Wednesday 23 May 2018

Living in the moment

David Kelly

David Kelly

"Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see when you're young, you're a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years here, a couple of years there... it doesn't matter, you know? The older you get you say, 'Jesus, how much I got? I got 35 summers left.' Think about it. Thirty-five summers." -- Tom Waits, aka Benny in 'Rumble Fish', by Francis Ford Coppola & SE Hinton (1983).

With that typically relentless, imperceptibly incessant drive of his, Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll enters an astonishing 11th successive Six Nations accompanied by as much verve and enthusiasm as in his first.

True, he hasn't reached 35 summers yet -- he turned 31 on January 21 -- but O'Driscoll has, more than most, grown to appreciate the inevitability of time's ebbing sands in recent years.

Not content to wallow in the decade-ending, broadly acknowledged career twin peaks of Grand Slam and Heineken Cup glory, and the attendant individual embellishments of either being joint-top or outright top try-scorer en route to the respective successes, O'Driscoll is casting his eyes far beyond this spring's Six Nations defence.

A scalp in the southern hemisphere, as seemingly elusive as ever despite the burgeoning glories of the golden generation during the decade just past, is a primary goal; restoring Ireland's reputation as World Cup contenders is lodged in O'Driscoll's in-tray.

The team is what drives O'Driscoll onwards, not personal awards. As personal baubles rained down on Ireland's greatest ever rugby player in recent weeks and months, it was instructive to realise that arguably the least comfortable person in the spotlight of the attention was O'Driscoll himself.

When he was overlooked for the IRB World Player of the Year award, a slobbering sense of righteous indignation rained down from a nation still slapped into subjugation by Thierry Henry's left hand, with even respected rugby commentators frothing furiously at the injustice of it all.

O'Driscoll remained unmoved. A couple of months earlier, his peers had voted him their IRUPA Players' Player of the Year for the first time in seven years. O'Driscoll allowed himself a self-deprecating crack at that one. For O'Driscoll, official acclamation is superfluous.

Yet when it is accorded by the public, he appreciates it much more. At the Croke Park Hotel/Irish Independent Sports Star of the Year Awards, O'Driscoll was in relaxed mood as he wallowed jocosely about past triumphs and focused intently on peaks yet to be scaled.

And yet he always tried to deflect the attention towards the team. Typically, he was not able to celebrate either of last year's notable triumphs, as he explained to a rapt audience.

"The night of the Slam, I don't know, it got a little emotional with the whole day, the whole week, the build-up," he reveals. "I was in my hotel room and I got black-tied up and was ready to go down to the dinner. But suddenly I ended up getting a bit of vertigo and reproducing a sandwich I'd eaten after the game.

"The thought I missed the night genuinely didn't hit me. It would have been nice to speak on behalf of the team. But the memories last the longest time. I was definitely the freshest team player on the plane the next day though.

"I laughed at that, especially seeing the pictures of Geordan Murphy drinking from the Six Nations trophy. I was thinking to myself, 'You know what, I'm glad I got a bit of vertigo last night!'

"I'd also a good excuse to miss out on the Heineken Cup celebrations, as I was going on the Lions tour the next day. They were envious of us heading off and we were envious of them celebrating in the RDS and then continuing the celebrations in town that day... and the day after that... and the day after that!"

And yet while O'Driscoll enjoyed being prompted through some of the stand-out memories of last year -- especially his intimate Millennium Stadium exchange with 1948 hero Jackie Kyle, gladly unloading the burden of being Ireland's solitary Grand Slam-winning captain -- it was clear by his determined expression that the future retains more urgent relevance than the past.

When reminded that only himself, Paddy Wallace and Donncha O'Callaghan are the breakthrough acts from Declan Kidney's U-19 World Cup winners of 1998, he is reminded of the one gaping hole in his CV.

"To be honest, this country isn't capable of middle ground," he says. "We're either at the top or the very bottom. But it's great to be closer to the top than the bottom.

"I remember two years ago, coming back from the World Cup and how low that was. I know what the feeling is like.

"Somewhere down the track we'll worry about the World Cup, but it's always there in the background. We've such a bad record at World Cups, it would be nice to do a half-decent job at one of them.

"It's something definitely there in our minds, the closer you get to it. It's the cyclical nature of the competition, it gets bigger the closer you get to it. We'll think about it more this year and then we'll think about it even more next year."

