Wednesday 13 December 2017

'The moment you think you've cracked this game you may as well hang up your boots'

David Kelly

David Kelly

One of Brian O'Driscoll's seminal sporting influences -- aside, of course, from his family -- was a Kiwi called Lee Smith. A former All Blacks U-21 coach, he could spot a player and he had seen a fair few gems pass through his hands on both sides of the world.

When a third-year student called O'Driscoll pitched up on his radar in the famed UCD Rugby Academy, he knew that the best had yet to come.

Smith used to scribble a few instructions for his players before they went out to battle in the relative cauldron that was the AIL Division 2, when both Irish rugby and Brian O'Driscoll were mere speckles on the cultural horizon.

O'Driscoll never received any written instructions. Instead, Smith would just mutter softly: "Just go out and enjoy yourself."

Even before this, in 1998, while yet to burst on to the college scene, never mind national landscape, O'Driscoll combined with fellow contemporaries Donncha O'Callaghan and Paddy Wallace under a certain Declan Kidney to win Ireland's only World Cup, at U-19 level.

Life and sport has turned full circle for a man who has lived the 21st century in the centre. Yesterday, Kidney reiterated O'Driscoll's current modus vivendi as he becomes the second Irishman to compile a 'century not out' for the senior international side.

"He's made the point that he's enjoying his rugby," confirmed Kidney yesterday as both men sat, older and wiser and seemingly more content than at any time in their lives.

"Any time you see him doing that, it's a good place to be. He's brought that mix, which is so important in modern-day rugby. And he's also managed to achieve a lot of honours in the game, which you don't do unless you're a good player."

O'Driscoll himself was keen to emphasise the influence of those pivotal early influences in his life. Of primary importance were his father and mother, Frank and Geraldine, who adopted a generous laissez-faire attitude to their son's sporting endeavours. Enjoyment, as always, was key.

"Well, first and foremost, my folks would obviously be the focal influence in my life," he affirmed. At Belgrove in Clontarf, the young O'Driscoll was both a nascent GAA player and, befitting his childhood hero, a Mark Hughes wannabe.

"They just let me play whatever I wanted to play, they didn't push me in any particular way. So, in terms of just helping me enjoy my sport, of course they were a huge influence.

"But then, definitely, there was the likes of John McClean in UCD, who was the first guy that ever played me in the centre. Then Lee Smith in my early years out of school gave me the encouragement just to go out and play my own game. He tweaked parts of my game."

Wales coach Warren Gatland arrived from across the pond to offer his two pence worth -- after all, it was this other New Zealander who capped O'Driscoll even before he had worn a Leinster jumper.

"It was an honour for me to be involved with him with the Lions last year to see how he's developed," said Gatland. "I was incredibly impressed with his leadership and his understanding of the game. He was one of the main reasons Jamie Roberts ended up having such a good tour.

"He deserves all the accolades and I will be one of the first to stand up in the coaching box on Saturday and clap him. Brian has got natural flair, is a good passer off both hands, has got a step and has fantastic pace.


"My greatest memory of Brian was the hat-trick of tries he scored in 2000 when Ireland beat France in Paris for the first time in 27 years.

"I remember the French great Philippe Sella coming in to the changing room to congratulate him afterwards and saying it was one of the most impressive centre performances he had ever seen."

He has rarely flagged since. O'Callaghan spoke with admiration of O'Driscoll's indomitable warrior spirit against England. "He was as sick as a dog in Twickenham last time out, but he still gave it everything he had."

Given the amoun t of physical punishment O'Driscoll has sustained throughout his career, from repeated hamstring problems to shoulder-wrecking spear tackles, his caps total seems even more extraordinary.

Living in the moment -- emotionally and physically -- is his key to success. A relaxed, less heady private life, better diet and a greater element of career satisfaction -- post Heineken Cup and Grand Slam -- have put him in a good place.

"Knowing my body makes things a little easier. But it's still a work in progress. I've worked out a stretching routine with Leinster physio James Green.

"I just have to make sure that the hamstrings aren't loaded up. So, I'm working my quads and glutes. It's a scientific approach. Now I don't feel tight, it's not in the back of head."

Instead, he's completely loose and more relaxed now than at any time.

"I've had bad Mondays like everyone in this room. But I'm still selfish and I still want to win. I'm still working on my captain's speeches. The moment you think you've cracked this game, you might as well hang up your boots.

"For now, getting paid to exercise for a living is pretty nice."

Paying to watch continues to be a privilege for so many.

Irish Independent

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