Brian O'Driscoll was the beating emotional heart of the Lions party in Wallaby country last summer and when the great Ireland centre was dropped for the final Test, thousands upon thousands of rugby followers went into sporting seizure. Many did not forgive Warren Gatland, the coach who made the bravest of brave calls, even when the tourists won in Sydney and completed a first series triumph in 16 years.
O'Driscoll is bound to be the centrepiece – no pun intended – of his country's campaign in the forthcoming Six Nations, for the simple reason that this tournament will be his last. Yet according to Joe Schmidt, the New Zealander who succeeded Declan Kidney as Ireland coach last year and is about to experience the fire and fury of this extraordinary championship for the first time, the attention surrounding the celebrated Dubliner will not knock the green-shirted campaign out of kilter.
"The good thing about Brian is that he's pretty understated in the dressing room," Schmidt said. "He has an edge to him and he'll tidy someone up if that person is not properly focused, but he doesn't dominate. I don't think there'll be any distraction involving Brian: certainly, he won't be looking to cause a distraction."
Schmidt was supported in his view by the long-serving and apparently indestructible lock Paul O'Connell, who has played Test rugby alongside O'Driscoll for longer than anyone cares to remember. "Brian doesn't do a lot of giving out," said the man from Limerick. "He leads by his own example. When he does pull you to one side and tells you you're doing something wrong, it tends not to happen a second time."
O'Connell, freshly re-signed by Munster and targeting at least two more Six Nations campaigns, was as generous as could be in his praise of O'Driscoll. "Sometimes, your best attacking player can be your worst defender. Brian is our best attacker, our best defender and our hardest player at the breakdown."
In turn, Schmidt was happy to credit the 34-year-old O'Connell and his fellow greybeards. "There is a danger attached to being overly focused on the World Cup cycle when it comes to selection and bringing young players into the side," he remarked. "I do believe that age is just a number, and that it's a less important one than the number of tackles you make or the number of rucks you hit."