A small handful of rugby players – those happy few – are born into Lionhood, and the very best of them, the crème de la crème, grow to their fullest size in the red jersey. Brian O’Driscoll is among that number.
The thought of it may embarrass him, for he has won only once in six Test appearances in the great union citadels of the southern hemisphere, but the ledger never tells the full story. Willie John McBride first tasted victory at the 10th time of asking, yet no one quibbles with his place in the annals.
Twelve years after scoring one of the great tries of the modern era by running through the most parsimonious defence in Christendom from a distance of 50-odd metres, the celebrated Dubliner returns to the scene of the deed – well, almost – with his eyes firmly fixed on the one attainable jewel still missing from his treasure trove. It is the closest thing to a sporting certainty that the man playing the hardest rugby in today’s first Test will be the oldest Lion on the field.
“I don’t want to be someone who’s known for making a lot of appearances in Lions Tests but failing to win a series,” he says. “You talk about the camaraderie on Lions tours, about the squad gelling together and everyone becoming great friends, but if we all got on terribly yet beat the Wallabies across these three matches, I’d take that.” How’s that for tough talk? At 34, on his fourth and last Lions trek, O’Driscoll has never been more open in giving expression to the ruthlessness of his competitive nature.
That try of his at The Gabba in the first Test of the 2001 series burnt itself into the memory of all who witnessed it. Those who were there have a precise recall of the maul out near the Lions’ left touchline, and the boldness of O’Driscoll’s intent as he received the ball a few metres inside his own half. They can picture still the slicing run between Nathan Grey and Jeremy Paul, the touch on the afterburner that left a back-row defender as accomplished as George Smith in no-man’s land, the shimmering step off the right foot that did for the full-back Matthew Burke and the speed of the run that took him to the line ahead of two half-decent Wallaby wings in Andrew Walker and Joe Roff.
Today’s game is not being played at The Gabba, but at the Suncorp Stadium – a venue much more to the liking of the Australian players. And, if truth be told, it is devilishly difficult to see O’Driscoll cutting these Wallabies to ribbons from the back end of beyond: the ageing process alone dictates that when a centre in his mid-30s makes a clean break, he cannot maximise it in the way he did in his early 20s. But the thousands of Lions supporters who will somehow find their way into the ground for this contest will still have faith in BOD, even if they no longer believe him capable of miracles.
If O’Driscoll has his own joyous memories of that 29-13 victory, they are not in his mind’s eye right now. “There’s time for reflection when you go on holiday, and plenty of time for it when you retire,” he remarks. “You do think about the fact that so many greats have pulled on the shirt before you and that it’s a huge honour to borrow it for 80 minutes, but I try not to dwell on it. I prefer to let the moment happen.
“This is my fourth tour and I’ve seen all sorts of things, good and bad, but you can’t concern yourself with what’s gone before and get lost in the enormity of it. ‘Just go out and play your game’ – that’s the best advice I was ever given.”
Some individuals – McBride, Gareth Edwards, Barry John and maybe a dozen others – are so completely defined by their deeds in the red shirt, it is as if they had no other rugby life, either before or after. O’Driscoll may come to be seen in the same way, even though he has fought the good fight for Ireland on no fewer than 125 occasions and won three Heineken Cup titles with Leinster. With the Lions, he has strode the sunlit uplands in Australia, passed through the purgatorial fires in South Africa and descended to the darkest depths in New Zealand. His shoulder still bears the scar of 2005, when the All Blacks brutally upended him in storm-tossed Christchurch and left the Lions to play all but a minute of the Test series without their captain. Maybe his mind bears the scar, too.
“I guess I was never going to win a World Cup with Ireland, so to win a series with the Lions is the biggest thing left to me,” he says. “I’d dearly love to do it, not just for my own sake but for the sake of the Lions too, because we need to win one of these series soon. Let’s hope it starts here.
“This is a unique thing, to have four different rugby countries shouting for you over a seven-week period; it’s bizarre in a way, but brilliant. I really hope it’s never overtaken by anything else in the sport. You’ll see it here with the first-time Lions: once they’ve experienced it, one taste is never enough. They’ll crave more. You never see a Lion going into the opposition changing room looking to swap a shirt. This is the power the jersey holds. To be one of the top 37 players in the home unions, knowing that so many people play our game… it’s such a personal high. And then to think of the winning Lions teams: ’71, ’74, ’89, ’97. There’s so much history to it.”
Sam Warburton, the latest man to lead the four-nation fraternity into action, mentioned earlier this week that the presence of O’Driscoll and his fellow countryman Paul O’Connell, who skippered the squad in Springbok country four years ago, had already been of immense value. Under different circumstances, O’Driscoll might have found himself undertaking a second tour of captaincy duty: indeed, he was a hot tip for the job for much of last season. As it turns out, he is happy enough among the rank and file.
“When I did the job in New Zealand, I felt more as if I was in a goldfish bowl,” he admits. “The honour of captaining the Lions is enormous, of course, but being able to step away from such responsibility makes your tour a little more enjoyable. I’ve put in my tuppence-worth on this trip when it’s been asked of me and I’ve felt able to add something, but I think Sam is doing really well.
“He doesn’t speak for the sake of it. When he does speak, he definitely has the attention of the team. Different countries do different things, don’t they? In Ireland, we’re talkers. That might get us going but it might not work for everyone else, so maybe there’s a need for us to tone it down and strike a balance. Sam’s getting it right. Talk is good when it’s about things that are relevant, but when people hear noise they switch off.”
It is difficult to imagine O’Driscoll switching off today, for the Lions are banking on his know-how. He will form one half of a freshly minted midfield partnership with the Wales centre Jonathan Davies, and their unfamiliarity at Test level is far from ideal, even though the Irishman rates Davies very highly indeed – “an incredibly rounded footballer who runs the ball really hard yet has a great range of skills,” he says admiringly. But the Wallabies find themselves in the same boat, with Christian Leali’ifano winning his first Australia cap alongside Adam Ashley-Cooper.
“Jonathan is a thoughtful sort,” O’Driscoll continues. “We’re rooming together at the moment, and he was very quiet the other day when he saw the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door and knew I was having a nap.”
All very interesting, but what about his rugby? “He identifies space better than a lot of people I’ve played beside,” O’Driscoll replies. “I mean no disrespect to Jamie Roberts or Manu Tuilagi, but he brings a different dimension. If they get fit, it’ll be a massive headache for the selectors.”
The big bonus for the Lions is that their most experienced player is just about as fit as a player of his advanced years could be. “Compared to 2001, when we were training for 90 minutes twice a day, this is a different existence,” he says. “If I’d been doing here what I did back then, I’d have died two weeks ago. There’s no point training like Tarzan and playing like Jane. It has to be the other way round.”