With this year’s Six Nations probably being his last, Kevin Beirne takes a look back on the career of Brian O’Driscoll
It was 13 years ago that a young man from Dublin burst on to the international rugby scene with an awe-inspiring hat-trick of tries against France in Paris to lead Ireland to their first victory in Paris since 1972. If that was the dawning of Brian O’Driscoll’s career, this must be the dusk. It is widely expected that the legendary centre will retire from international rugby after this summer’s British and Irish Lions tour of Australia, and possibly play one more season for Leinster.
Since that fateful day in Paris, O’Driscoll has established himself as one of the greatest to have ever played the game. For both Leinster and Ireland, he has been the driving force behind successful campaigns and has pushed those around him to be the best they can be.
He was, and to some degree still is, one of those players that makes a team competitive just by having his name on the team sheet. Unfortunately, at the age of 34, there are only so many more hits his body can take.
During his career, he has racked up an astonishing 46 tries for Ireland, which puts him seventh on the all-time leader board for international tries. His 26 tries in the Six Nations is the all-time record. His 128 Test caps (with 84 of those coming as captain of either Ireland or the Lions) puts him at the third most capped player of all time, one behind team-mate Ronan O’Gara.
When he first came in to the Irish set up, he was known for his pace and his quick feet. His try for the Lions against Australia in 2001 is one of the most famous tries of the professional era, and it is how he announced himself to the southern hemisphere.
Since then, his pace has diminished. This has not reduced O’Driscoll’s ability to impact the game, however, as he adapted in a way in which only the truly great players can. As the years piled up, he began to rely more on his mind than his body, and his impeccable sense of positioning and timing have allowed him to remain as one of the most feared players in the game for an astonishing amount of time.
At the age of 24, he was made captain of his country, a position he would hold until this year’s Six Nations tournament. Under his leadership, Ireland’s “golden generation” of players won the country’s first Triple Crown since 1985, a feat which was achieved a total of four times under O’Driscoll.
His leadership abilities were noticed by Sir Clive Woodward, as he was made captain of the British and Irish Lions’ 2005 tour of New Zealand. A disgusting spear tackle by Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu cut short O’Driscoll’s campaign after his shoulder was dislocated in the opening seconds of the first test.
O’Driscoll went through a dip in form following his recovery, and many began to openly question whether or not he still had what it takes to play at the highest level but, as the saying goes, form is temporary, class is permanent and O’Driscoll found himself tearing defences apart for fun again.
For all his individual records and awards, O’Driscoll did not win either the Six Nations or the Heineken Cup until he won both in 2009. His performances in Ireland’s second ever Grand Slam were among the best of his career, as he scored a try in four of the five games.
Against England that year, O’Driscoll played one of the most complete games by anyone in an Irish jersey ever. Despite clearly being targeted by the English side with some cheap shots and late hits, O’Driscoll scored a try and a drop goal in Ireland’s 14-13 win.
Two months later, O’Driscoll had won his first Heineken Cup with Leinster. Following an impressive win over rivals Munster in the semi-final, in which O’Driscoll scored a try, Leinster beat Leicester 19-16, in part thanks to a fifth minute drop goal by O’Driscoll.
Since then, Leinster have won a further two Heineken Cups and O’Driscoll has gone on another Lions tour, starting alongside the Welshman Jamie Roberts. Roberts picked up the award for player of the tournament, although his play since then would suggest that maybe O’Driscoll’s ability to get the best out of those around him had made Roberts appear better than he actually was.
In fact, one wonders how successful Gordon D’Arcy’s career would have been had he not had one of the greatest players of all time as his partner. It is unfair to reduce D’Arcy’s career to this, but there is no doubt that O’Driscoll’s influence has helped everyone around him, and none more than D’Arcy.
As an undisputed legend of the game prepares to hang up his boots for good, we can expect to see him on our TV sets on match days in another role. He has already tried his hand at punditry during periods of injury, and his knowledge of the game is readily apparent to anyone listening to him.
Even when he finally leaves the game, he can do so knowing that he will always be remembered as one of the all-time greats. Both on and off the field, Brian O’Driscoll has been the model ambassador for the sport of rugby, and the only ones who won’t miss him when he is gone are those facing his former teams.