And yet to appreciate the fields upon which O'Driscoll dreams of conquering next, it is instructive to recall the earth recently trampled upon to reach this point in his career, a juncture when relief, rather than grief, can accompany his summing up of this remarkable sporting life.

You think back to the start of the 2008 campaign, after Ireland had emerged from their World Cup horror. Yet he remained the talisman. Unjustly tainted by some as one of the flops from Rugby World Cup 2007, the Irish captain was, on the field at least, one of the primary instigators of a then ultimately fruitless quest for some sense of accomplishment on the world stage befitting his and his team's extraordinary talents.

His indefatigable work-rate unfortunately became as laboured as the futile endeavours of a doomed sailor seeking to rescue a sinking vessel with a colander. On the eve of Italy's last visit to Dublin -- two years ago but, in the context of what has happened since then, it now seems like a lifetime away -- it was O'Driscoll, then 29, who first probed the extent of his own sporting mortality.

Viewed through the prism of a series of depressing results, and a structure which he would later admit had become "stale", little did we realise that this was the beginning of a painstaking reassessment of his life on and off the pitch.

"I'm starting to take defeats a little more personally the older I'm getting," he told us then. "Maybe it's because I see the end-line in sight. It takes a lot longer than my younger days to get over bad defeats.

"You've different types, ones when you don't deserve to win, played terribly and those where you played well and lost. It depends. But I've certainly struggled a little more to come to terms with them over the last couple of seasons."

The 2008 campaign developed into a horror story of decline and fall under Eddie O'Sullivan; Leinster endured stasis in the Heineken Cup. O'Driscoll seemed at odds with himself. Now we know that he was embroiled in a fraught battle with both mind and body.

Never was that more evident during that summer's southern hemisphere tour.

Despite being afflicted by tragedy in his personal life after the death of a close friend, O'Driscoll placed primary importance on his national duty and played against New Zealand and Australia, almost suffering hypothermia one week while enduring yet more damage to his ravaged hamstrings the next.

Yet still he was arguably Ireland's most influential performer in both Tests, as he had been in the doomed World Cup bid. Any player's true worth to a team is refracted through the extent that collective is damaged when he is marked absent. Even below par, he can match the levels of other mere mortals.

His is a sublime and selfless talent but at that time it was almost painful to see the delivery of that talent slide in inverse proportion to the enormity of effort being put into the endeavour.

The sight of him hobbling from the fray of a lengthening series of Irish mishaps -- from Bayonne to Bordeaux, in the Six Nations and in the southern hemisphere -- chilled the soul and raised fears that, despite being just 29, O'Driscoll's best days may have been behind him.

Few sought to openly address this issue within the typically parochial world of Irish rugby; it is as if one is hacking mercilessly at a sacred cow rather than validly and honestly assessing the uncertain future of Ireland's greatest player.

Now we know that the player himself harboured such doubts and the reasoning behind the valid questioning has now been utterly validated.

Although that 2007-'08 season finished on a memorable high with a Magners League title for Leinster, his own stated envy after Munster's second Heineken Cup success in three seasons was just as pointed.

Those who preferred to avoid the awkward analysis of O'Driscoll preferred to wallow in the reflected glory of his receipt of the RBS Six Nations Player of the Year award for two years running (2006 and '07), without questioning the bankruptcy of a trinket which was voted upon by the same public which sent Dustin to the Eurovision.

While his muscle power and weight ballooned along with his mistrust of annoying hamstrings, his genius remained intact. How best to unleash it within his injury-damaged frame was the key question.

Help arrived from his sympathetic

Leinster coach Michael Cheika, who removed the club captaincy from him, as well as new national coach Declan Kidney, whose devotion to extracting searing honesty from his squad became a hallmark.

It was time for everyone to ask not what O'Driscoll could do for his country, rather what his country could do for him.

On his ascension to the Irish throne, it was immediately assumed that Kidney would lean towards one of his tried-and-trusted Heineken Cup-winning players to take up the captaincy reins.

It was also assumed that O'Driscoll wouldn't fancy Kidney at the helm, having dismissed his one-year stint at Leinster in 2005 with a curt dismissal in his autobiography, claiming he "didn't learn anything new".

