Brian O’Driscoll has never been easily flummoxed – as one of rugby’s commonly hailed greats, the eminent centre has spent a decade and a half bamboozling opponents of every calibre – but he caught himself unawares during a valedictory address to the media after Saturday’s 22-20 win in France that delivered Ireland the Six Nations Championship.
“We know what way we want to play the game,” O’Driscoll said, in a comment on Joe Schmidt’s positive contribution as Ireland’s head coach, before it struck him that his retirement from internationals after a world record 141 Tests had made the present tense redundant. “The guys will review the match,” O’Driscoll continued, as he allowed that Mona Lisa smile to light up the familiar lantern jaw, “and thankfully I won’t be a part of that.”
Schmidt’s attention to detail and thirst for analysis was the subject of O’Driscoll’s humour – the pair also worked together for three years with Leinster – and it has rapidly become a byword in the Ireland squad, who won the Six Nations for only the second time since 1985, albeit with a 13-10 loss to England along the way. Among the 22 players now classed as O’Driscoll’s former international team-mates, there was a desire expressed to start making dents at the rarefied level occupied by New Zealand.
A failure to register a single win over the world’s No 1 ranked team in 14 attempts over his astonishingly long career was the one regret O’Driscoll expressed as he bade farewell. “When I decided to play on for one more year, I would have hoped for a victory against the All Blacks – it didn’t happen – and winning a Six Nations, which we did get. You can’t have it all, you take what you can get. Not many people get to finish their careers on their own terms and with high emotion like today.”
The emotion, indeed, was enough to set the lower lip wobbling among even non-Irish observers as an incredible match unfolded. The goal was clear. England’s inability to boost their points difference by the required amount in Rome earlier in the day meant any Irish win would be enough for the title. Amazingly, Ireland scored three tries – two of them by their Paris-based fly-half, Johnny Sexton – in the space of 25 minutes either side of half-time yet were clinging on for dear life in a scoreless last quarter during which Jean-Marc Doussain clubbed a 30-metre penalty wide. That was soon after Sexton had been knocked out by Mathieu Bastareaud and taken off on a stretcher, though he appeared to be fine afterwards. It left Ian Madigan to join other newer faces such as the front-rowers Jack McGrath and Martin Moore to see the match out. A would-be tryscoring pass from Pascal Papé to Damien Chouly drifted forward, thanks in part to the magnificent Rob Kearney’s harrying of the French captain, then in added time Sébastien Vahaamahina was smothered in an uberchoke tackle to prevent a terrible reprise of the late agonies against the All Blacks last November.
What “Drico” does next was immediately a topic of conversation, and never mind that the 35-year-old has an exciting run-in to the season to play out with Leinster – they are top of the Pro 12 and have a Heineken Cup quarter-final in Toulon on Sunday fortnight. “Our coaching team is functioning very well,” said Schmidt, knocking back a suggestion that he might find a role for O’Driscoll alongside Ireland’s assistants John Plumtree, Les Kiss and Greg Feek. “I think Brian will be good at whatever he does. Short-term, he’ll be a good househusband. Long-term he will be a great role model [in rugby] who knows the game inside out.”
It is a matter of speculation in the French press whether Schmidt’s France counterpart Philippe Saint-André will keep his job into the summer let alone for next year’s World Cup, where the Irish and French will meet in Cardiff in the pool stage. France’s results have improved from 2013 but that is saying very little. There were, however, promising signs in the second-half scrummaging and the thrust of Rémi Talès at fly-half and Yoann Huget on the wing. “Next year Brian O’Driscoll will not be here so maybe the god of rugby will be on our side,” said Saint-André.
But this was Ireland’s day, the end of an era. O’Driscoll’s ducking and jinking, power and finesse were prominent in all his side’s tries, entirely in keeping with a Test career that began in June 1999 and coincided precisely with a revival in Ireland’s Six Nations fortunes. They had finished in the bottom two places every year from 1988 to 1999. In the 15 Championships since then, guided by the brain, feet and hands of BOD, they have been in the top half 13 times, though champions only twice (often because they were unable to beat France).
Tomorrow, the world? Cian Healy, the loosehead prop, said: “There are a lot of players ready to start really putting Ireland as one of the dominant figures in world rugby. There’s no reason for a northern hemisphere side not to win the World Cup.” Chris Henry, the Ulster flanker who has filled in brilliantly for the injured Sean O’Brien, summed up: “As a player you always want more, and we took losing at Twickenham hard. We’ll use this as a springboard. It’s going to be odd without Brian there at the next camp, and sad for him, but I can’t see why we can’t move forward. We have to move forward. It would be a shame not to.”
France: Tries Dulin, Szarzewski; Conversions Machenaud (2); Penalties Machenaud (2). Ireland: Tries Sexton (2), Trimble; Conversions Sexton (2); Penalties Sexton.
France B Dulin; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, G Fickou, M Médard; R Talès, M Machenaud; T Domingo, D Szarzewski, N Mas, P Papé (capt), Y Maestri, L Picamoles, A Lapandry, D Chouly.
Replacements G Guirado for Szarzewski, 68; V Debaty for Domingo, 41; R Slimani for Mas, 37; A Flanquart for Maestri, 53; S Vahaamahina for Picamoles, 66; W Lauret for Lapandry, 76; J-M Doussain for Machenaud, 67; M Mermoz for Fickou, 76.
Ireland R Kearney; A Trimble, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D Toner, P O’Connell (capt), P O’Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip.
Replacements S Cronin for Best, 71; J McGrath for Healy, 71; M Moore for Ross; 63; I Henderson for O’Mahony, 63; E Reddan for Murray, 63; I Madigan for Sexton, 68; F McFadden for D’Arcy 67.
Referee S Walsh (Australia).
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