O'Driscoll's captaincy will blend style with a warrior's love of the fight

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The Independent Online

If the British and Irish Lions are about anything at all, they are about the glorious abstractions that make rugby union greater than the sum of its parts: tradition and ritual, folklore and myth, tall tales and long nights and rose-tinted memories. Brian O'Driscoll, the centre who performed with such electrifying swagger on the 2001 tour of Australia and is now preparing to the lead the 2005 vintage to New Zealand, knows plenty about most of these things - he is an Irishman, after all - but the memory bank is comparatively empty. "I have to tell you," O'Driscoll said yesterday, "that my earliest recollection of the Lions is of the 1997 tour of South Africa. Before that, rugby didn't get much of a look-in. I was more interested in Manchester United and Mark Hughes."

If the British and Irish Lions are about anything at all, they are about the glorious abstractions that make rugby union greater than the sum of its parts: tradition and ritual, folklore and myth, tall tales and long nights and rose-tinted memories. Brian O'Driscoll, the centre who performed with such electrifying swagger on the 2001 tour of Australia and is now preparing to the lead the 2005 vintage to New Zealand, knows plenty about most of these things - he is an Irishman, after all - but the memory bank is comparatively empty. "I have to tell you," O'Driscoll said yesterday, "that my earliest recollection of the Lions is of the 1997 tour of South Africa. Before that, rugby didn't get much of a look-in. I was more interested in Manchester United and Mark Hughes."

Rank heresy of this kind would get a man hung in All Black country, where ignorance of silver-ferned history is a capital offence. And to think the man's uncle, the grand old Irish flanker John O'Driscoll, was a Lion himself, capped against the Springboks a quarter of a century ago. There again, the newly-anointed captain would have been no more than 18 months old when Uncle John was being kicked from one end of the high veld to the other. And anyway, it was a different game back in 1980, when men were men and alcoholic excess was part of the tour agreement. This current O'Driscoll is among the most striking symbols of professional union, as opposed to the amateur version that spawned his predecessor as Lion-in-chief, Martin Johnson.

Johnson may have been the face of the Lions in 1997 and 2001 - a pug-ugly face, albeit a thing of beauty when the tourists were scattering Springboks and Wallabies to all points of the compass - but his were the features of an old-style rugby warrior. O'Driscoll will bring something new to the shop window, something stylish and contemporary. "He lives in a goldfish bowl, like most other sports stars of his magnitude, and he knows how to handle it," said his national coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, who will be on the back-room staff on this trip.

Which is probably as well, considering the attention, only some of it of the welcome variety, he is likely to attract between the end of May, when he arrives in Auckland, and the middle of July, by which time he will have been tried and tested in some of the most heavily fortified corners of the All Black kingdom: Hamilton and Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington.

"Rugby means more to the people of New Zealand than any other people on earth," said Sir Clive Woodward, the head coach, in unveiling O'Driscoll. "It is an integral part of their daily life, and I do not underestimate the challenge we face."

O'Driscoll, he believes, is precisely the kind of character equipped to thrive in this most hostile of environments. He is not wrong. The captain may have been blessed with the precise attributes - short-range acceleration and long-range cruising speed, a low centre of gravity, a degree of strength unnatural for a man of his modest size, a geometer's eye for the best available angle of attack - that define a centre of genuine quality, but the thing that elevates him above his peers is his love of the fight. Call it the Johnson in him.

"Martin led by example," O'Driscoll acknowledged. "He wasn't big on talk - actions spoke louder than words in his book - but he said what needed to be said. This is my philosophy, too. Will I contact him before the tour? He may well be one of the people I phone, just to get a feel for what is ahead. But I already know from the 2001 trip that this is the most brilliant thing a player can experience.

"We've just kicked each other sideways for the seven weeks of the Six Nations Championship, and now we're joining together to become a team for two months. I think people will gel very quickly when they realise the massive opportunity they have before them."

Eight years ago, Fran Cotton and Ian McGeechan chose Johnson as their Lions captain because they wanted to roast the overtly physical Springboks on their own spit. "It seemed like a good idea to have Martin knocking on their door before kick-off, just to make the point that we would be as tough as them," McGeechan said at the time.

O'Driscoll will be a different leader, playing a similar game. When Doug Howlett, Daniel Carter and the rest of the wonderful All Black back division see Ireland's finest staring at them across the half-way line, it may just occur to them that the tourists might be wonderful too.

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