O'Driscoll proves one man is an Ireland

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Rewind the tapetwo years to the time he was last in Australia. Brisbane, to be precise. Billy Connolly said if the world ever needed an enema, that's where they'd stick it. But he'll find no ally here. Not in Brian O'Driscoll.

It was there two years ago that 20,000 Lions supporters gave him an emotional send-off. The question is, how does he even begin to get his mind around that moment? How big would it make you feel? Is that peroxide in his hair or hoarfrost? "How did I feel at that moment?" he repeats, tugging at his blond thatch. "It's hard to say. It certainly gave me an old shiver."

And he says the words like he knows how hopelessly short they come. But how could he find a context for some of the things that have gone on in his life these past few years? Get this. Last Christmas he's invited to a fashion show in Dublin's RDS. Free tickets. The front rows are filled with VIPs of varying wattage. Behind him he hears a familiar voice say: "Is that Brian O'Driscoll there?" So he turns around and it's Bono. How big would your head swell? Keeping himself grounded has meant not taking anything too seriously.

"Listening to people singing your name is incredible," he says. "You just have to make sure you don't start singing it yourself." He'd be intolerable if he did. Twenty-four years old and so much to sing about. He's captained his country, broken the Ireland try-scoring record and is about to play in his second World Cup. He's scored a hat-trick in Paris and a try for the Lions that will be replayed when his grandchildren are bouncing on his knees. And he knows that any World XV would look daft without his name.

He copes by - buzzphrase of the age - keeping it real. His family help. Frank and Geraldine, GPs who run a surgery in the Dublin suburb of Clontarf, have seen them all fly the coop. Julie is a nurse in the Mater hospital, Susan works in event management, and yer man - as Frank calls him - you know about. Sundaysthey all drift back to the dinner table. No one gets to say more than anyone else. And the girls aren't slow to tell Brian that the dishwasher needs filling. As he says, this all happened so fast.

Usually you play well for your club and get picked for your province. Play well for them and impress someone in the Ireland set-up. Brian O'Driscoll had never played for Leinster when Warren Gatland took him on the 1999 summer tour of Australia. "He showed a lot of faith in me because, to be honest, I wasn't sure if I was ready," he says. "From school to the World Cup in two years, you're bridging a big gap there. It was a case of sink or swim."

The World Cup ended as his schools career had, a couple of metres from the opposition try-line. In 1997 it was Clongowes in the Leinster Senior Cup semi-final, and in 1999 it was Argentina for a place in the World Cup quarter-final. Worlds apart. Same result.

He has changed a lot since. To see photographs of him then and now is to see the evolution of boy into man. He's added a lot of cargo to his upper body and shorn the puppy fat from his seraphic face. He's worked his body remorselessly.

This work ethic was always there. As a kid he hung a golf ball from a tree in the garden and would spend hours thwacking the ball with one of his dad's clubs. Frank watched through the window and wondered if the boy had lost it. "I think he was trying to teach himself eye-hand co-ordination," he says. Frank kept a greenhouse then, and if anyone broke a window with a stone they were in trouble. Do it with a ball and it was in a good cause. Brian's roots are in that garden. There were so many balls in the grass that it became impossible to mow. Golf balls, tennis balls, Gaelic footballs, soccer balls.

His first hero was Mark Hughes, for attitude as much as ability. Tap-ins were not for him. "Manchester United were his team, but the funny thing was that he was never one for posters," his dad says. "He was always a kid who kept things close to his heart. He's still the same. He's not an exhibitionist. Everything's in control. Sensible proportions."

He was ultra-competitive, though. "When he was 13 or 14, we were playing a round of golf at Royal Dublin," Frank says. "We were playing the 10th, a par four. You have to hit the ball across a mound, but there's a hollow to the left, and if you get it in there you seldom get par. So from the tee Brian puts it in there. I said, 'Brian, I'll give you 20 quid if you get a par'. So he hits a three-iron, chips to 10 feet and sinks the putt."

Yes, he loved to win. He crashed into the world a whopping 9lb 12oz and cried - it seemed - for months without stopping, until they realised it was down to hunger. Odd, then, that he turned out to be such a small and quiet child. Small, painfully shy and chronically short-sighted. He has worn glasses for as long as he has been reading. A severe astigmatism - when the shape of the eyeball is not truly spherical - means he can't keep contact lenses in. "Can you imagine how he'd play if he could see," says Frank. "I've often wondered, watching him, when he slices through a gap, does he think that it's a lot bigger?"

His shyness was a reason he was sent to Blackrock College. There was something about the school. Kids walked out of there with shoulders back and heads in the air. It rubbed off. In his second year he was elected as a class rep, a first taste of leadership for a future Ireland captain. Fides et robur is the school motto. Faith and strength. Or free days for rugby, as they said at the time. Someone had seen him playing football in the Community Games and was at him to join Trinity Boys, but at Blackrock he found rugby.

The summer before he went to Blackrock, he had watched the 1991 World Cup on TV. When he saw Michael Jones, the All Black flanker, Hughes was relegated from top spot in his list of heroes. "I really thought Michael Jones was the bee's knees. He was way ahead of his time. He was a back and a forward rolled into one. Great skill and a dynamic runner. He could tackle and mix it when it came to the rough stuff as well. Unbelievable."

Brian's skilful hands and ability to change gears quickly weren't enough at first. Alan MacGinty, his school principal, left him off the Junior Cup team. "It has haunted me," MacGinty admits, "but it's difficult to explain just how tiny he was." The only rugby Brian played that year was with the Under-16s at Clontarf. They won their league and that summer came the trip to Wales.Hugh Fanning, the coach, made some throwaway remark to Brian along the lines of, "Don't forget to send me a postcard when you play for the Lions". Six years laterthe card was already in the post. "I'm here with the Lions," it said. "Having a ball."

Though Paris was where O'Driscoll went international, Brisbane was where he was stratospheric. "Only weeks afterwards did I really understand the enormity of it," he says, "how many people were watching it. You talk to people on the phone and they tell you how crazy things are. But I didn't appreciate it until I came home and everyone was still talking about the First Test. And the try."

That try, to address it properly. And yet for some it's only the second most famous thing he's ever done. Legend surrounds his performance against Clongowes in his last schools match. The Blackrock senior team were trailing as the clock ran down. Four times in the last five minutes he tried to rescue the match with drop-goal attempts. One soared right over the top of the posts. Another hit the woodwork and bounced back into play. Rock went out. "It took a while for me to get over it."

As a player he has eclipsed Brendan Mullin and will be one of the stars of the World Cup. And just in case you miss him, his hair is bleached. "I paid top dollar for this look." Top dollar? Nothing but the best for the best, then.