O'Driscoll the heir to Lansdowne legends

'I used to be a bit ignorant of the past of Irish rugby. Now I have found out how huge Mike Gibson is. I'm flattered to be mentioned in the same breath'
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It is a gloomy day in Limerick, and the Ireland rugby union squad have just finished training. I am waiting in the lobby of their hotel to meet Brian O'Driscoll, the 22-year-old centre already considered one of the finest players in the world. The finest, some say. He has even been nicknamed God.

"That's only in England," he says, modestly. "And on Sky Sports." His arrival in the lobby has caused not a whit of excitement or even recognition among a small group of guests checking in. But their Burberry raincoats and mid-Western vowels rather explain that curiosity. Not that O'Driscoll, who is wearing a T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops, exactly courts attention. Except for a nasty gash next to his eye, sustained just now in training, and a jaw squarer than most 22-year-olds, he could be almost anyone.

Instead, he is as near to a genetically-engineered rugby hero as it is possible to find.

O'Driscoll was a name which loomed large in Irish rugby even before young Brian scored three unforgettable tries in Paris two years ago, bringing Ireland victory on French soil for the first time in 28 years

"That French game blew things out of proportion altogether," he says. "There were all sorts of things in the tabloids I thought were reserved for footballers. They even asked my girlfriend's neighbours what kind of girl she was, trying to crack some sort of drug story. How stupid is that? And all sorts of stuff on the first millionaire rugby player. The figures cast around ... people lost grasp with normality."

His Uncle John, a flank-forward, played 26 times for Ireland and was a Lion in 1980 and 1983; his Uncle Barry was capped four times at full-back; and his father, Frank, also a centre, played twice in non-cap internationals against Argentina.

But the next-generation O'Driscoll was not raised to assume that this pedigree would lead, inexorably, to a rugby career. Before he was 12, in fact, he barely even touched a rugby ball. Gaelic football and soccer were his sports, Mark Hughes his idol. "I loved him even more than I loved Manchester United. I loved his temperament, his aggression, and the fact that he just couldn't score ordinary goals."

He is still nuts about Hughes, but his passion for soccer waned when he was despatched to Blackrock College in Dublin, rugby-mad Alma Mater of any number of venerable Lions, among them Fergus Slattery and Brendan Mullin. "That's when I realised that it was rugby for me. And playing our biggest rivals, which in my year was Belvedere, became a matter of life and death.

"In the final of the Senior Cup (the blue riband event in Irish schoolboy rugby) you can get 25,000 watching, on St Patrick's Day. At the time you don't think there's anything bigger."

We'll come back to his past, but what of the immediate future? In the past few months, by famously denying England a Grand Slam and outwitting the All-Blacks for an hour, Ireland have done more than enough to suggest that they could be a force in the forthcoming Six Nations' Championship, which for them gets under way in Dublin on Sunday. How does O'Driscoll think they will do, particularly now that they have a new coach, following Eddie O'Sullivan's promotion at the expense of Warren Gatland? The youngster replies with the seasoned assurance of an old pro. Indeed, he is as impressively self-assured off the pitch as he is on it, hardly ever venturing where he shouldn't.

"I prefer not to speculate," he says. "The Six Nations is very important, because it's how you gauge yourself against the others. But I don't know what to expect. Obviously I have my own goals, but I keep them to myself, so that I'm the only one who knows whether I've succeeded or been defeated." O'Driscoll selects not the favourites, England, as the team to beat, but France. "We [Leinster] played against Toulouse the other week, and I think a fair few of the Toulouse back line will be in the side. They have some fantastic players, like [Nicolas] Jeanjean and [the injured Clement] Poitreneau. I think they will play like the France of old, whereas other teams are a bit more manufactured. They have this one word – jouez! – and that's so them, you know.

"But these are exciting times for Irish rugby, too. And we're going into the Six Nations off the back of some good performances. In the All Blacks game in the autumn we thought we had them for the taking, but it was the Ireland of old, we ran out of steam after 65 minutes. It's those nearly-games that are getting us frustrated." Can O'Sullivan help them to keep going for the full 80 minutes, where Gatland perhaps could not? "Well, Warren Gatland gave me my chance and I thought highly of him as a coach. He brought the team along an awful long way, but it was the union's belief that the team needed to be brought a step higher. It's not my place to comment on that, although perhaps the public were a little more shocked [by Gatland's dismissal] than some of the squad. There was a lot behind the scenes that we don't know about, and I don't want to know.

"I do know that there is now a new coach I want to impress. And he has made training sessions a little bit more structured. We have targets to achieve, but if we're not finished after half an hour or whatever, that's it. The hooter goes."

He grins. "That's been one change, the introduction of a new hooter. Eddie O'Sullivan is saying that we've got a set time and that's it. I think that's a very positive thing. He is adamant that we're going to train well, because in the past Ireland have had a tendency to train well maybe twice out of five sessions, and you can't train badly and play well. Having said that, I do think that coaches can overdo training." This is doubtless a reference to Graham Henry, who ruffled some distinguished feathers on last year's Lions tour of Australia. Not that O'Driscoll was among the malcontents.

