For much of the Six Nations opener in Cardiff yesterday, Brian O'Driscoll looked like a Celtic Basil Fawlty, his head swathed in a bandage held on by green tape. Not that the Dubliner was in any state of disorientation.
Quite the contrary. From the moment he opened up the Wales defence with an incision of surgical precision, cutting the way for Simon Zebo's opening try, Ireland's talismanic outside-centre stamped his enduring class on proceedings. If this is to be his swansong Six Nations season, then he is clearly going to go out with a bang.
And with a Lions roar to follow. For Warren Gatland, looking on from the East Stand wearing the metaphorical hat of British & Irish Lions head coach, there was considerable compensation for watching the Welsh team he guided to the Grand Slam last season fall at the first hurdle this time (despite a morale-salvaging fightback from 30-3 down).
O'Driscoll was one of several men in green to thrust up a hand for a ticket to Australia with Gatland's Lions, together with the back-row demolition man Sean O'Brien and the fly-half orchestrator Jonathan Sexton. Then there was the razor-sharp Zebo.
A broken leg may have stopped his father from showing his class as a French champion 800m runner against Alberto Juantorena, Steve Ovett and Co at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, but after four caps Zebo Jnr is making a name for himself in the international sporting arena. As well as scoring with his first touch in the Six Nations, he helped tee up the second try with an outrageous flick off the outside of his left boot.
"Match of the Day stuff," Jamie Heaslip, Ireland's No 8 and captain, said. Such is the Irish 'play Zebo' effect.
As for Wales, despite tying the try-count at 3-3 with their revival in the final 31 minutes, they are in urgent need of a cure for a losing streak that stands at eight matches now. Next up is a trip to Paris. "That man O'Driscoll!" Shaun Edwards, the Wales defence coach, exclaimed. "I thought he was the difference between the two teams. I wish they'd left him in Ireland."
The 34-year-old battle-scarred O'Driscoll does not quite possess the same acceleration as the cherubic 21-year-old who gave France the va-va-voom treatment in Paris in 2000 but, back in the midfield driving seat after his most recent injury-induced breakdown, he has a good deal of gas left in the tank yet.
The erstwhile Irish captain had already shown his sharpness with one half-break on the left before swiftness of thought and deed sliced Wales apart in the 11th minute. Taking a feed from Sexton, O'Driscoll tied in three defenders, allowing Zebo to gallop over unopposed. It was all one-way traffic, Ireland dictating the up-tempo pace and dominating possession. Their second try came in the 24th minute, hooker Rory Best charging down Dan Biggar's attempted clearance kick and Heaslip throwing out a wild pass that Zebo juggled with feet and hands before prop Cian Healy reached to deposit the ball over the line from a close-range ruck.
By half-time, all Wales had on the scoreboard was a solitary penalty, courtesy of Leigh Halfpenny. Three minutes into the second half they were 30-3 down, O'Driscoll picking up from a ruck and diving over in the right corner for his 46th try for his country after engineering a scoring opportunity for Rob Kearney.
From then on it was one-way traffic in the other direction. Twice Ireland were reduced to 14 men – first Best, then scrum-half Conor Murray visiting the sin-bin. Meanwhile Wales scored three tries, Alex Cuthbert, Halfpenny and replacement prop Craig Mitchell crossing the line.
For the Grand Slammers of 2012, however, it was too little, too late.
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