Saturday 16 December 2017

O'Driscoll has made his mark in many ways, but one challenge remains

Will Greenwood

SOME men define their country and its style of rugby. Martin Johnson has his brand of unapologetic English obstinacy. For French flair how about Phillipe Sella or Serge Blanco. Wales had Jonathan Davies and Scotland Finlay Calder.

In the southern hemisphere, say Sean Fitzpatrick, Ruben Kruger and Tim Horan and you know exactly what you will get. But for Ireland, it was always a little harder. Don't get me wrong, they had some great players, just not one of whom you could say conclusively “that's Irish rugby.”

Men such as Keith Wood had that hard edge when wearing the Lions jersey, an intense presence that never let up. In the backs, the great Brendan Mullin showed the lovely flat-out balance that will stand any test of time. But no one combined it all to showcase the full-on, ferocious beauty that Irish rugby can achieve.

Well, no one until Brian O'Driscoll last year. After a decade of trying, he finally brought home the silverware, and with it he came as close as anyone to becoming the quintessential Irish player.

The big play, the big tackle, a team in need, he delivered until his head was knocked so hard in that brutal second Lions Test that he could hardly keep his feet.

The dream of a perfect year may have gone with his concussion, yet there was plenty to be proud of: Ireland won the Grand Slam, going unbeaten in 2009, and Leinster landed the Heineken Cup.

And at the heart of it all was O'Driscoll, warrior, believer and, ultimately, winner. He tops the stats on drop-goals, tries, outside breaks, inside breaks, tackles and turn-overs. He often plays like a flanker. He has redefined a centre's priorities.

I do not collect rugby shirts, but my signed original match shirt of O'Driscoll is going nowhere. I was lucky to see him close up, and there are memories that will never fade. He was one of the untidiest room-mates I ever had. My side of the room was nicely packed away and tidy, his side looked as if it had been hit by a bomb.

He is one of the pastiest people I have ever seen. White does not do him justice. He is more of a pale blue. He used to look like a geography teacher when he was wearing his glasses.

However, on the 2001 Lions tour, Austin Healey put on boxing gloves and started sparring with O'Driscoll. Brian found this annoying and clipped him four times. Austin never saw them coming and we had to throw napkins in to stop the fight.

And he can come up with lines like this: “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it into a fruit salad.” A complex and interesting character, he is facing now one of his biggest challenges. He now has to make 2010 even better than last year.

One thing that has escaped the Irish so far is winning in the southern hemisphere. Until you take down the big guns on their own patch you remain a good team, but not a great one. O'Driscoll must lead Ireland to this holy grail. How he performs today and over the next year or so will go a long way to defining Irish rugby and its place in today's global game.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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