Sport Rugby

Saturday 17 February 2018

Still proud to answer Ireland's call

Forward-thinking O'Driscoll insists 'nostalgia can wait' as he guns for old foes

Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll
David Kelly

David Kelly

From Waltzing Matilda to The Last Waltz.

Brian O'Driscoll grew up admiring a Wallaby centre and it is fitting that a star-studded career will feature Australia as one of the final staging posts for one of world rugby's most glittering midfielders.

Albeit briefly sullied by demotion on his fourth and final Lions tour last summer – "I'm over that," he repeats for emphasis – he entertains little interest in sepia-tinted nostalgia as he prepares for his 17th meeting with the green and gold.

From his 1999 Ireland debut, to that stirring 2001 Lions tour when he announced himself as a global superstar, to the World Cup ambush in 2011, Australia has offered a prism through which to perceive his greatness.

But, for him, it is all about the future, not the past, even if he cannot but tip-toe into the history books.

"In time," he muses when invited to ease into his slippers and indulge in pipe-puffing reflection. "Nostalgia is not for while you are still playing. But I have some really fond memories against Australia.

"I got my first cap against my boyhood hero, Tim Horan. I had a big moment with the Lions in 2001.

"More recently, I managed to win a series with the Lions, the World Cup win in 2011."

PIVOTAL

O'Driscoll played pivotal roles in other epoch-making games against the Wallabies, including that typical, nose-burrowing try four years ago in Croke Park that secured Ireland their unbeaten status in 2009.

"It was an important try because we needed it to draw the game. It was important because it ended up being an unbeaten calendar year," he says.

A small gap, we recall?

"It wasn't that small," he smiles in rejoinder. "Once the ball was put where it was, it was a well planned move. We worked hard on it. But they've seen it now, so we can't go back to it."

Ireland hope to offer much more. Nothing betrays the new regime like Joe Schmidt's candour in lighting a fire under his superstars last weekend even while wallowing in a five-try win.

While the pubs of Dublin throbbed in acclamation of O'Driscoll's audacious flip pass between his legs to Fergus McFadden, Schmidt immediately alighted upon the maestro's defensive boobs in the first half.

"With him, it's not about the fancy stuff, it's about doing the basics right," O'Driscoll reveals. "I go through my game with him each week and try to see where I can improve.

"There was one area where I made a bad read and compromised us a little bit. It's about trying to buy into a team ethos and that's no different to how we've been with other sides.

"It's under new management and under new expectations, so everything is a learning curve for the guys who haven't had him before."

That will include Luke Marshall, launched into the side as a new midfield partner, sundering the record-breaking relationship O'Driscoll has formed for more than a decade with Gordon D'Arcy.

"He brings different qualities," appreciates O'Driscoll, on course to join Ronan O'Gara as Ireland's record caps holder (128) against the All Blacks next week.

"He's a good passer and has great capabilities in off-loading. He's a big unit too. He's strong and carrying a lot of size. He doesn't look it, but he has a lot of muscle-mass that can travel at a good speed. For someone with good feet, he also has a potency when the ball just needs to be crashed up.

"In the Six Nations, a couple of times when we were setting things up, he was gone, so he's a bad guy to trail!

"He's young and has a long way to go and a lot of experience to gain. That's one thing about Gordon – he has bucketloads of experience.

"In my partnership with him, there's an element of telepathy and understanding and body language you can read off. There's a comfort factor that I don't have with Lukey yet, so it's about building that in training.

"The more games you play together internationally, the more confident you'll get. We're a work in progress. He's a very good player who will become a very, very, very good player."

The non-Leinster players have been surprised at Schmidt's uber-critical attention to detail; for O'Driscoll, the onus on him being a responsible leader is crucial.

He and Paul O'Connell will start together for the first time since the World Cup in 2011; it is little coincidence that this tournament represented the last notable landmark produced by an Ireland side.

"That leadership begins on the training park when you are trying to coach players around you," explains O'Driscoll, who features in a side brimming with leadership figures.

"The young lads like Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan, Robbie Henshaw and Luke Marshall... these guys have watched a lot of rugby, but haven't played very much at this level.

"It is about trying to get them to understand their roles and help them along with any teething problems and getting them to understand a lot of plays.

"I think it is comfortable for someone like me because I am experienced, but also because I have played under Joe for three years, so I know what he wants.

"It is about trying to empower them with the knowledge of what he is looking for. Because if they are playing better they are putting pressure on me and I have to deliver more myself. In a perverse kind of way, it gets the best out of myself."

That remains the bottom line for O'Driscoll, mining the depths of his extraordinary talent which, as last Saturday illustrated, remains as vivid as it did 14 years ago.

"There have been some really great days," he recollects. "Some not so great days too, but I enjoy playing against Australia because I think you have to be clever when you do.

"I've been quoted before saying they are an intelligent team. It is nice having that game of chess against them, trying to outsmart one another."

Irish Independent

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