Here’s a story about Brian O’Driscoll, the nearest thing to a “great player” – someone who merits the description rather than strips it of all meaning – to emerge in European rugby since the dawning of the professional era. Ahead of the Six Nations Championship in 2003, the Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan appointed him captain in the absence of the much decorated folk-hero hooker Keith Wood, who had suffered a serious neck injury. When Wood, as proud and competitive a union man as ever walked the earth, returned in time for that year’s World Cup, he was prepared to make way for, and take orders from, a mere kid.
O’Sullivan tells the tale in his autobiography, Never Die Wondering, and it says everything that needs saying about O’Driscoll’s impact on the game in the Emerald Isle and beyond. “I could see the quality in O’Driscoll from day one,” O’Sullivan writes. “Maybe some other people couldn’t quite see it. They just looked at this kid in his early twenties with a Dublin Four accent and a background in Blackrock College. Silver spoon material. What they didn’t see was the warrior behind the image. This guy always put his body on the line. He had all the skills, but it was his attitude that marked him down as different. He never flinched, never backed down. Routinely, he played through the pain barrier.
“I did make it clear to him that he was only keeping the captaincy seat warm. The irony was that he ended up doing so well, there was talk that when Woody finally made it back, I couldn’t possibly take it off him. Even Woody himself would eventually bring this up. ‘You’ve a decision to make here on the captaincy,’ he said one morning, approaching the World Cup. ‘I have,’ I agreed, smiling. ‘I just want it to be known,’ he said, ‘that if it’s not me, I won’t be getting in a strop. I’ll be disappointed, but we won’t be falling out over it’.”
Imagine Martin Johnson telling Clive Woodward that he was prepared to move aside for Jonny Wilkinson, and you’re somewhere in the ballpark. As O’Sullivan says, there was something in the way O’Driscoll carried himself from the very beginning – something about the depth of his desire, about his ability to “take ownership of the moment” – that separated him from the common herd and took him to another place entirely.
And when the centre plays his 141st and final full international at Stade de France this evening – the venue at which, 14 years ago, he first declared his genius, as his fellow Dubliner Oscar Wilde might have put it – those thousands of Irish supporters making the trip to Paris will marvel for the last time at his ability to be a man of the people and a man apart at one and the same time.
There are still a few club games left to him, most notably a Heineken Cup quarter-final for Leinster against Toulon on the shores of the Mediterranean next month. It is then that memories of his deeds in that grandest of club competitions will be put in their proper perspective: his title-winning intervention in 2009 when, with his right arm dangling uselessly by his side, he ran full tilt into a phalanx of Leicester tacklers and won the penalty that decided the final; the barely credible way he rose above a desperate first-half performance to ignite his team’s comeback against Northampton in the 2011 showpiece. But in most eyes, this is the day the champion leaves the arena.
It is perfectly reasonable to argue that O’Driscoll is the finest outside centre of the modern rugby age. Was Jeremy Guscott, the prince of English midfielders, a more exhilarating attacking runner? Quite possibly, although the Irishman’s early work in this regard can hardly be dismissed out of hand. Was Danie Gerber of South Africa more powerful and destructive on the hoof? Probably. Was Tana Umaga of New Zealand marginally more ferocious when the fur was flying? Maybe. Was Philippe Sella of France a more glorious symbol of rugby’s special spirit than any of his rivals? There are those who believe so. But as Andy Robinson, the former England coach now in charge at Bristol, pointed out this week, O’Driscoll did something only the great do.
“Brian changed the way the game in his position is played,” said the West Countryman, who worked with him on the British & Irish Lions tour of Australia in 2001 and again in New Zealand four years later. “And a little like Wilkinson at outside-half, he changed it principally in the defensive sphere. It’s hard to imagine a threequarter being as accomplished as this, but his post-tackle work was, and remains, as good as Neil Back’s when he was playing in the England pack – as good as the Munster back row’s in this year’s Heineken Cup. For a centre to be so effective in this area…it’s a first, definitely.
