History books are booted into touch as the Lion king takes centre stage

Brian O'Driscoll has the world at his feet as he runs out in today's first Test. Chris Hewett reports from Christchurch
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is now four years since Brian O'Driscoll, in the thick of the first Test between the Lions and Australia, carried out a single-handed assault on the most brilliantly organised, bloody-minded and parsimonious defence ever witnessed on a rugby field and tore it to ribbons. His try at The Gabba in Brisbane was one of the great ones: a shimmying, shammying, side-stepping, wrong-footing pearl of a score that placed O'Driscoll on centre stage for the sporting world to savour.

On Wednesday evening, as the 2005 Lions captain contemplated the issues surrounding the long-awaited meeting with the All Blacks today, he quietly asserted, in that seductive Dublin brogue of his, that he was a better player now than he had been that night in Queensland. He did not sound immodest - O'Driscoll is not one to hide his light under a bushel, but he is no one's idea of a loudmouth either - and as he spoke, the thought dawned that if he is right about himself the Lions really do have a chance of taking an early advantage in the three-Test series.

"I think there are more aspects to my game, that I'm more wise to the world," he said. "I'm not a naïve 22-year-old any longer; I'm more of a leader, less of a follower. I'm a smarter player defensively and I've changed physically, in that I have a greater muscle mass than I did when I first became a Lion. Because of that, I'm able to be more aggressive. I'd say I'm more aware of the people around me, too, and that's important. I was probably quite a selfish sort back in Australia, but the space has closed in around me over the years and I've had to adapt. It's made me a more rounded player, not getting my own way all the time."

O'Driscoll was special when he played against the Wallabies in 2001. Has he been quite so special since? Much of his work for Ireland during the 2003 World Cup, especially in the games with Australia and France, was of the top-drawer variety, but he did not exactly set the Liffey on fire in the 2004 Six Nations Championship, which he spent at inside centre to accommodate the in-form Gordon D'Arcy. This past year or so, he has been a curate's egg on legs, rescuing some scruffy individual performances with solo tries or razor-sharp finishes so sublime that his supporters might have been forgiven for wondering whether he had been toying with the opposition all along. No one doubts his quality for a second, but candidates for a place in the sport's pantheon cannot afford too much in the way of slippage.

This series offers him the world, and O'Driscoll is in the mood to take it. He is not, however, one to romanticise about his rugby. A Test rubber between New Zealand and the Lions always drips history, and this gathering of the clans is no exception - there is as much talk here about Colin Meads and Brian Lochore, about Gareth and Benny and J J and J P R, as there is about Doug Howlett or Jonny Wilkinson. Yet O'Driscoll is blissfully unaware and wholly uninterested in things past. "Obviously, I've been thinking about this match a fair bit," he admitted, "but I don't dream about it. I don't lay on my bed obsessing about it. Sure, this will be some occasion, but I can't bring myself to look at the historical side of it that much. I don't see the added bonus in doing so, to be frank with you. I wasn't really a daydreamer as a boy, and when I started playing rugby, a lot of things happened to me before I knew they were occurring or understood their importance. Like any player, I go through the good things and the bad things and the could-have-beens. But before a game, I don't sit there contemplating the open-top bus ride after we've won."

The Irish have made mighty contributions to Lions lore. The 1971 side, unique in that they won a series in this country rather than the odd match, had Willie John McBride at lock, Mike Gibson at centre - one of the few backs in the green-shirted annals more illustrious than the current captain - and the influential Ray McLoughlin in the front row. The 1959 team, considered by many old-timers here to have been the most exhilarating pride of Lions to set foot on these shores, boasted Tony O'Reilly, David Hewitt, Andy Mulligan, Noel Murphy and Syd Millar, under the leadership of the hard-working hooker from the Wanderers club, Ronnie Dawson.

Some of these people were extraordinary rugby players, some of them brick-hard street fighters of the first order, some of them comedians of genius. One or two were all three. It may well be that years from now O'Driscoll will be viewed through the same rose-coloured lens and discover that the realities of his career have blurred into legend. At the moment, though, no one is more hard-headed or less sentimental about the next 80 minutes of rugby than the skipper.

"There are sound reasons for optimism," he pointed out to an audience consisting largely of doubting Thomases. "We still have a good number of players who toured Australia in 2001, and they are here with four more years' experience in the bank. Others have been selected for their first Lions tour because they happen to be playing the best rugby of their careers. No, we don't have Martin Johnson or Scott Quinnell with us this time. But we have Martin Corry, who played so well against the Wallabies on the last tour and is a much more influential player now, and we have people like Paul O'Connell, men who are right up to the job.

"I'm not saying there aren't aspects of our game that will have to improve dramatically now that we've arrived at the Test series. Of course there are. But the levels of intensity go up as a matter of course in the week of a really important game, with people pushing themselves a further 10 or 15 per cent. Where does this come from? I honestly don't know if it's a conscious thing, or entirely subconscious. All I know is it's the way the mind and body work, the way life is in a sporting environment like this one. You go into the week telling yourself that you have to squeeze as much from yourself as you possibly can, and by and large it happens."

These past few days have not been the easiest of O'Driscoll's captaincy, but he knew before he left Dublin that the start of a Test week would be difficult. "There's a little disappointment among the players who missed out on selection," he acknowledged. "How did I deal with that side of the job? I certainly couldn't begin to ease that sense of disappointment, but I was able to say to those people concerned that their reaction would be absolutely pivotal to what we're trying to achieve as a group. There is no point losing faith in yourself or the coaches after one selection."

Today, the first centre to lead a Lions side since Bill Maclagen of Scotland captained his 21-strong squad to victory over South Africa 114 years ago, will be charged with stoking the fires rather than softening the blows. How will he set about the task?

"I'm not the biggest of talkers just prior to a game," he said. "The huge majority of the mental preparation will already have been done, so the important thing is to avoid speaking gibberish. Anything I do say will have a point to it, a clear focus. If there's anything else to be said, there are plenty of people in the side qualified to say it. Gareth Thomas captains Wales, Neil Back has captained England and has more experience than any of us. They're great communicators, but even they won't babble away just for the sake of it.

"For some people, this is their first Lions Test. For others, like myself, we have the memory of that game against the Wallabies at The Gabba to inspire us. I'm sure the support we get here will be fantastic, although I suspect that night in Brisbane was unique. The Australians were caught on the hop by the sheer numbers of British and Irish people in the ground and the noise they generated, and I'd be surprised if the Kiwis let anything similar happen to them. These are the times when a player thinks about how much work he's put in to get where he is and realises that this is what he's wanted all his sporting life. I know this much: nothing great ever comes easy, and you take the most enjoyment from the things that are hardest to achieve."

The history that O'Driscoll chooses to ignore tells us there is no more difficult task in rugby than defeating the All Blacks on their own soil. To be fair to the captain, he does not need a book to tell him the facts of life.

Comments