Some things are inevitable in this world. There's death. There are taxes. And then there's Brian O'Driscoll wearing the No 13 jersey for Ireland.
On the latter score, it will be another Groundhog Day at Murrayfield on Sunday, there having been about as much chance of the equable Declan Kidney sledging the opposition camp at Ireland's team selection press conference yesterday as of the Irish head coach defrocking the captain from his outside-centre robe. O'Driscoll will be extending his Irish cap record to 110 and his Irish captaincy record to a 73rd match when he leads out the men in emerald green for their Six Nations encounter with Scotland.
He will do so within touching distance of another landmark achievement in an international career that stretches back to 12 June 1999, and a debut against Australia in Brisbane, a 46-10 defeat for Ireland. It was the following February that O'Driscoll made his first appearance in what became known as the Six Nations Championship with the introduction of the Italians to the party at the turn of the millennium. That was another crushing defeat, 50-18 at the hands of Clive Woodward's England at Twickenham.
O'Driscoll, one of the stars of the Ireland team who emerged victorious from the IRB Under-19 World Championship under the direction of Mike Ruddock in 1998, drew a blank that day but he scored one of his country's five tries in a 44-22 win against Scotland at Lansdowne Road a fortnight later. The sight of the square-jawed, spring-heeled, barrel-chested Irish captain crossing the opposition whitewash every February and March has since become a familiar prelude to spring.
O'Driscoll's try haul in the competition he holds dear to his 32-year-old heart stands at 23 now, following his vital score in Ireland's 13-11 get-out-of-jail win in Rome three weeks ago. Just one more and the Leinsterman will have a place in the record books alongside the flamboyant figure who got his break on the wing for Scotland because Eric "Chariots of Fire" Liddell gave up the oval-ball game to concentrate on his preparations for the 1924 Olympic Games.
In between 1924 and 1933, Ian Smith bagged 24 tries for Scotland in what was then known as the International Championship. In doing so, he eclipsed the 18 that Cyril Lowe scored for England from 1913 to 1923. Lowe – a 5ft 6in, 9st slip of a wing – would doubtless have plundered more had it not been for the rude interruption of the Great War. He was a crack fighter pilot, decorated with the Military Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross – said to be the inspiration for the fictional character that WE Johns called Biggles.
Smith was quite a character in his own right. Born in Melbourne and raised in New Zealand, he was a footballer until he attended Brasenose College, Oxford, and turned to rugby – in the spirit of William Webb Ellis, a former student there. He qualified for Scotland because his family hailed from the Borders and the 24 tries he scored for his adopted country stood as an international record until David Campese surpassed it in 1987.
A serial carouser, one notorious post-match drinking binge ended with Smith driving a car along the pavement of Princes Street, lights blazing and horn blaring, with officers from what was then the Edinburgh City Police Force in hot pursuit. His day job was that of solicitor.
It remains to be seen whether O'Driscoll will be glimpsed flying down the main thoroughfare of the Scottish capital on Sunday night, chased by the local constabulary, if he manages to catch up with the Flying Scot's historical shadow at Murrayfield. Although he has been fond of a night on the town, and happens to be half of a high profile Irish couple (last summer he married the actress Amy Huberman), the second-highest try-scorer in the 128-year history of the northern hemisphere's annual international championship, has managed to keep himself and his celebrity in check.
It is 11 years now since O'Driscoll made a name for himself in the game and beyond with his hat-trick heroics in Ireland's first win in Paris for 28 years, prompting the banners which proclaimed: "In BOD we trust." Born and raised in the northside Dublin suburb of Clontarf – which also gave the world the champion race walker Abraham Stoker, who gained greater renown after abbreviating his first name to Bram and turning to writing – Ireland's enduring centre of excellence has always been a grounded soul, a tribute to his parents, Frank (a former centre who played in two non-cap internationals for Ireland) and Geraldine, both doctors.
Indeed, mention his try-scoring service for his country (42 in all Tests) and his proximity to Smith's 78-year-old Six Nations record and O'Driscoll shrugs his shoulders. "It's not something that has a bearing on my game," O'Driscoll insists. "If the tries come, grand. But it doesn't really bother me which person in green scores. I get as much enjoyment in creating a try as I do in scoring one."
It is 10 years since O'Driscoll scored his most celebrated try, not for Ireland but for the British and Irish Lions: the mesmeric 50-yard quick-step against Australia in Brisbane that led Daniel Herbert and Nathan Grey a merry dance and had the travelling supporters singing: "Waltzing O'Driscoll." His bleakest moment also came in a Lions shirt: when he was left with a dislocated shoulder in the first minute of the first Test against New Zealand in 2005, courtesy of the spear tackle administered by Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu.
It took O'Driscoll some time to recover from the mental and physical scars but by the end of the Noughties he was being lauded as the Player of the Decade and had one Grand Slam and four Triple Crowns in his locker as Ireland's captain. He has played in 52 of Ireland's 57 matches since the old International Championship became the Six Nations in 2000 and intends to keep going, beyond the autumn World Cup, for at least another two seasons.
"I don't put time constraints on myself about when I have to give up by," O'Driscoll says. "As long as the body is still feeling good and the mind is backing that up, I don't see any reason to give it up. I still have as much hunger and desire as I ever had, if not more. And I'm thoroughly enjoying my rugby.
"I love the Six Nations. My interest hasn't waned in any way, shape or form over the last decade or so." Neither, for that matter, has the Irish master's ability to cross the opposition try line.
Smith v O'Driscoll
Born Melbourne, 31.10.1903
Five Nations debut 1924 (v Wales)
Games in Five (and Four) Nations 31
Most tries in a match 4 (v France and Wales, 1925)
Most tries in a Five Nations championship 8 (1925)
Games as captain 3
Tours with British Isles 1 (1924)
Nickname Flying Scotsman
Born Dublin, 21.1.1979
Six Nations debut 2000 (v England)
Games in Six Nations 52
Most tries in a match 3 (v France 2000, v Scotland 2002)
Most tries in a Six Nations championship 5 (2000)
Games as captain 21
Tours with British Lions 3 (2001, 2005, 2009)
Nickname BOD, Drico
All time top try-scorers in the Five/Six Nations
24 Ian Smith (Scotland)
23 Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland)
22 Shane Williams (Wales)
18 Cyril Lowe (England), Rory Underwood (England), Gareth Edwards (Wales)
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