Brian O’Driscoll lifted the Six Nations trophy for the second time before leaving the world stage, writes RORY KEOHANE.
There is a certain symmetry in the curtain falling on Brian O’Driscoll’s rugby career at the Stade de France, with Ireland’s second win there in 42 years coming almost 14 years to the day since their first. In 2000, it was the scene of 21-year-old O’Driscoll’s hat-trick, a performance that broke French hearts. In 2014, it was Irish hearts breaking as BOD bid them adieu.
‘The match in 2000 was amazing because it had been 28 years since we had won in Paris, and to finish up here 14 years later is incredibly special,’ said O’Driscoll. ‘Not many people get to finish on their own terms.’
After the draw against France in Dublin last year that capped off a steady decline in Ireland’s form since 2009, O’Driscoll foresaw an earlier farewell Test.
‘I kinda thought that was going to be it. And then, after a few weeks playing with Leinster, I felt I had too much left in me to cut it there.’
He was no longer Ireland captain, but he was immovable at 13.
‘I played on for one more year, hoping to get a victory against the All Blacks – that didn’t happen – and to win a Six Nations, and that did happen.’
A victory over the All Blacks is one of the few milestones to have eluded O’Driscoll (he took a scalp from all the other major nations, including the Springboks in 2004, 2006 and 2009). He did come close though, in 2013. When he left the field in Dublin last November, Ireland were up by 12. Then came a Kiwi comeback capped by Cruden’s ‘take-two’ conversion in the dying stages.
‘You can’t have it all,’ O’Driscoll said with a shrug, ‘but you take the bits you get.’
He carried on, and he got his second Six Nations crown.
‘One title is not a lot to shout about, is it?’ he chirped before the clash in Paris.
Now Irish ears are ringing, as they celebrate the Blackrock boy who once told Jonny Wilkinson: ‘Give me the ball and I’ll score,’ before waltzing through the Australian backline for the Lions in 2001.
The exploits of BOD have changed Irish rugby, but he waves away the plaudits.
‘I don’t think it was me who changed things,’ said O’Driscoll. ‘It was a generation of players, with the likes of Ronan O’Gara and John Hayes, who were not used to losing and refused to accept it.’
An ending is seldom as simple as it sounds, particularly to a career as distinguished as O’Driscoll’s, and an hour after the 22-20 victory over France that sealed the title, he was still clad in the green jersey.
‘I don’t really want to take this jersey off yet, because I know when I do it will be the last time, that’ll be the end,’ he said. ‘I’m tearing the arse out of it a bit.’
O’Driscoll deserved to cling to the emblem more than most. His legacy is not one solely of statistics, but of the belief built into Irish rugby during his reign. Equal to his captaincy, the 2009 and 2014 Six Nations titles, the three European Cups, the respect of the rugby world is what he has won. The rugby gods have smiled. There was a poetry in Paris that the Dublin draw couldn’t have carried. In BOD we trust.
Perhaps Philippe Saint-André, the defeated French coach, summed it up best in the post-match press conference.
‘Next year Brian O’Driscoll will not be here and maybe we will have the God of rugby on our side.’
Gordon D’Arcy, who can claim ‘the best seat in the house’ for the lion’s share of O’Driscoll’s career with Leinster and Ireland, put it more bluntly: ‘You can’t replace somebody like Brian.’
THREE MOMENTS OF O'DRISCOLL MAGIC
IRELAND vs FRANCE
Paris (2000, Six Nations)
O’Driscoll’s Man of the Match performance at the Stade de France helped Ireland to a come-from-behind 27-25 victory. His third try proved decisive: trailing with just a few minutes remaining, O’Driscoll scooped up a loose ball on the French 22 and split the defence to set up the historic win and announce his arrival on the international stage. ‘I remember thinking anything is possible, thanks to this young kid who had come on and suddenly had a bit of magic about him,’ said Ireland hooker and captain Keith Wood.
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS vs AUSTRALIA
Brisbane (2001, 1st Test)
This was ‘Waltzing O’Driscoll’s’ first Lions Test. Early in the second half, he stood up Matt Burke and weaved through a further three Australian defenders for a 50m try (right). The Lions went on to win 29-13. ‘It was a privilege to play alongside Brian that night, good to see him tormenting a mutual opponent rather than have him do it to you in an Ireland shirt,’ recalled former Wales scrumhalf Rob Howley. ‘He was a real physical handful on the field, but intelligent too. He could read situations and then had that complete trust in his own attributes, pace and power, to take full advantage.’
IRELAND vs WALES
Cardiff (2009, Six Nations)
This second-half effort from O’Driscoll proved decisive in Ireland’s 17-15 win over Wales, which secured their first Grand Slam since 1948. Picking up the ball at the breakdown, metres from the Welsh tryline, O’Driscoll muscled himself over. ‘It was not one of his more glamorous tries, it was one from close range that went to the TMO, but he showed that he is prepared to roll up his sleeves and do the unglamorous stuff too,’ said Ireland scrumhalf Tomás O’Leary.
NUMBERS THAT MATTER
1999 – The year 20-year-old O’Driscoll made his Test debut in Ireland’s 46-10 defeat to the Wallabies in Brisbane.
141 – The number of Tests he played (133 for Ireland, and eight for the Lions). O’Driscoll was in the starting line-up for all but one of them.
83 – The number of Tests he played as Ireland captain, equal to John Smit and surpassed only by Richie McCaw (87).
47 – The number of Test tries O’Driscoll scored – 46 for Ireland, a record 26 in the Five/Six Nations. He is the highest-scoring centre in Test history, and the eighth highest in any position.
17-12 – The score in Ireland’s 2004 victory against South Africa at Lansdowne Road, where O’Driscoll led Ireland to their first victory over the Springboks since 1965.
56 – The number of Tests O’Driscoll paired with Gordon D’Arcy in the centres, a world record.
3 – The number of times O’Driscoll was named the Six Nations Player of the Tournament – in 2006, 2007 and 2009.
1 – The number of Six Nations Grand Slam triumphs O’Driscoll was part of (2009).
2 – The number of Six Nations tournament wins he was part of (2009 and 2014).
4 – The number of Triple Crown wins he was part of (2004, 2006, 2007 and 2009).
4 – The number of World Cups O’Driscoll competed in (1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011).
17 – The number of World Cup matches he played in.
41 – The number of World Cup points he scored (seven tries and two drop goals).
– This article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine