way and he goes the other direction so quickly, and obviously I couldn't catch him. It was a try under the posts. Imagine my brother Felipe: 'Manuel we were talking all the week that every time Brian got the ball he would go one side and the ball to the other! You have to be concentrated!'
'I know, Felipe, but I couldn't do anything!' It was very funny our talk under the posts, and after he scored, Brian was running past and he said to us: 'We are just beginning'. He's a great character, and that's as important as being a great player. Sometimes I had dinner and chats with him. It was great.
JEAN DE VILLIERS
(South Africa 2002- )
I remember the game against Ireland in 2006 in Dublin and we were totally outplayed on the day. I was very aware at that stage what a threat Brian was but he still had a great game and showed what a classy player he was/is. There was never a particular thing you had to do against him, he doesn't really have weaknesses so you need to be at your best when you play him. He was blessed with natural skill and pace and even though he isn't the biggest guy around, he never shies away from the physical stuff. So all and all everything you want from a centre, throw in a good rugby brain and decision-making ability and then you get someone who can play in the midfield in excess of 130 Tests! I think he would have the ability to have a long career all over again if he was starting out now because he has the skills, but definitely the amount of rugby that's played these days along with the guys getting bigger, stronger and faster would shorten any player's career.
We had something in common in that we both made our debuts on summer tours, mine to South Africa in 1998 and Drico the following year in Australia. I was well bedded in by that stage and my first impressions of him were that he was a quiet, unassuming guy. I think he still portrays a bit of that, he doesn't show his full character, which is a good thing. Some people wear their heart on their sleeve, but he can cover it up, which is an interesting demeanour. I'm the other end of the spectrum, it's black and white and all on view, I'm afraid. We got on very well. I remember going on holiday to Los Angeles for a week with himself and Malcolm O'Kelly and a few lads and it was interesting to get inside some of these characters in a different environment. It's different to touring and we got to know each other a bit more. We did the sights, in fairness, we weren't always on the tear! When we toured New Zealand was when I really saw Brian's value as a player. Sometimes when you're up against the All Blacks the fear factor comes into it but to have a guy like that on your team? I don't think he was even worried about them. He always seemed to have that 'no fear' aspect that we all have when we start out first. He probably still has it.
(France 2012- )
What a fantastic player! I haven't played against him that much but if it's for Leinster or Ireland, it's going to be the same for me: if I don't keep my concentration for 80 minutes I'm in trouble. I think he has respect around the world because of what he has achieved for so long in his career. Personally speaking, it's his killer instinct that is such a rare quality. He can kill off opponents in attack or defence – with a tackle or pass or offload – and when he really needs it he can produce it, which I think is the sign a great player.
I remember when he came on the scene in Australia there was a bit of chat about him, getting established so fast, and Ireland played pretty well and lost in the Second Test of that series. I came up against him then the next year in Lansdowne Road. We were champions at the time but had lost the opening game to Italy. Then we were 10-0 up against Ireland and playing like we had the year before only to end up conceding over 40 points. Brian was outstanding that day and his strength took me by surprise. I knew he was quick and had good acceleration but didn't realise just how much, or how powerful he was. One of my big regrets was not going on the 2001 Lions and missing out on the opportunity of playing with him. I'd been playing well with Castres but missed out on the tour. I'd have loved to play alongside him for the Barbarians but the chance never come along. I do believe he's the northern hemisphere's best ever player. I really liked his toughness, and that epitomises rugby players for me: the ability to mix it physically and deal with setbacks.
(Wallaby coach 1997-2001)
The thing about him I think was that he was always a very understated player. It was interesting in that he didn't appear to say too much but he always had an influence on the game. He was always in contact and connected to what was going on around him, and that's carried on to the end of his career, which is an achievement. I think he's the type of player who was able to play above himself. By that I mean he is obviously hugely talented but he was able to do things you just didn't expect when he had the ball. Tim Horan was a bit like that as well, someone who others looked to in order to find the tempo of a game, and then was capable of doing something to change it when you didn't see it coming. In O'Driscoll's case, the try he scored against us for the Lions in the first Test in 2001 was the perfect illustration of what I mean. He went through and over the middle of our defence from pretty much nothing. That's what makes great players: the ability to create something from nothing that changes the course of a game. His gifts went beyond just his playing ability.
(New Zealand 2004- )
Funnily enough, I met Brian before I'd played him. It was on the Lions tour in 2005, the week after he had got infamously injured in the First Test. I actually met him in Wellington two nights before the Second Test. I wasn't playing much in those days. We had a great night! He wouldn't have known me, I think he'd seen me play a little bit, but he was great fun and we had a long night.
Nothing silly, but good fun. That forged a friendship. I don't think either of us thought we'd end up playing against each other so often. He was someone I looked up to before I got in the All Black squad. When I started, particularly in New Zealand, there were a lot of really large, powerful guys – it was the beginning of the trend for 'go-forward' centres. But I always saw in Brian an ability to do a lot more than that. He had great variety to his game. He was always somebody I prepared really well for. From the Sunday when I'd be told I was in the team, I'd be thinking the whole week about his play and preparing to play the world's best. That always helped me and I always put in a strong challenge because of that. I remember having a lot of nerves playing him in the beginning, and even in the end it hadn't changed much.
I used to annoy the hell out of my inside centres, whether it was Timmy Horan or Nathan Grey or whoever it was, not to give Brian too much space. Even though I marked him, with drift defences you'd end up taking the next man but I didn't want them letting my opposite number through a hole and making me look bad! In fact, he reminded me a lot of Timmy, who I would beat in speed tests in training but when it came to a game he'd run rings around me. He had 'game quickness', plus the bigger the occasion the better he was, and the same thing always struck me about Brian.
Playing club football for Leinster I noticed he'd often be there or thereabouts, doing good things, but put him in the big arena and immediately you'd get the best out of him. When you look at top-shelf centres you look at Horan and (Philippe) Sella and O'Driscoll. I don't think there's any doubt he's respected around the world as one of the great players of the modern era. What really impressed me was the way he developed his game over the years. At first I wouldn't say he had an all round game but by his mid-20s he had the full bag of tricks and obviously worked on his game very diligently.
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