O'Driscoll hits his peak on top of the mountain
Sunday 22 March 2009
Brian O'Driscoll is arguably the world's pre-eminent player of the Noughties, and there would have been no argument had he not had his captaincy of the 2005 British and Irish Lions cut short by a brutally inflicted injury. Hurt physically and mentally by that dislocated shoulder at the hands of two All Blacks, he took a while to climb the mountain again.
Last night, by achieving a Grand-Slamming vindication of his lofty talent, the Ireland captain laid claim to a peerless peak. Four tries in five matches – the five wins which added up to a first Irish Slam in six decades – made this O'Driscoll's championship. A second Lions tour as leader surely beckons.
"It's a fantastic feeling," said O'Driscoll. "Looking your team-mates in the face knowing you gave it your all and won, that's pretty sweet." Once upon an epoch ago, when a prop called Chris Daly scored the try which won Ireland their only other clean sweep, he had his shirt ripped from his back in the celebrations in Belfast by what the staid BBC Radio commentator called "a seething mob". The mob mentality here belonged to Ireland's forceful pack of forwards led by Paul O'Connell and to their supporters singing "Fields of Athenry", chorus after never-ending chorus.
And always there was O'Driscoll. Though never the most vocal or volatile skipper, he had announced himself worldwide with three tries against France in Paris in 2000 and he has been the heart of Ireland's remarkable past 10 years: five times placed second in the championship (on each occasion one win shy of a Slam) and three Triple Crowns before this season.
In the 1990s they finished in the bottom two of the championship every year. This success belongs to the players and the coaches, led by the quiet, indefatigable former schoolteacher Declan Kidney, but also shrewd visionaries in the Irish Union who spent a few million quid bringing players home from English clubs to their provinces soon after the game went open. O'Driscoll's gifts cannot be bought; in the ultimate team game he stands apart for his appreciation of space and eye for the main chance. But he and his side did this the hard way.
The most marginal of trips by Ryan Jones was Wales's calling card to Ronan O'Gara. It was the signal for the most ruthless, obvious targeting of the hollow-cheeked No 10. Mike Phillips, then Ryan Jones, then Tom Shanklin ran hard down O'Gara's channel, battering him back. When O'Gara lay prone at a ruck, Phillips cuffed him around the ear. Ian Gough and Gavin Henson whistled a double tackle around O'Gara's ears like stereophonic hitmen.
The upshot was that though Ireland had plenty of ball, some of it through O'Connell's line-out pilfering, their backs were disrupted and O'Driscoll was reduced in the first half to one hurried forward pass to Luke Fitzgerald, who was sniffing a try at the corner.
What to do? Get your own back, of course. Ireland trailed 6-0 but they began the second half as if the first had never happened. Two quick tries came: first O'Driscoll – just as he did against England at Croke Park – applied an urgent, shuffling finish. There were millimetres in it but that is what the Dubliner scores over mere mortals.
Then O'Gara's chip-kick sent Tommy Bowe racing away. With two conversions from O'Gara's right boot he had played a mighty part in his side's 14-point turnaround. And he continued to do so, pinging kick after kick down the wing of Shane Williams, and finally with that joyous dropped goal. "You wouldn't have thought there was a nerve in the guy's body," said O'Driscoll admiringly.
The targeting of Williams outdid the hounding of O'Gara. Clever stuff by Ireland and a tribute to Kidney, who declared his principal concern on the eve of the Six Nations to be the miles he would clock up driving between his Cork home and the training base in Limerick. "I think I'll be drinking a lot of coffee," he said. Kidney, O'Driscoll and Ireland will wake up today to the sweet smell of success.
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