Thursday 14 December 2017

Tony Ward: Kyle and Gibson giants but O'Driscoll simply the best

Enduring brilliance and courage make centre Ireland's greatest ever player, now big Italy win can set up fitting finale

Brian O'Driscoll is already a rugby legend in the mould of Jack Kyle and Mike Gibson
Brian O'Driscoll is already a rugby legend in the mould of Jack Kyle and Mike Gibson
Brian O'Driscoll is already a rugby legend in the mould of Jack Kyle (pictured) and Mike Gibson
Brian O'Driscoll is already a rugby legend in the mould of Jack Kyle and Mike Gibson (pictured)
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

We'd like to pretend it's just another run-of-the-mill Six Nations Italian international. But given our position at the top of the table and the opportunity to increase our already vastly superior points difference over England, Wales and France, it is of course the gateway to a final-day assault on only a second ever Six Nations title in Paris this day week.

But there is an elephant in the room and what an elephant... Whether Brian O'Driscoll is our greatest ever player is of course a subjective call. How do you compare iconic players of different eras? Is O'Driscoll a more complete player than Mike Gibson? How good could Gibson have been given the advantages of professionalism?

Going back further still, did Jack Kyle have a more profound influence on Ireland and Lions rugby in his time at the top? Or what about Willie John McBride, whose very name demands reverence and respect?

For me, though, O'Driscoll is the most complete and most influential player this country has ever produced. I don't want to hear about BOD Inc, celebrity partners, royal weddings or anything beyond what this phenomenal athlete has contributed to rugby on the field here and to the game worldwide.

The real test of greatness is longevity; the strength of mind and body to produce consistent brilliance over a protracted period of time. For 15 extraordinary years, O'Driscoll has done just that. Talent is bestowed on many but few are blessed with the mental toughness to match.


That might sound a little blasé but over the years we have watched this gutsy sportsman pick himself up after the most horrendous 'hits' and carry on regardless.

It is an indomitable spirit you cannot buy. It is a willingness to push the pain barrier to the absolute limit. How often have we seen him ship injuries that put others in cold storage for protracted periods? But not Brian.

I said at the start of this campaign that my wish for him was not a 'Roy of the Rovers' hat-trick of tries in Paris (he already treated us to that fantasy 14 years ago), but that he finishes a fantastic career in the best physical shape possible.

Time and again he has put his body on the line for province and country. He owes us nothing but as an example to every aspiring young rugby player he is the prototype professional. Yes he had God-given talent but never did he compromise that talent.

Today's game should not be about one player but this match, this player and this occasion are special, as BOD bids a fond farewell on his home patch. He will be immortalised in song and verse in time to come but for one last time (in green) let us wallow in the exceptional talent of an exceptional player.

True to form, he wants to be remembered as a team player. That legacy has long been assured. But were he to call it a day on the back of a Six Nations title, it would be the most appropriate ending.

You can be assured that all individual and team emotion has been parked for the pure physicality that lies ahead.

Italy coach Jacques Brunel has laid it on the line to his players, who let him down in the wooden spoon decider in Rome.

"We took a step backwards in terms of how we played in our previous two games," he said. "The quality of our game throughout (against the Scots) was poor. We had far too many handling errors."

The subtext to that mini-rant is 'prepare for the backlash'. It will be brutal and physically uncompromising as the Azzurri attempt to replicate last year's winning formula in Rome.

That the kitchen sink will be thrown in the opening hour is guaranteed but providing we concentrate on performance, the result and maybe with it that points-plus column will look after itself.

Far from proving an encumbrance I expect the emotion of the occasion to add to the atmosphere and collective performance.

Verdict: We can expect Martin Castrogiovanni and Co to come with all guns blazing. The line-out maul will again be key. Beyond that, a little more creative efficiency in order to unlock rather than batter down that defensive door and there can be but one outcome and with it the only arrivederci the true 'special one' deserves. Take Ireland by 20-plus.

* * * * *

An Irish win, and further increase in points difference, would subconsciously add to the pressure on the French in Edinburgh. The Scots are still a mediocre side but their win in Rome will have boosted flagging morale appreciably.

The poor Murrayfield surface allied to the opportunity to redeem this dreadful season should make for a performance high on adrenaline.

Is it enough to turn the French over? Certainly not on the evidence to date but the Scots will be up for it.

No 8 Louis Picamoles will be missed but the French should still have enough in the tank to see them back for the Paris showdown with three wins from four.

Verdict: France but expect it to be a little too tight for Gallic comfort.

* * * * *

Then tomorrow, the big one at Twickenham as England and Wales come head to head. For both Stuart Lancaster and Warren Gatland this is the crucial game as both should win comfortably on the final day.

England will be out to avenge their drubbing in Cardiff last season.

For Wales comes the opportunity to beat the team they love to hate (although with Gatland at the helm that's just about every other opponent now) but more than that the chance to put themselves back in the mix for an unprecedented third championship on the bounce.

Certainly, with Ireland travelling to France on the last day, tomorrow's winner (despite the points differential) will be in pole position ahead of the final series of matches.

For the Welsh it also offers a shot at redemption for that Dublin 'no show'.

Verdict: A difficult one to call but if the English can keep a lid on the emotion of the occasion, this game is theirs to lose. England by a short head.


Munster's finest passing on skills to tag rugby team

This week in Limerick a group of young men and women from the Southside Community Leadership Arts and Sports Programme presented a photographic exhibition on Munster Rugby Legends.

The Southside CLASP is a year-long course that empowers individuals to take an active role in their community and society as a whole.

Over the last number of weeks, the journey has been documented by a TV crew for a series to be broadcast on Setanta Sports later this year.

In addition to the ongoing educational work at CLASP, a tag rugby team has been formed and they are coached by former Munster players Rosie Foley and Liam Toland. The group has also been receiving regular skills sessions from the current Munster squad.

In April, the trainees will travel to London to take part in the prestigious Wasps tag tournament under the name Munsters Inc.

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