Brian O'Driscoll: Ireland icon ends career in fairy tale fashion

 

An hour after his final game for Ireland and Brian O'Driscoll still hadn't taken his green jersey off.

"Because it's the last time, I'm dragging the backside out of it," said O'Driscoll. "It would be a bit weird if I started wearing it at home."

But for those Ireland fans who suspect O'Driscoll came into the world clad in emerald and expect him to be buried in it, the image of their hero bouncing around his living room in his full kit might seem entirely realistic.

There was always something child-like in the way O'Driscoll went about his business on the pitch. For O'Driscoll, rugby always looked like play time.

Ireland's iconic centre

  • Brian O'Driscoll retired after 15 years on the international scene and 141 Test appearances
  • He made his international debut in Ireland's 46-10 defeat to Australia in Brisbane on 12 June, 1999
  • For Ireland, he made 133 appearances, scored 46 tries and five drop-goals
  • He helped them to 80 wins, two draws and has been on the losing side on 51 occasions

Sport is swamped by cold statistics, perhaps because warm joy is more difficult to quantify. But an unscientific guess would be that O'Driscoll gave more joy in the course of his international career than any other player, before or since.

"It's a lovely way to finish," said O'Driscoll, referring to Ireland's knee-knocking victory over France in Paris, which secured the Six Nations title.

"I've had so much fun over the past 15 years. And not many get to finish their career on their own terms and certainly not with this kind of emotional high.

"I got a frog in my throat at the final whistle but I'm sure there will be a few tears later on with multiple beers on board."

O'Driscoll's passing into retirement will elicit plenty of frogs in throats and rivers of tears with beers all over Ireland. On Saturday, O'Driscoll referred to himself as merely "a cog in the team". Actually, he was its giant central gear.

But the performances of the Ireland team during this year's Six Nations will give heart to their fans. O'Driscoll has gone but the team are in safe hands.

The near-miss against New Zealand last November, when the All Blacks overturned a 19-0 half-time deficit to win 24-22, was dismissed by some as an aberration. The All Blacks, they said, were fried at the end of a gruelling season.

Joe Schmidt and Andrew Trimble on Ireland's Six Nations title

But Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has lovingly built a mightily efficient outfit, with every part of the machine working harmoniously. Ireland's victory over France was not what you might call controlled. But at least they got the victory.

As O'Driscoll pointed out, there have been a lot of near misses during his time with Ireland. And as his captain Paul O'Connell pointed out, without the clarity that Schmidt has brought to the team, Ireland might have missed out again in Paris.

Philippe Saint-Andre's France side were given a fearful drubbing in the French media in the build-up to the game, with even former head coaches Bernard Laporte and Marc Lievremont putting the boot in. But it was typical that, having played like lambs for most of the tournament, they should go out roaring like lions.

With a passionate crowd behind them at the Stade de France, the French even looked like the French at times. The mood was set when Mathieu Bastareaud, who played the whole game like a rhinoceros with a dart in his rear, trampled over the top of O'Driscoll, making him look like the 35-year-old he is. "With guys like Bastareaud running at you it's no fun," he conceded.

While O'Driscoll was always one of those rare players able to produce a rabbit from a hat when nobody else in the ground even noticed the hat, his greatest gifts to Irish rugby were his frightening will and belief.

Brian O'Driscoll

So after a mop down with the magic sponge, O'Driscoll re-entered the fray. And even when fly-half Jonathan Sexton missed a conversion on the stroke of half-time, Ireland's fans still believed - because O'Driscoll was still in the game.

Schmidt claimed the fact it was O'Driscoll's final Test was mentioned maybe once during the build-up. But it wasn't difficult to see that his team-mates were desperate for him to bow out with a win.

Before the break, Andrew Trimble probably should have dummied and cut back inside rather than pass to O'Driscoll outside him. It was touching that Trimble, like the fans, still believed. But O'Driscoll knew different. "I thought I might be in but I didn't have the gas so I had to check back," explained the Leinster legend.

And as the game entered its final, frenetic stages, there was neither the time nor the space for conjuring tricks. For Ireland's players it was all about emulating that other side of O'Driscoll - cussed determination under heavy shelling.

Captain fantastic

Brian O'Driscoll captained Ireland 83 times between November 2002 and June 2012 - more than any other player

Having seen France lose to finish fourth in the table, Saint-Andre suggested the defeat was down to O'Driscoll's otherworldly links: "Next year he won't be here, so maybe the god of rugby will be on our side."

But the truth is rather more pragmatic. This French outfit was so ramshackle and one-dimensional for much of this Six Nations campaign that Saint-Andre must take much of the blame. Next year, the side might not be his.

Ireland, meanwhile, will have an O'Driscoll-shaped hole in it - and it will not be easy to fix.

"His work ethic is massive," said Schmidt. "He works so hard to maximise his special attributes. We can't suddenly fill his shoes. We'll just have to pick somebody with slightly smaller feet and hopefully he'll grow into them."

It sounds like the plot for a modern fairy tale - The Old King's Shoes. Maybe the shoes will be cursed, maybe they will be winged. Either way, and as O'Driscoll proved in Paris on Saturday, fairy tales still happen.