Peter Bills: Geniuses of their day, giants of their era

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The Independent Online

At a time when Bleddyn Williams, the so-called "Prince of Centres" from Wales, sadly passed away last week at the age of 86, it is appropriate to mark the achievements, especially this year, of the current "King of Centres", Brian O’Driscoll of Ireland.

These two special players lit up their respective eras. No greater praise can be bestowed than that single, unarguable fact.

Williams was the elegant, thrusting midfield player who won fame with the 1950 Lions and went on to lead Wales to victory over the 1953 All Blacks in Cardiff, their last triumph over New Zealand. A product of Rydal School in North Wales which had also produced another huge talent for Welsh rugby in Wilf Wooller, Williams won 22 caps between 1947 and 1955 including five as captain. He strode the stage in the years after the war, in which he had been a glider pilot often behind enemy lines.

The tall, smartly dressed, friendly Welshman dismissed it all as "a bit of fun". That was his way of remaining low key. He preferred to ignore his own brilliance and put the spotlight on others.

Another former pupil of Rydal School, my own father who is now 99, still recalls the genius of Wooller and Williams. "They were exceptional players at school, it was obvious from the start they were uniquely talented. I remember Wooller dropping a goal for Cambridge in the Varsity match from inside his own half.

"My father took me to Iffley Road to see Williams play against Oxford University just after the war. He made a classic break and my father stood up and shouted 'There’s class for you'. Williams had finesse written all over him. He just seemed to know when the opening, the opportunity was there and he had the ability to seize it. His timing was supreme and he made so many tries for others."

O'Driscoll shone just as brightly as a schoolboy at Blackrock College. Word of his genius quickly spread, long before he had won his first cap for Ireland on their tour of Australia in 1999. By then, it was obvious Ireland had unearthed another gem, a boy equipped to follow in the great traditions of Irish back play laid before him by the likes of Jack Kyle, Tony O'Reilly, David Hewitt and Mike Gibson.

O'Driscoll long since entered the pantheon of such greats. His searing pace off a standing start allied to a coruscating hand off and strong build with a low centre of gravity when on the move, has made him a desperately difficult opponent to contain throughout his playing career.

For ten years, O'Driscoll has delighted spectators the world over, in just the way Wooller and Williams did all those years ago. Like them, his quality has brought much admiration, his talents obvious and enjoyable to everyone. The hat trick of tries he scored against France in Paris in 2000, his first ever game against the French, enabled Ireland to get a rare win in the French capital.

But 2009 has surpassed all others in O'Driscoll's list of achievements. Intriguingly, it has coincided with an inevitable decline in his pace, a sop to the advancing years. The critics may have been quick to point this out but in reality, it has made little real difference.

His inspirational, courageous performances dragged Ireland to their long awaited Grand Slam in March, then came more talismanic displays that helped inspire team mates to individual heights on Leinster's run to the Heineken Cup title in May.

Finally, after an exhausting season, O'Driscoll was the star of the 2009 Lions, forging a thrilling partnership with the young Welsh centre Jamie Roberts. O'Driscoll's vision, his eye for opportunities, his balance and ability to handle pressure yet still off-load in the tackle made those around him excel. It was always the hallmark of genius that such men lifted those in their company.

O'Driscoll's play has been superlative in this, his 31st year. He has endured the physical battering his status invariably attracts yet continued to inspire the teams in which he has played. Commitment, vision, attacking prowess in seeking an opening and defensive solidity with the ability to read the play and make a vital defensive tackle - O'Driscoll has it all.

That is the way of genius. It is like the beauty of a plant; blossoming, flowering and then finishing. Somehow, every phase bears an element of fragility yet its beauty and sparkle are simply captivating.

Just as they celebrated the genius of Bleddyn Williams in his heyday, we should continue to admire O'Driscoll's five star quality while he still plays. I cannot believe he will play much more than one more season for Ireland.

His departure will leave us the poorer, albeit with the pleasure of a fount of memories.