Brian O’Driscoll and Jackie Tyrrell show us what it takes to get to stay at the top
The sports might be different but the true greats all share the same qualities
On a weekend like the one just gone, you’d live a poor life if you had no interest in sport.
As well as going to Killarney on Sunday, I spent most of Saturday watching the Lions and Cats go about their business. It meant that for a lot of the weekend, I was thinking about why we admire sportsmen who are at the very top of their game. What is it about them that appeals to us so much?
One of them wasn’t even playing. But at the same time, no Irish person watched the Lions on Saturday morning without having some sort of thought of Brian O’Driscoll in their mind.
We’ve seen him do everything over the years and even if you’ve only a small understanding of rugby, you can see why he’s regarded as one of the best. There’s a bravery about him, not just in the physical stakes but also in taking it upon himself to lead when it’s needed.
But we never saw him have to react to being dropped before last week. It’s something every sportsman can relate to.
Getting dropped from any team in any sport is an insult to your personal pride, no matter what way the manager dresses it up for you. And when it’s for the biggest game of the year, there’s no worse insult. You are basically being told that when the stakes are highest, he prefers to put his trust in somebody else. That kind of thinking would be alien to somebody like Brian O’Driscoll.
He must have been raging inside. How could he not be? I was looking at him thinking that I’d love to get chatting to him after a few pints to find out what he really thought about the situation.
But that’s probably the only way you’d get it out of him because the one thing he was never going to do was hang his team out to dry by cribbing about it the week of the biggest game of the tour.
It’s that class that people admire. That sort of quiet dignity to not make it about himself when all anyone was talking about was him.
Ever since he started, life for O’Driscoll has been about doing the big thing in the big game. It’s been about being the man people turn to when everything is on the line.
He must have wanted to scream from the rooftops about it. But he never said a word. He got behind his team.
People talk a lot about role models in sport. Whatever they mean to the outside world, role models within a dressing room are hugely important. The way the biggest name carries himself is the simplest example for everyone coming after him to follow.
Colm Cooper had Séamus Moynihan, Séamus Moynihan had Maurice Fitzgerald. If O’Driscoll hadn’t reacted so well, Warren Gatland dropping him could have caused ructions in the dressing room. But the way he handled it was an example to everyone. The team comes first.
Whether he wants to be or not, Brian O’Driscoll is a famous man. He knew going into that third Test that there’d be a camera on him at every turn.
If he made the wrong move, it would be picked up. But he knew he had a responsibility to do things the right way. Just when you thought you couldn’t have more admiration for a fella, something like that proves you wrong.
In a totally different sport and a totally different set of circumstances, Jackie Tyrrell put in a big performance for Kilkenny on Saturday night. So did a load of the Kilkenny players obviously but it was Tyrrell who really caught my eye. He is clearly carrying an injury and is probably only about 80 per cent fit. He has his medals won and his reputation made. He didn’t need to be throwing himself into battle like that.
It would have been very easy for him to think smart last week and just say, “Look, I’ve done my best but I’m too far behind where I should be.”
He could very easily have looked at that game and thought there was a serious chance of one of the Tipp forwards getting a run on him and showing him up over the course of the evening. There was a personal toll that could have been taken on Saturday, a reputational one.
At the very least, it was going to be physical and he was going to have to be in among it, taking belts and clearing ball. It wouldn’t take much for the fella to decide that he’d done his bit and maybe sit this one out. At the very least, he could have used it as a crutch. But no, he said, “I’ll have a bit of that.”
When you think about reasons to really admire a sportsman, that thing of never taking the easy option has to be high on the list. It’s Michael Jordan taking the last shot. Or Peter Canavan walking over to kick the winning free. You don’t hide away. You don’t leave it to somebody else. You stand up and do it yourself.
There’s a manliness to it that’s inspiring to watch. Whether it’s O’Driscoll hugging his team-mates and putting his personal feelings to one side or Tyrrell catching another high ball and clearing it, you can’t help looking at it and thinking that’s how sportsmen should be. Keeping their standards up, doing the right thing.
And part of it is that you’d never hear either of them chirping about it. This is business as usual. Even though it’s awesome to watch, they wouldn’t like it to be seen as anything out of the ordinary. That gives it a bit more mystique from the outside looking in.
To be at the top and to stay at the top, you’ve always got to want more. In Killarney on Sunday, that was obvious in the likes of Colm Cooper, Tomás Ó Sé and Paul Galvin. I actually thought Galvin was the best player on the pitch – a couple of his interventions to get onto breaking ball were vital at times. He gave a selfless display and turned over a huge amount of ball.
These are guys who’ve been at it a long time, who probably feel like they’ve been written off but who still want more. They’ve got a bit of what O’Driscoll has and a bit of what Tyrrell has as well. A bit of bloody-mindedness, a bit of belligerence.
I was looking at those Kilkenny fellas on Saturday night thinking that the best thing that could have happened to them was being told all week that this was the end of the line.
Imagine at that stage of your career being offered a fresh challenge.
Imagine how good it must have felt for Tyrrell and JJ Delaney and Tommy Walsh to be getting their teeth into something they hadn’t faced before. Being told that it was all over? And better again, that it was going to end in Nowlan Park? In front of their own crowd? Not on your life.
It reminded me a little of going to Croke Park to play Dublin in 2009.
It was my last year playing for Kerry and a few of us had been on the road for a while. Dublin were up and coming and they were being written up as all things to all men.
They were well-fancied and we were supposed to be washed up.
The funny thing about that day was that we were so confident going in.
I remember coming into the stadium on the bus and actually having a bit of a word with myself. I was thinking, “Are we deluding ourselves here? Should we really be this confident about a game that everyone thinks we’re in trouble for?”
But as the game came closer, we made sure that we got that bit of belligerence going. It was like, “How dare they be favourites? What have they done? Why should anyone think that we aren’t capable of a performance here?”
I’d bet my life that in Jackie Tyrrell’s head last weekend, he was going, “Why should Tipperary be favourites in Nowlan Park? What sort of an insult is that to us?”
That adds to the challenge and throws petrol on the fire. You get yourself wound up and you tell yourself that you’re going to shame the guy you’re marking.
He might be the nicest fella in the world but you will come out of that dressing room wanting to humiliate him. Shake his hand afterwards, commiserate away. Then move on and try to win your next medal.
Tyrrell moves on to see can he add to his six All-Irelands, O’Driscoll takes a break and then comes back in the winter to see what more he can squeeze out of his career.
And the rest of us watch them do it, full of admiration at what it takes to stay at the top for so long.