As Brian O’Driscoll talked about the “mourning period” following the Lions’ one-point defeat in the Melbourne Test, it was possible to believe that he had never felt so utterly dejected in all his time as an international rugby player. And this from a man who had seen two series victories snatched from him at the death – Australia in 2001, South Africa in 2009 – and, in between in New Zealand, been the victim of one of the more infamous assaults in recent rugby history.
It was unnerving, listening to the great Irish centre attempt to exorcise his demons in a tone so flat it made you wonder whether he could even begin to raise himself for one last red-shirted shot at the Wallabies in Sydney this weekend. “It’s important to feel the disappointment because if you try to banish it immediately, it will keep coming back to you, as it is now at times throughout the day,” he said. “You’re thinking of how the scenario could be different – of how we could already have the series in the bag, rather than having it still there to fight for.
“But after a couple of days, you must have the ability to shelve it and focus on the target. One more 80 minutes is all that’s being asked of everyone in the squad. The 80 minutes of their lives.”
This has been a difficult series for O’Driscoll – a tighter, more attritional and far more narrowly-focused affair than his previous visit here as a Lion, a dozen years ago. Then, he finished the first Test as the king of Brisbane following a solo try of stellar quality and then went to toe-to-toe with the high-class Wallaby midfielder Daniel Herbert every step of the way. Here, armed with the iron will and grim determination of the true master competitor but transparently lacking the pace of old, he has found life frustrating, not least because the referees have taken a dislike to his work at the tackle area.
What will happen in selection if Jamie Roberts, the Welshman with whom he forged such a potent combination in South Africa four years back, is declared fit for Sydney and given a place in the starting line-up? There are plenty inside the Lions camp who believe Jonathan Davies, another Welshman, has been the best centre on tour and would deserve to keep his place. And as any fool knows, three into two doesn’t go.
But with the tour captain Sam Warburton now out of the final Test with a hamstring injury, O’Driscoll, the party’s conscience and heartbeat rolled into one, is the obvious choice to shoulder the burden of leadership. Even if there were other strong candidates to skipper the side, which there aren’t, it would be a mighty call to give a player of the Dubliner’s standing the heave-ho - the biggest made by a Lions coach since Ian McGeechan dropped the England captain Will Carling after the first Test of the series with the All Blacks in 1993. Warburton’s demise means this is most unlikely to happen.
Pressed on the subject of selection, the Dubliner took a phlegmatic approach apparently at odds with his can-do, make-it-happen rugby personality. “I suppose it’s the coach’s prerogative to identify what he wants from his team and work out what side is capable of delivering it on the weekend,” he said. “On a tour like this, it’s about striking the balance in your combinations between guys who haven’t played too much rugby and those who are flagging just a little bit.
“Particularly when you’ve lost a game, every place is up for scrutiny. Does a person deserve to be in the jersey again? When you don’t win, that’s the question the coaches ask. I won’t go chewing my nails off thinking about it: I’ll go with the flow like everyone else. Hopefully, I’ll be included in the team for this game. If I’m not…I’ll deal with that if it arises.”
On a happier note, O’Driscoll was completely behind the decision to bring the Lions to the Sunshine Coast for two clear days - or, thanks to the rain, not so clear days - of quality R and R. “You have to make sure you don’t do too much training in the final week,” he said. “There’s a lot in the bank already - at this stage, there’s not a huge amount to learn about the opposition, or indeed about ourselves - so it’s more about getting the detail right and saving the energy for the pitch.
“You have to be able to switch off from rugby for 24 or 48 hours, even in a Lions series. We’ve spoken about this just recently and it’s important to get it right. Historically, the difficult week is the fifth week, the one leading into the second Test, because the players who play on the Tuesday night and aren’t picked for the Saturday…I suppose there’s chance for them to go off-tour a little bit. What I like about this squad, what I’ve been unbelievably impressed by, is the manner in which those guys have carried themselves.
“Everything is for the betterment of the team, not the individual. We’re still tight and we’re still after the common goal, irrespective of who is in the Test 23. When the relaxation time is up and we kick back into training and team meetings and rugby talk, we’ll be ready for it.”