The sight of Brian O’Driscoll, broad white headband crowning furrowed brow, sitting on a plastic chair on the touchline in the Stadio Olimpico as he served time in the sin bin and watched his team-mates beaten by Italy was one of the abiding images of last year’s Six Nations.
Wind the film on to last summer and there he is on the sidelines again, in the stands watching the Lions clear the final hurdle to win a historic series in Australia without his aid.
That was no way to say goodbye, so BOD is back for one last lap. Tomorrow he will collect his 129th cap for his country, surpassing Ronan O’Gara to stand alone atop Ireland’s honours board.
The grim finale in Rome and the personal slight – Warren Gatland, head coach on that Lions tour, is in town with his Wales team next weekend – in Sydney made his decision to carry on for a final year rather more predictable than what he does on the pitch.
Scotland joined Italy in upsetting Ireland last year, leaving a wreck of a season, their lowest finish in Six Nations history and their worst in the championship since 1998. They avoided the wooden spoon on points difference.
But a new coach in Joe Schmidt, allied to that astonishing first-half display against the All Blacks in November and the form of their provinces, has refreshed Irish optimism.
And then there’s the O’Driscoll factor. The light may be dimming, the legs not quite what they were, but there are still few sharper rugby brains about and the desire certainly remains.
“He’s been almost effervescent really, there’s been a real spring in his step,” said Schmidt, whose appointment in succession to Declan Kidney was the key in O’Driscoll’s decision to play on under his former Leinster coach. “I think he’s pretty understated in the fact that he will be Ireland’s most capped Test player. I know to him, every one is incredibly special.”
O’Driscoll will not have Gordon D’Arcy inside him. D’Arcy, who was back to his darting best against New Zealand, has struggled with a virus so Schmidt has chosen Luke Marshall, one of three Ulstermen ushered into the XV. Marshall will collect his fifth cap but, with Scotland’s novice centre pairing of Duncan Taylor and Alex Dunbar having nine between them, Marshall’s rawness is unlikely to be an issue, especially given those around him.
“He’s between Johnny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll, so either side of him he has two players who can help him navigate his way through the game,” said Schmidt.
Marshall will be joined on the field by Chris Henry and Andrew Trimble, in the back row and on the wing respectively, as Schmidt doffs his selectorial cap to Ulster’s position as the
Heineken Cup’s only unbeaten side.