Brian O'Driscoll: 'I knew weeks ago that I wasn't Lions captain'

Ireland's magical centre explains why he was not expecting to be the Lion king and why he feels Jonny Wilkinson may answer a late call. Hugh Godwin meets Brian O'Driscoll

Brian O'Driscoll has been losing a lot of sleep of late, but none of it to do with being overlooked for the Lions captaincy in favour of Sam Warburton. "I've known for a few weeks that I wasn't going to be captain," said O'Driscoll, whose 12-week-old first child, Sadie, is the cause of the insomnia.

"The big upside to being captain is it's a huge honour, but the downside is that there is definitely extra pressure. I'm very much a glass half-full person. I look at it that I don't have the pressure and I am able to relax a bit more and worry about myself."

O'Driscoll, through his amazing longevity, had the chance to emulate Martin Johnson as a second-time Lions skipper, having done the job in 2005. But Warren Gatland, on secondment from Wales as the Lions' head coach, went for a Welshman in Warburton and has not spoken to O'Driscoll about the tour, either in the lead-up to Tuesday's announcement of the squad or in the last week of the Six Nations in March, when Gatland visited Ireland's camp.

"I wasn't expecting a call on Monday night of, 'Will you get on a plane and come over'," O'Driscoll said, when we spoke the day after the 37-man party was named. "I knew Warren would have given Sam or whoever it was going to be a few weeks' notice, to process it and deal with it, and come back to him with an answer."

It will be O'Driscoll's fourth tour, one behind the record-holders, Willie John McBride and Mike Gibson, who went in the days when tours might be two or three years apart, not four. At 34, he can tick almost all of European rugby's notable boxes of Grand Slam, Heineken Cup and domestic league winners' medals, plus 125 Ireland caps. A big wrong to be put right in Australia this summer would be a victorious Lions series; only one of O'Driscoll's six Tests in 2001, 2005 and 2009 was a win.

He intends to be a helpful lieutenant to Warburton who, at 24, is a year older than O'Driscoll was when he first captained Ireland in November 2002 (they beat Australia). "I don't know Sam that well," said O'Driscoll. "It's clear he's very well-spoken, he's eloquent, he deals with the media very well, he's got the respect of his team-mates, he's a great competitor. "You have to allow him to captain to his style and fit into that. On occasions I might have something to add. At other times I might have something to say but feel it's appropriate that nothing is said."

Another senior man, Jonny Wilkinson, cannot join the tour from the start, and both Gatland and the France-based fly-half have dampened expectation of it happening at all. O'Driscoll thinks differently. "Jonny's being loyal to Toulon, he's signed a contract extension with them and they've been good for each other," O'Driscoll said. "It takes the pressure off him by saying what he has said. But it wouldn't shock me massively if Jonny did have some form of inclusion with the Lions at some stage further down the line."

Additionally or as an injury replacement? "Additionally. I think there is scope for that."

O'Driscoll's own lavish talents endure. Two Biarritz defenders baffled by his blink-of-an-eye sidestep in Leinster's Amlin Cup semi-final last weekend will testify to that, as will the wing Aled Brew, brilliantly tackled and turned over by O'Driscoll the master defender.

The price to pay is the physical pounding. In his most recent international, on 16 March, O'Driscoll collected a three-week ban for stamping on an Italian. A week earlier against France in Dublin he banged his head and staggered around like a punch-drunk boxer – a reminder of him being carted off concussed in the Lions' Second Test in South Africa in 2009. There was his mangled shoulder in the infamous First Test in New Zealand in 2005 (Keven Mealamu, Tana Umaga and all that), and umpteen surgical procedures.

"I was quite small as a kid and maybe a little afraid physically," said O'Driscoll, who was brought up on the right side of the Dublin tracks in Clontarf, and schooled at Blackrock College. "When I grew into myself the realisation changed. That when you hurt yourself it's transient, it doesn't stay forever.

"I know what I have to do to get by. I had an ankle operation earlier in the season so I haven't played that much rugby. I feel really good now, a lot fresher than I would normally do at this stage of the season."

He has possibly three more matches this season with Leinster – who have six in the Lions squad – in the Pro 12 play-offs and the Amlin final against Stade Français.

But the knocks and the ops are not just about O'Driscoll any more. Cameras at the France match zoomed in on his wife, Amy, watching with their babe in arms. As a dad now – "I got six hours' sleep last night and I was ecstatic with that" – is he more concerned at the batterings? "Yes, when it's not just the two of you, it's three, and you want to be able to make sure you leave the game in a fit state – I suppose that does enter your head a little bit, when you're not out on the pitch. But then, I don't know, something else triggers when the whistle goes on game day, you turn into a different person and you don't have those concerns. You become a different being.

"Amy was at that match, it was the first game my daughter could come to, I didn't know whether I was going to be playing another [Ireland] home game, she wanted to be able to say she'd been there. There was definitely a bit of emotion in that.

"It's hard. It was a private moment that you live in front of everyone, but you accept that. If it was concerning me so much, I would already have made a call I wasn't going to play again after this year. But I'm confident it's not causing any long-term damage, any of the knocks or the joint issues I do have."

The magical centre capped for Ireland in 1999 when Gatland was coach and christened "Waltzing O'Driscoll" by Lions fans in Australia in 2001 will confirm in July if he will play on; though the tour – with Tests in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney – feels like coming full circle, it may not be The Last Waltz.

O'Driscoll has four wins and a draw in 14 meetings with the Wallabies; he praises their back-line as possessing some of the world's "best thinkers". That line may yet include Quade Cooper, who blew a mental gasket when Australia were rolled over by Ireland at the last World Cup. Is Cooper a genius for trying stuff or mad as a box of frogs? "Erm, a little from column A, a little from column B," said O'Driscoll, with the dry wit that nudged him to retweet a recent "thought of the day" the Ireland team received from their much-loved kit man, Rala O'Reilly.

The truth in the message and the typo that tickled O'Driscoll was a neat summary of the man known as BOD: "Toughness is in the soul and the spirit, not in the mussels."

Pride of Celtic Lions

The tour record holders

5 Willie John McBride (Ireland) 1962, '66, '68, '71, '74

5 Mike Gibson (Ireland) 1966, '68, '71, '74, '77

4 Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland) 2001, '05, '09, '13

3 27 players including Gethin Jenkins, Paul O'Connell in the squad this year

BOD's six Lions Tests

2001 v Australia: won 29-13 in Brisbane (one try), lost 35-14 in Melbourne, lost 29-23 in Sydney

2005 v New Zealand: lost 21-3 in Christchurch (captain, injured in second minute of match)

2009 v South Africa: lost 26-21 in Durban, lost 28-25 in Pretoria (injured in second half)

BOD's major honours

Record try-scorer in Five/Six Nations' Championship with 26, and has most starts in the Championship (60); Ireland debut in 1999 v Australia – 125 caps, second highest behind Ronan O'Gara; Grand Slam 2009 (Ireland's first since 1948); Triple Crown 2004, '06, '07; Ireland's record try-scorer with 46; captained Ireland a record 83 times, first time against Australia in 2002.

Hugh Godwin

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