"I was just so delighted to be involved on a Lions tour, and I was there for rugby purposes only. The guys making those comments had other tours under their belts, and this one didn't compare, craic-wise. But I did feel that training was a bit much. I felt sorry for some of the English players who'd had a really long season, having to train twice a day at that intensity." O'Driscoll did not cover himself in glory in his first game, against Western Australia, when he was inexplicably posted at full-back. But in the first Test he immersed himself in glory head to toe, gliding from halfway to score one of the finest tries in Lions history, in the process leaving the Australian centres Daniel Herbert and Nathan Grey clutching at air, and inspiring the disbelieving British fans to sequester the opposition anthem.

"Waltzing O'Driscoll, waltzing O'Driscoll, you'll come a'waltzing O'Driscoll with me," they cried.

Back home, O'Driscoll's performance reignited the hyperbole that had followed the France v Ireland game; again he was compared with his most illustrious predecessor in the Irish back line, Mike Gibson. It is a comparison he keeps trying to shrug off – even declining to sit alongside Gibson in a question-and-answer session last year – but the more he feints and sidesteps, the more it sticks. I ask whether it is an irritation? "I wouldn't say I'm irritated, I just don't think it's fair this early in my career. I used to be a bit ignorant of the past legends of Irish rugby, perhaps a bit self-indulgent, focusing on my own thing. Now I have found out how great a player my Uncle John was, and how huge a name Mike Gibson is.

"Obviously he's a complete legend, and I'm flattered to be mentioned in the same breath, but I'm not worthy of it. He played for the best part of 15 years. Someone of 22 can't possibly be compared. And I knew that [the question-and-answer session] would be a comparison thing. It was before last year's Six Nations, and I didn't need that pressure on myself."

Fair enough, so let us talk again of this year's Six Nations. I ask O'Driscoll whether it will help that he is better acquainted with the games of some of his opponents, having played alongside them for the Lions. "A bit," he concedes. "But if you know which foot Jason Robinson is going off then you're the only man in the world who does, including him probably.

"But yeah, that tour made me a more knowledgeable player. Just little things, like watching Jason train. If you see the things he does in matches you'd be dumbfounded by what he does in training. We got on very well, actually. He's a fantastic lad. He's experienced so much in life it's frightening.

"I got on well with Jonny Wilkinson too. It's probably an age thing. I was still delighted to have Rog [his Irish team-mate Ronan O'Gara] there, though. Or Roland the Rat, which is his new nickname. It's nice to have someone around to help you get back to the norm, to what you're used to, and Rog is one person who'll never change no matter what crowd he's in."

Another grin. "It's not acceptable to write Rog in the paper, by the way. It has to be Roland the Rat." O'Driscoll and O'Gara, at outside-half, have forged a formidable understanding, but O'Driscoll concedes that he benefited greatly from playing alongside Wilkinson for the Lions. "Jonny's range of passing is enormous, and I enjoyed being able to vary my width playing off him. But the differences between him and Rog, sorry Roland, are very subtle. Jonny has a fraction more control, and a huge grasp of what's in front of him."

He means this literally, but it applies figuratively too, to him as much as to his fellow 22-year-old Wilkinson. O'Driscoll knows that a glittering career beckons, and is determined to fulfil his potential. It is unlikely that he will sign again for Leinster when his current contract is up for renewal next year.

"I'm considering all options," he says. "And yeah, there have been one or two phone calls, a couple of offers. My dad does all my contract negotiations for me, but we haven't really chased it down. At some stage in my career I would like to play in France for longer than a weekend, but not now, necessarily. Without wanting to sound mercenary, you have to ask 'how many years am I going to get out of this game?' You don't know. So you have to go where the best option is, and it might not be a monetary thing, it might be a career thing."

O'Driscoll is mindful of what happened to his friend and fellow Blackrock alumnus Kieron Scally, who was capped by Ireland but then had to retire with an arthritic knee, aged 21. "Kieron was probably the biggest influence on me. I played with him from the under-13s on, for Leinster Schools, then Irish Schools, and he was capped before me, which really gave me the drive to do it."

O'Driscoll made his own debut for Ireland in Australia, in 1999. The Wallabies won 46-10. "I had very mixed emotions about that. It was a fantastic feeling getting my first cap, but I had never been on the end of a defeat of that magnitude." His proud father was in the crowd that day, not that O'Driscoll could see him. The young man credited with wonderful vision on a rugby field in fact has very poor eyesight indeed.

"It's quite a rare defect I have to my eyes," he says. "I have an astigmatism. It's -4.25, which is pretty strong. I got contact lenses in November, but I still haven't worn them playing rugby, because I've only got one set. So seeing scoreboards is bad, and it's hard if the lighting is bad.

"I remember a match in Glasgow which was really a struggle. You don't have much detail of players when you're tackling them. You don't see where you're hitting them." So now we know. If Landowne Road goes suddenly gloomy when Ireland are leading on Sunday, it will be at the request of the Welsh backs, struggling to contain the incontestably great, if not yet legendary, Brian O'Driscoll.