James Lawton: O'Driscoll struts stage in display of princely talent

'When I go out on to the field, I know only one way to play and I cannot compromise'
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Brian O'Driscoll had been playing rugby's Hamlet for so long he was surely entitled to his metaphysical musings before the Grand Slam was finally gathered in. He confessed to some of the fevered speculation of most men given the chance to make a little history. "You wonder," he said, "about what could be, what might be, what is?"

What was, with compelling justice, made a fitting reward for a prince of Irish sport.

O'Driscoll has known plenty of glory in his superb career but he has also taken terrible blows, psychologically and physically, not least in the accumulating suspicion that his gifted team would always be denied the prize that had come to Ireland only once, in 1948, and then in the presence of arguably the greatest player they have ever produced, Jackie Kyle.

Kyle, 83 now, was the overseeing inspiration as O'Driscoll scattered the demons – and in the pivotal stage of a superb game, a mostly brilliant Welsh defence – and if there was any worry that the hype of modern sport bludgeons all of us into levels of excessively exaggerated emotion, it was surely dissolved by the anxiety that played across the face of the grand old man when it seemed possible that Wales might again steal his successor's moment of fulfilment.

Kyle, after all, has not been one of the most outspoken enthusiasts of the modern game in which O'Driscoll has been an archetypal figure, celebrated, rich and sometimes given to moody monologues about the pressures that come with his place in the public eye.

By comparison, Kyle has tended to make his Grand Slam episode seem like a diverting, though fleeting, adventure of youth, put away quickly enough in pursuit of a medical degree and service to the sick in Indonesia and Africa. Yet if sport can seem like an irrelevance when set against such weighty, and worthy matters, its enduring power to move the heart, if only for a day, needed little or no amplification beyond the expressions of the old hero when Ronan O'Gara dropped the winning goal and then the long penalty of Stephen Jones took an age to sink just below the crossbar.

O'Driscoll was made man of the match but if there was any doubt about this in the face of claims by the resurrected O'Gara and the perennially colossal Paul O'Connell, they could surely be cast aside by a wider consideration. Who has better represented the years of Ireland's impressive growth in a new world of professional rugby – remember how not so long ago the trick was to absorb their furies at Lansdowne Road, then wait for them to wheeze off into oblivion – than O'Driscoll?

Right from the start of his international career, at the age of 20, he elected himself to the great triumvirate of his nation's rugby – Kyle, the beautifully gifted Mike Gibson, and now the rampaging outside centre, igniting Ireland with three tries for victory in Paris, something last achieved before he was born. At 30, he remains, for all the ambivalence of his moods off the field, a constant source of extraordinary commitment; if his attack happens to lack its usual fluency, his defence is as resolute as a steel trap. There was a time when his father, a doctor, tried to remind him of the dangers of such relentless physical commitment, but the reply never changed, "When I go out on to the field, I know only one way to play and I cannot compromise that. If I did, I might as well pack up."

There is some debate now about whether he should be given the captaincy of the Lions, a much valued honour that was turned to rubble when his shoulder was smashed in the first Test in Christchurch four years ago. It seems like the potential waste of a pedigree so richly enhanced these last few weeks. O'Connell, the lion of the second row, has been much touted, and with some good reasons, but the candidacy of O'Driscoll was surely provided with the imprimatur of history at the Millennium Stadium.

When Ireland swarmed at the Welsh line in the first minutes of a second half when everything was in doubt, the Irish cause was suddenly invested with great certainty. It was that at one point the ball would be released to the captain in the belief that he could do something beyond the big men, as he had done so tellingly at Croke Park a few weeks earlier when the ailing, anarchic English supplied such unexpected resistance. He would take the ball and drive low with a conviction born of close to 100 Test match wars. And, of course, he did it.

O'Driscoll couldn't settle it, then and there, but he could make a statement around which the Irish challenge could be rebuilt with new belief. Warren Gatland, the Welsh coach, admitted: "They killed us at the start of the second half."

O'Driscoll was the architect of what followed as surely as if he, rather than the buffeted O'Gara, had kicked so acutely for the try of Tommy Bowe, or found the moment which saw the fly-half's drop-kick putter its way through the posts and over the bar.

It was a stupendous collision, all round, and if the Irish nerve was brilliantly reinstated right up to the moment replacement Paddy Wallace light-headedly surrendered a heart-stopping penalty, it could not be said that the Welsh did not go down like champions.

Inevitably, Gatland looks somewhat less omniscient now than he did at the start of the campaign. His talk of Welsh hatred of Ireland was crass, a bit like intruding into the fine points of an argument between briefly disputatious warrior cousins, and in the harsh light of 20/20 some of his selections, and notably the use of Ryan Jones away from his natural lair of No 8, are bound to be questioned. However, such doubts need to be balanced by the latest evidence that Wales are a team of both great talent and character.

For the winning coach, Declan Kidney, there is the historic satisfaction that he did nothing to disrupt either the instincts or the ambition of some outstanding players.

Least of all did Kidney contain the authority of Brian O'Driscoll. Whatever you call him, Drico, Jekyll or Hyde, even Hamlet, such a man of any nation's rugby would shine by any name.