“One of the things that really strikes me about him is his arrogance,” he added. “I don’t mean that as a criticism – arrogance is exactly what you want from a player, as long as he can back it up with his skills, and if ever anyone walks the walk on a rugby field it’s Brian. Alongside that, you have his infectious enthusiasm. That cheeky grin tells you he’s in love with the game, and when you have a world-class player, someone everyone looks up to, enjoying what he’s doing in such an obvious way it trickles down through the entire squad.
“And then there’s his attacking prowess, which was there for all to see in the Ireland-Italy game last weekend. He’s a player with all the skills and all the techniques, underpinned by a set of genes that gives him a physical advantage and allows him to do things that are out of the ordinary. For instance, there aren’t many people out there who can play through the tackle like he does. If, for one afternoon, you could see O’Driscoll at his best against Sella at his best, you’d be in rugby heaven.”
It is eight months since O’Driscoll made one of his rare descents into rugby hell. After the Lions lost the second Test of last summer’s series with the Wallabies in Melbourne, they headed for a brief spell of alcohol-infused rest and recuperation on the Queensland coast, and after arriving in the small resort town of Noosa Heads, it was the Irishman who faced the media. To those who had watched his career unfold at close quarters, he had never seemed quite so flat, quite so dispirited. Looking back on that discussion from a distance, he may well have known he was about to be dropped, ridiculous as the idea seemed at the time.
“It is, I suppose, the coach’s prerogative to identify what he wants from his team and work out what side is capable of delivering it on the weekend,” he said that day. “On a tour like this, it’s about striking the balance in your combinations between guys who haven’t played too much rugby and those who are flagging just a little bit. Particularly when you’ve lost a game, every place is up for scrutiny.
“Does a person deserve to be in the jersey again? When you don’t win, that’s the question the coaches ask. I won’t go chewing my nails off thinking about it: I’ll go with the flow like everyone else. Hopefully, I’ll be included in the team for this game. If I’m not…I’ll deal with that if it arises.”
As the rugby world and its wife would discover, it did arise, and he did deal with it. As Owen Farrell, the young English outside-half who was in that tour party and witnessed these events at first hand, recalled a few days ago, O’Driscoll “did not go into a sulk, as others may have done. No matter how he was feeling, he made sure he didn’t affect anyone else – made sure he still added to the group. A massive thing, that”.
Since his first international appearance –against Australia in the summer of 1999, shortly before that year’s World Cup – it is fair to say that whatever O’Driscoll has done in rugby, he has done it on a grand scale, if not a “massive” one. Even his injuries and disappointments have been more dramatic than everyone else’s. Tonight in Paris, he will run down the curtain on one hell of a show. If we see another one like it this side of rugby eternity, we will be very lucky indeed.
Centres of attention: The best of the best
1 Danie Gerber (South Africa, 1980-92)
Caps 24. Points 82
His Test career was stunted by South Africa’s apartheid era isolation, but the power of his broken-field running was stunning.
2 Philippe Sella (France, 1982-95)
Caps: 111. Points: 125
Pace, strength, technical mastery and Gallic dash – a potent mix that gave him heroic status in France.
3 Jeremy Guscott (England and Lions, 1989-99) Caps: 65 + Lions 8. Points: 143 + 23
Supremely stylish and frighteningly fast, the Bath flier could petrify opponents without touching the ball.
4 Tana Umaga (New Zealand, 1997-2005)
Caps: 74. Points: 180
A standard-bearer for the All Blacks. If you wanted to beat them, you had to beat him first.
5 Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland and Lions, 1999-2014) Caps: 132 + 8. Points: 245 + 5
He belongs in this company. At his best, he brought elements of all four rivals to his game.
By Chris Hewett
The mighty bod: Rugby pays tribute
“When you see a fella who doesn’t know where he is one minute and comes back on with his head all strapped up, he’s a true warrior. I’ve never seen anyone like him”
Keith Earls, Ireland team-mate
“Brian’s as good a centre as any produced by Britain and Ireland. He was great to coach”
Ian McGeechan, former British & Irish Lions coach
“If you look at the greats, he is right up there – his vision, his great skills, his enthusiasm, and I think he’s been a great leader for Ireland”
David Campese, former Australian international
“Any team that takes the field with Brian always feels it has a chance of winning. What he does on the pitch is just incredible”
Paul O’Connell, Ireland captain