Rugby Union: Drico, the dazzling superstar who carries Ireland's hopes in his hands

The Irish captain has the talent and determination to lead his side to Six Nations glory, writes Vincent Hogan
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The Independent Online
Picture him on a turbulent December night in the Stade Pierre Rajon. Deep in the south-east of France, the clock running down and Leinster straining to rein in a vengeful Bourgoin. One week before, the French had fielded a shadow side at Lansdowne Road and been filleted 92-17. Leinster had looked a little self-satisfied in the slaughter. At least to French eyes. This was payback.

Losing 23-19 entering the closing flurries, it looked grim for the Irish team. Then, suddenly, he struck. Even in action replay, the gap Brian O'Driscoll located that night in Bourgoin remains invisible.

In many ways, his deftness of foot inflicts a kind of group hypnosis on the French. He becomes a burst of colour. A blaze of yellow and blue, slicing through the local barricades. He jinks so low, his right hand momentarily kisses the turf for balance, his left wrapped defiantly around the ball. Suddenly, the field is open. Full-back Alexandre Peclier comes to meet him, but O'Driscoll kicks off his left foot now and Peclier is no more than a gaping flag pole. The try is converted by David Holwell.

"Drico" has saved the day.

"It does send a shiver down your spine when you see something like that," admits the Leinster manager Paul McNaughton. "Not just the quality of it, but the timeliness of it. It's incredibly exciting watching someone produce that kind of moment."

That kind of moment is O'Driscoll's calling card. Here, after all, is a man who has twice scored a hat-trick of tries in Six Nations games. A man whose stunning try for the British and Irish Lions in Brisbane had the crowd singing (much to his embarrassment) "Waltzing O'Driscoll". O'Driscoll's game virtually transcends analysis today. He has it all. Power, pace, a pick-pocket's footwork, a destructive defensive game, an uncanny talent to time the off-load and - as far as anyone can ascertain - a mental resilience that borders on bomb-proof.

Endlessly, as Irish captain, he presses his team-mates to soar with him. O'Driscoll fervently believes that the current crop of Irish players should be neither cowed nor restricted by tradition. In team meetings, he talks of possibilities rather than obstacles. When the mantle of favouritism leans upon them, O'Driscoll encourages his team-mates to embrace it.

In short, O'Driscoll isn't in the business of compromise. People see a brashness in that, just as they saw conceit in the blond, beach-bum highlights, The Late Late Show appearances, the commercial endorsements, and being voted Ireland's sexiest man. To some, the vaguest hint of swagger must amount to something treasonable.

Yet, his performances betray no hint of self-absorption. If anything, as O'Driscoll's celebrity has grown, so too his wizardry in the mean domain of a rugby midfield has continued to prosper and evolve. Since running the French into the Stade de France mud five years ago, he has effectively been a superstar. Yet, his work ethic, his willingness to immerse himself fully in the physical maelstrom, has remained utterly beyond rebuke.

"The hype is understandable, because he's a fantastic player," says McNaughton. "And the expectation is huge. But he lets neither affect him. He just seems to contain all that hype and pressure while giving exceptional performances. And I'm not just talking about the glamour games. Brian's performances for us this season have been just as good in the Celtic League as they've been in the Heineken Cup. His standards right across the board have remained consistently high.

"That said, I'm sure he would like people to be talking less about the Lions captaincy. I'm sure he'd like people to just give him a little space. Especially at this end of the Six Nations. Because you never know what this Championship will bring for Ireland."

His status is a mild curiosity for some, given that, until the age of 12, O'Driscoll had never even played rugby. As he grew up in Clontarf, his father, Frank, encouraged a broad, catholic interest in sport, despite the fact that he, himself, played twice for Ireland in the non-cap tour of Argentina in 1970. Initially, O'Driscoll was more interested in football. But, as a 12-year-old, he went to Blackrock College and discovered rugby. To begin with, his potential remained well concealed, although he did get selected for the Under-12s. O'Driscoll felt a little timid in the famous rugby nursery, but the passion soon engulfed him and, as his body filled out, so too his confidence began to grow.

Three times he played for the Irish schools team, losing one of those games to an England team at Lansdowne Road that included Jonny Wilkinson and Iain Balshaw, with Mike Tindall sitting on the bench. After school, he did a two-year sports management course at University College Dublin, where his performances sometimes startled the coach, Lee Smith. A former All Blacks Under-21 coach, Smith soon came to the conclusion that O'Driscoll was just about the most gifted kid he had ever worked with.

The rest is a blur. In 1999, O'Driscoll was picked for Ireland's summer tour of Australia, despite the fact he had yet to even play for his province. Essentially, he was being brought along for the experience but, two games into the tour, Warren Gatland was suitably impressed to give him a place in the Test side. Ireland lost, but O'Driscoll impressed. He has been a fixture in the Irish team ever since, becoming Ireland's all-time leading try-scorer.

With 55 caps already under his belt and the possibility of as many again to follow, O'Driscoll's place in the pantheon of Irish greats is already assured. But is he the greatest ever?

McNaughton is reluctant to make comparisons with former greats. Leinster's current manager was the great Mike Gibson's final international midfield partner, playing alongside the Ulsterman in both the 1979 Tests against Australia. He knows how good Gibson was. And how devastating O'Driscoll is. McNaughton says: "It's unfair to make comparisons because the game has changed so much. There's so much ball in hand now. Fitness levels have gone through the roof.

"It would be unfair on Mike Gibson because, back then, it was a different game. Back then, centres might get the ball four times in a game if they were lucky. But O'Driscoll is a fantastic player. Compared to the players of today, he has to be regarded as the best back in the world."