It is doubtful that he has learned anything new from Kidney this season either, although he admitted that "things change, opinions change". Recognising that change was key.

So too was Kidney's nous, which saw him firstly compile a world-class coaching team to dilute his own offerings. Secondly, he allowed O'Driscoll the option of retaining his captaincy.

O'Driscoll was visibly energised by the squad's first gathering in Cork as they laid the foundations for last year's success; at that stage, he had virtually made up his mind to retain the captaincy.

O'Driscoll has found refuge in Kidney's archetypal sense of humility after the suffocating endgame which marked the long goodbye of O'Sullivan, to whom he remained steadfastly loyal to the bitter end.

This has provided his mental freedom. Whereas in the World Cup he rashly spoke about laying down a marker in the opening pool game, despite not a shred of evidence to back up his claim, captain and coach wallowed in the habitual and the banal last season.

This has broken the continuity of past negative experiences. Now a new-found maturity and shift in attitude marks O'Driscoll in public, tomato axioms notwithstanding.

This greater self-knowledge and self-acceptance has enabled him to hone his competitive edge still more, with all mental energy directed within the squad, and hence on to the pitch, rather than towards outside forces.

Away from the centre of combat, O'Driscoll forged a new path too. Speaking to this newspaper before last season, he spoke of the frailty which arguably led him into a chaotic quest to load muscle and weight on to his frame, further restricting a body racked with back and hamstring toil.

"I remember growing up, being smaller than everyone else, and just feeling a little bit fragile. I wouldn't want to use the word yellow, but, I wasn't confident in my ability to take people on. I still hate the concept of people thinking of me as a yellow person. That has driven me on."

This was a new O'Driscoll, clearly standing at the most important crossroads of his career thus far.

And it was as if all of us were attending a living wake for a spectacular yet ultimately unfulfilled career, for had he not teetered on the edge of greatness yet tottered each time -- successive championship tilts, the 2005 Lions tour, the 2007 World Cup?

Astonishingly, one year on, as we watched him clutch Kyle's hand on the Cardiff sideline, O'Driscoll's rejuvenation was revelatory.

The transformation had been two-fold -- a mental and physical integration which together have allowed him the freedom to maintain his Irish captaincy, as well as rediscovering the all-round form only the most myopic of partisan supporters maintained still existed.

The physical freedom was a tortuously slow process but was revealed in an instant; on the day his genius helped his Leinster side swat aside the Murrayfield bogeymen of Edinburgh in a Heineken Cup pool game in October 2008, marked by his first try in 21 months.

And it was joyously confirmed the next morning when O'Driscoll, as buoyant as he had been in many, many months, indicated the sense of relief in finally overcoming the curse of a series of debilitating hamstrings injuries.

Sitting in a Terenure College dressing-room at 9am on a Sunday morning, a vivacious O'Driscoll bore the resemblance of a man reborn as he detailed the resurgent belief in his hitherto enervating struggle for full fitness.

He was almost electrified by the shocking ordinariness of finally realising that his body's betrayal was not curtailing him as much as he may have imagined.

"Sometimes you need to get something stirring in your head that you're still capable of doing that," he told me. "It's been a while since I've run 60 metres on a pitch.

"It's not that you question yourself. From a speed point of view, I still think I'm quick. I just don't feel that I'm quick over 60 metres but I'm quick over 10. So once I get motoring I'm kind of like, 'I better off-load to the fast guys to finish it off.'

"But this time, I just kept pulling away from them. So maybe I'll think twice about getting rid of it too quickly again!"

This was the O'Driscoll, physically unfettered, who shimmied past the French in February and scorched home for the first of the three tries which made him the Six Nations' joint top try-scorer.

Off the field, he is preparing for the highlight of his personal life, a wedding to a woman who is clearly in thrall to the person, not the personality. Having cast off a surfeit of weight and mental baggage -- O'Driscoll has eventually conquered Europe and now he wants to take on the world.

"Whatever we have to do to motivate ourselves," he told the Irish Independent audience last month, "well, we're doing it at the moment and long may it continue."

O'Driscoll knows now that time waits for no man. "My career isn't infinite and I've got to grab what I can. I'm very much about living in the moment now."

No longer does he have to be a prisoner of his past. Much better to be a pioneer of an ever more exciting future.

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