Thursday 14 December 2017

Warrior prince sets standard for the next generation

Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland celebrates with the trophy after winning the six nations championship with a 22-20 victory over France
Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland celebrates with the trophy after winning the six nations championship with a 22-20 victory over France

Tommy Conlon

So there he is, nonchalantly slumped in a corner of the dressing room, legs stretched out before him, the very picture of a man at ease with the world.

Brian O'Driscoll is freshly showered and wearing his team suit; he has a can of beer in one hand and his mobile phone in the other, peering at the screen. It is an idle moment, a private moment, after the battle and before the final coronation.

He is about to take his leave of Paris, of the national team, of the international combat zone. His work is done in this theatre; he has left it all behind; it is over for good. Dan Sheridan's photograph captures the moment in all its bittersweet pathos.

In the foreground, perched on a table, is the Six Nations trophy. It just so happens that on his final day in green, Ireland win the championship for only the second time in 29 years; that they've won in Paris for the first time in 14 years; that the last time they won there a star was born and he was it. And now the wheel had turned in a perfect circle, back to where it all began.

If it was fiction it'd be too corny for grown-ups. But it was sport, where romance is even harder to find. And there it was anyway, that rarest of eventualities, a happy ending. So happy in fact it was nearly tearing the hole out of it altogether. It's not supposed to finish like this; great careers in sport more often end in mediocrity and anti-climax; or in some doctor's surgery with a conclusive medical verdict.

This one was straight from the make-a-wish foundation. And a grateful nation swooned: delighted for him, delivering a million pats on the back, wishing him all the joys of the day. Seldom has a public figure in Irish life enjoyed such universal admiration. And somewhere along the way, admiration for his work merged with affection for his persona. Ireland's favourite son, they willed him to have a send-off like this.

But of course he willed it for himself too. We weren't to know then, back when he thrice crossed the French line in 2000, that all of this sublime natural talent was built on a will of iron. It's easier to see the dancing feet and the electric pace and the lightness of balance. It takes longer to recognise the nature of the character beneath all that surface style.

Sometimes sportsmen blessed with such extravagant physical ability have no inner core. Either it was never there in the first place, or it was there but they didn't use it because they didn't have to: they could coast through a decorated career on the cushion of their exceptional gifts.

O'Driscoll could have coasted on his finishing skills alone. He was obviously a scintillating finisher with ball in hand and a half-chance in front of him. It would have been enough, provided he did the functional stuff as well, to a functional standard.

And if it wasn't enough, his precocious passing ability would've ticked another major box anyway. The speed of mind to read a situation, the wit to conjure the surprise pass, and the speed of hands to deliver the ball. It was an instantaneous process, from conception to execution, completed in a millisecond, a defence prised open with a lethal flash of imagination.

A finisher and a playmaker, therefore, of world-class ability: a ton of caps beckoned on the basis of these talents alone.

But we know the rest. He decided, in addition, to dwell in the trenches too. It's not often that the sculptor dedicated to his art will also do hard labour in the quarry for his stone. O'Driscoll prioritised hard labour. His natural skills remained priceless assets. But they were luxury adornments on the body of work amassed in rugby's harrowing front line.

He went in where it hurt, and he stayed there when he was hurting. He took absurd amounts of punishment. When he clamped down on the ball at a ruck, he knew what was coming and hung on anyway. The hits would arrive with velocity and power. He was compact, dogged and strong as a bad ass.

Frequently, he would disappear from view, engulfed

beneath a mass of bodies. The ref would ping, one by one they'd all get up, and finally he'd appear again. It became a familiar viewing ritual throughout his career, wondering if he'd get up at all, and what state he'd be in when he did. As the fella once said, watching in a pub in Leitrim, "He's a fierce durable hoor."

The point, to repeat, is that he didn't have to do it. He had more than enough in his armoury. But he had the ambition and the ability to push the envelope, to redefine the boundaries of his role. In doing so he became arguably the most complete sportsman ever to wear Irish green, in any code.

Personally, I tend to think that Roy Keane's achievements outstrip even his. But when Keane threw down the gauntlet of excellence to the next generation, it was O'Driscoll who picked it up and answered the call.

He in turn is passing it on now. Anyone with aspirations to greatness cannot ignore the power of his example, the record of his deeds.

May his retirement be long replete with wine and roses.

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