Former captain still points the way
Brian ODriscoll's performance at the Millennium stadium was impressive and with just over two games for Leinster under his belt this year, he cut a commanding presence. photograph: pa
Old habits die hard and at times Brian O’Driscoll seemed to forget he was no longer captain, such as when directing Jonny Sexton to kick up the line in the build-up to Ireland earning the penalty with which the Irish number 10 closed out the first half.
There was also a nice moment as Romain Poite awaited confirmation of Craig Mitchell’s try when O’Driscoll politely but correctly asked the French referee if Leigh Halfpenny was permitted to place the ball on the “tee” for the conversion.
In that and much else, the great one was the master of all he surveyed. There were signs on the last Lions’ tour that perhaps O’Driscoll enjoyed himself more without the onerous duties of captaincy, or maybe it made him more motivated.
Losing the captaincy of his country would have hurt him more, and hence he wasn’t buying into the theory that being deposed as captain after almost a decade in the job would allow him to concentrate on his own game.
“I don’t think it makes any difference. I still see myself as a leader within the team and helping Jamie out where I can, and I don’t think you play any differently whether you have the captaincy or not, you just go out and try to play the best you can and lead by the way you play.”
To play so well after turning 34, and with just 2¼ Leinster games under his belt, was remarkable, but then again, we shouldn’t be surprised.
“I think a big thing is trying to be fit and getting as close to 100 per cent fit taking the pitch as you possibly can.
‘Bumps and bruises’
“It felt good today, the ankles both felt good, and all the other bumps and bruises felt good so if you can start games that way, you’ve every chance of putting in a half decent performance and today a few things ran for me and I managed to get across the try line but it doesn’t matter for anything if we didn’t win the game. We won that and I’m delighted, like everyone else is.”
The game had been, he said, typical of the greater intensity that comes with the Six Nations compared to summer tours or November matches.
“Listen, ideally we would have loved to have won by 20 when we got that lead. But Wales were never going to be flat for the full 80 minutes. They weren’t great for the first half and then they upped their intensity. We didn’t really get to challenge at ruck time in the second half and as a result they had quick ball and other than a bit of scramble defence, they could have scored another a couple of tries. So credit to us but also to them for the way they came at us in the second half.
“It was pretty good proper body-on-the-line stuff and there was a couple of times when guys made key decisions, stopping the ball when they had two or three men overlaps and that’s what you have to do to win tough games.
“We lost the last three to Wales and we just felt as though we needed to stop the rot and we managed to get ourselves in a good position first half. And it’s difficult when you get that defensive mentality, you invite teams on to you. And other than our last ditch tackling we might have seen a different result.”
As well as scoring with something of a trademark close-range plunge for the line, he was also creator in chief of Simon Zebo’s try with a moment which, for pure skill, was only eclipsed by the latter’s subsequent heel-to-hand juggling.
“I’m not going to say it’s classic Brian O’Driscoll,” said the man himself of his try-scoring pass for Zebo. “I just saw it was a set play and we just tweaked it a little bit because the option that we usually take wasn’t on and it was on on the outside.
“Zeebs had to run a great line, he had to trust that I was getting through the gap and putting the ball there and he’s got a striker’s potency, he just likes to finish tries and you could just see his skill level with the second try, it was a joke, you know – keeping the ball up with his foot, it’s nice to watch. It’s nice having those guys on your team rather than playing against them.
“He’s a very skilful guy. You can clearly tell he’s a skilful guy in training. He’s got little tricks and he’s good with a soccer ball but he’s a guy with confidence, playing with a lot of confidence at the moment. And you have to be when you’re in your first Six Nations game and you’re trying things like that and pulling them off.”
O’Driscoll had been “the difference between the two teams” said Shaun Edwards, before adding wearily, “and I wish someone had left him in Ireland”.
Sitting among the press corps, having received some gentle criticism for his choice of Man of the Match, Philip Matthews looked suitably vindicated.
“Who doesn’t like man of the match?” said O’Driscoll with a smile.
“You know, they’re few and far between these days but, whoever it was, Philip Matthews, I’ll buy him a pint later on.”