Time waits for no one – not even true greats like Brian O’Driscoll

Ireland centre is entering his final season of professional rugby, and Robin Scott-Elliot takes a look at where the 34-year-old finds himself after a testing summer of Lions rugby

There are not many opportunities left to see one of the modern greats of rugby union with ball in hand, tearing across the turf in that harum-scarum style, the one that seems to be hurtling him up a blind alley only for a jink and a drop of the shoulders to suddenly usher himself or a team-mate into green acres of space.

There has become too easy a willingness to genuflect before sportsmen and women today, promoting them into a sporting Valhalla on the back of a couple of inspirational moments. But in the case of Brian O’Driscoll there can be no quibbling over his place in the Pantheon. There is one more campaign in the blue shirt of Leinster, and, given form and fitness and barring a seismic call by the Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, one last autumn and spring in the emerald green.

Dropping O’Driscoll is not something any coach does lightly. Ask Warren Gatland. Last week O’Driscoll disclosed his true thoughts on the decision that consigned him to shirt, tie and blazer on the Lions’ lap of honour in Sydney. It was delivered as politely as ever but was nevertheless more than enough to reveal the lingering pain, and also where O’Driscoll believes he still stands in rugby’s pecking order.

The rights and wrongs of Gatland’s call have been exhaustively debated but there was a good case for leaving O’Driscoll out. He is not the player he was. How could he be at 34 with more than a dozen bruising years of international rugby behind him? He recognises his time is drawing to a close and has insisted that this season is the last – a decision he reached after assurances from Leinster and Schmidt that he was still wanted for club and country. It will be fascinating to see how his finale unfolds.

The two most recent images of O’Driscoll that spring to mind are not ones that match the garlanded career. Firstly sitting grim-faced on that bench in Sydney and a little further back to this year’s Six Nations, stranded on a chair pitchside in Rome, sin-binned and powerless to prevent Ireland from slumping to depressing defeat. The frustration screamed from the TV.

The end of a great career can provide drama as gripping as anything from the glory days, the moment when the superhuman realises they may be human after all. Lee Dixon once talked me through the end game. There’s an initial refusal to believe the signals that maybe, just maybe, you are not what you were: a winger skipping away with unnerving ease and no matter how much you pump those legs the gap only widens. Once you accept that, there is a stage of using the nous and craft of years at the top to keep you out of trouble. But then it comes, the time when you accept this is it, the end of the greatest road you will ever travel. You are less than halfway through life and you will never match what you have done, never be acclaimed by thousands upon thousands, never feel the buzz offered by extraordinary athletic achievement.

It can be impossible for the outsider to appreciate. Last autumn a British Olympian told me of the day he arrived home after the London Games. Clutching his bags of Team GB kit he opened the door on a silent, dusty empty house and felt empty inside. He believed the best days of his life as he knew it were done. On Thursday the Professional Players Federation, the umbrella organisation of the footballers, cricketers and rugby players’ unions, is holding a conference on how to deal with hanging up boots, bats and balls. The findings of a survey of 1,200 former players will be used to determine how to best support those calling an end to their days of days.

The vast majority are not like O’Driscoll, who has the luxury of having been well rewarded and will have plenty of doors still open. But that does not make it any easier for someone of his stature to end it. Anyone who gets to the top, the very top, of course has extreme ability but what they also possess is an absolute refusal to be beaten, immense self-belief and an on-field ego to match. You can’t get there otherwise. And when someone starts telling you that you are no longer up there it not only hurts but is also difficult to accept. Sachin Tendulkar faces a similar fate to O’Driscoll, with whispers in India that he might be dropped before next summer’s tour to England.

It seems unthinkable that India would discard Tendulkar or Ireland O’Driscoll. In November, the All Blacks come to Dublin. They remain the only side O’Driscoll has never beaten: a dirty dozen defeats. Now that would be the way to go. There would not be a rugby fan outside New Zealand who wouldn’t wish it so; then maybe O’Driscoll will be happy to let time march on.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum