O'Driscoll plays support role

The Ireland captain tells Chris Hewett why he's happy to be second fiddle to compatriot Paul O'Connell
Click to follow
The Independent Online

As he mused over the entirely predictable news that he had been selected for a fifth Lions Test appearance, Brian O'Driscoll, the magical outside centre from Dublin admitted: "It's very different his time." It could hardly be more different. For a start, he has yet to be dumped on his left shoulder, savagely and sickeningly, as he was by a couple of grizzly All Blacks while leading the tourists in Christchurch four years ago. Somehow, a reporter dropping a tape recorder on the same shoulder yesterday seemed small beer by comparison.

"By different, I mean there's less pressure on me here," he continued. "Not being in the forefront of things, not being the figurehead... it means I can sit back and enjoy it all. Mind you, it's difficult to stay quiet when you're used to talking, so if there's something that needs saying, I'm still saying it. I'd far rather say something than end up wishing I'd said it.

"But Paulie [his fellow Irishman Paul O'Connell, who narrowly beat him to the Lions captaincy here] has been grand. He plays so incredibly honestly. When you see your leader working his socks off and showing you the way forward, it's easy to weigh in behind him. He has the balance right, does Paulie."

O'Driscoll was always going to start this humdinger of a match with the Springboks, and he was always going to play two warm-up matches as preparation. Those warm-ups were against the Golden Lions in Johannesburg, where he played the rugby of the gods against opponents who could not even begin to cope with him, and against the Kwazulu-Natal Sharks here in Durban, where he created two tries with passes of contrasting but equal brilliance. Assuming the South Africans do not mistreat him the way the New Zealanders did, he will be one of the star turns of the series.

"I'm excited about the potential of this team; I feel we have the capability to create a huge amount here," he said, confidently. "When they named the Test side, there were some great players not in it. That makes the point. But as I've mentioned before, you don't own the shirt. You're just borrowing it. Without the right work ethic, selection can change.

"Yes, there's a change of mood in the squad now the side's been named, and you can feel it in training. There is a lot of disappointment around. But we went out for a good meal together following the announcement, the congratulations and commiserations were dealt with, and we've all come together again to prepare. The guys doing the defending against the starting XV still have a job to do. They still have a focus and a purpose."

Lighter, leaner and significantly more sleek than he was a year ago, O'Driscoll looks as sharp as a new pin. He may have lost the fifth-gear speed he used to tear up the Wallabies on the 2001 tour of Australia, when he announced himself as a Test Lion with a stunning long-range try in Brisbane, but there is a cleverness and cunning about his midfield work that more than compensates for the negative effects of the ageing process. He is in no sense a less threatening player now than he was at the turn of the decade. Like all players of the very highest class, he finds fresh ways of threatening as the old ways are used up.

His relationship with Jamie Roberts, the strapping young inside centre from Wales, could hardly have been more productive. "We're a work in progress," he said, "but we've clicked reasonably well. He's a big, physical guy, but he's multi-skilled too, and that's a good place for a player to be in. Certainly, I've enjoyed operating off his shoulder.

"This game with the Boks will be so hard, though. I know they haven't played together as an international side since last November and there's always an element of difficulty about trying to pull things together for a big match after a break like that. But they've played a lot of rugby over the last few years, they have a lot of very familiar combinations and like any national team, they have their standards and expect to hit them."

It is good to see O'Driscoll enjoying his Lions summer after the trauma of New Zealand, which left him feeling very low for a good while afterwards. "I'm just trying to live in the moment," he said. "I'm not one to think too much about things, to over-analyse, so I don't really know what emotions I'll feel just ahead of the game. But I'm looking forward to it, that's for sure.

"This is the pinnacle, isn't it? As a rugby player, where else would I want to be than in Durban on Saturday afternoon?"