It seems rather longer than 29 days since Brian O'Driscoll was named at full-back rather than centre for the Lions' opening tour match with Western Australia in Perth – the sporting equivalent of employing Michelangelo to touch up your window frames. We can safely assume that the new super-hero of British Isles rugby will not be straitjacketed by the No 15 shirt again. Christian Cullen and Jeff Wilson may have given the full-back position a glamour transfusion during the All Blacks' glory days of the mid-1990s, but a midfield genius will pay his way in any era.
O'Driscoll possesses the attacking weaponry that has defined world-class outside centres down the ages: he has a sidestep, an outside break, great speed from a standing start and a change of pace that would leave Murray Walker on the brink of spontaneous combustion. He can pass, too – long and short, left and right, round-the-corner and behind-the-back. Last Saturday in Brisbane, he made a notoriously parsimonious Wallaby midfield look generous. On any other day, the Lions might have had half a dozen challengers for the Man of the Test award – Keith Wood, Richard Hill, Jonny Wilkinson, Rob Henderson and Jason Robinson all hit the spot. On this particular day, O'Driscoll was so ridiculously good that the race was of the single horse variety.
So why did he spend much of yesterday discussing the fine art of defence? O'Driscoll is not the talk of Wallaby country because of his tackling, after all. But the 22-year-old Dubliner, youthful enough to identify "Harry Potter and Rachael from S Club 7" as the people he would most like to meet, has a peculiar fascination with life at the coal face.
"Fourteen tackles against the Wallabies at The Gabba," he smiled. "Not half bad, that. Actually, I think Phil Larder [the Lions' defensive coach] has been kind to me with his statistics. He had me down as making every tackle, but I am sure I let one slip away." If that is true, the age of miracles is still with us. Larder has not missed a missed tackle, so to speak, in living memory.
Of course, O'Driscoll is perfectly justified in celebrating the barricading activities of his colleagues. "As an attacking team, you look for the mis-match – the back running at the forward," he explained.
"To a great extent, success at Test level depends on how the defending side reacts to the situation. I know that the Wallabies were impressed with the way the Lions operated in that area. If you're going to talk about a back tackling the big buggers they threw at us, talk about Jonny Wilkinson. He smashed them down all night in Brisbane. Quite a few of my 14 tackles were on Wallaby forwards, but Jonny was way ahead of the rest of us. Phenomenal, really."
Since making his international debut for Ireland in June 1999 – against Australia in Brisbane, coincidentally enough – O'Driscoll has slowly come to terms with his celebrity status. At first, he was considered a difficult interview – always assuming he had agreed to the interview in the first place. He is more relaxed now, although he is never likely to take money off Austin Healey in a motormouth contest.
"The thing about the media," he said yesterday, after being confirmed in the Lions squad for this weekend's second Test in Melbourne, "is that they tend to build you up into something you are not. And they do it early, before you have actually achieved anything. So just for a while at the start of my career, I was a little hesitant. I am more relaxed now, after a couple of seasons at the top level."
Where he is less than relaxed – almost neurotic, by his own admission – is in the stand. A very high percentage of international players confess to being poor watchers, but O'Driscoll is one of the worst.
"I was far more nervous watching the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa, when I was back home in Dublin staring at the television set, than I was on the field in Brisbane on Saturday night. When you're playing, you have no time to dwell on things. Mind you, I was aware of the crowd at The Gabba. Just looking up into that sea of red as we ran out was enough to put us on our toes, but when the Wallabies appeared and the boos drowned out the cheers... it was unbelievable.
"Then, of course, we had to sit and watch the midweek game against the ACT Brumbies, with all the drama at the finish. The old nerves were out in force during that one. When I spoke to my father after the match and told him that the win in Canberra meant almost as much to me as the Test victory in Brisbane, I was quite serious. When you are a part of a squad on a tour like this, every result counts in terms of morale and encouragement. It gave us all a big lift, that win over the Brumbies."
There are strong grounds for believing that a pumped-up O'Driscoll might, in cahoots with his fellow Irish midfielder, the former Wasps centre Henderson, win the series for the Lions at the Colonial Stadium this weekend. Henderson certainly had the finger on an outclassed Nathan Grey five days ago: "Rob [Henderson] is a threat to the very best defences in the world, because he runs so straight and hard," said the Leinsterman of his Munster-bound partner, "and, no, I am not looking forward to playing against him next season."
If O'Driscoll can expose previously unsuspected weaknesses in Daniel Herbert's defensive game for the third time in as many meetings, the job will be very nearly complete. O'Driscoll ran through the Wallaby vice-captain during the early-tour meeting with Queensland at Ballymore, a strike that seemed important at the time and appeared more significant still last Saturday.
Herbert is, after all, the cornerstone of the Australians' human wall. When he crumbles, as he did at The Gabba, the world champions go into Jericho mode. "I think we should remember that a wounded Wallaby is a dangerous Wallaby," said O'Driscoll, pre-empting the theme of a dozen team talks scheduled for the next 48 hours. "Yes, we were fairly surprised at what we achieved in the opening 50 minutes of the first Test, but you can bet your last pound on a few of those gaps closing up in Melbourne."
The way O'Driscoll is playing, a single hairline crack is as wide as the Ring of Kerry. Watch him while you can, for talent like his is rare indeed.Reuse content