Parting so sweet a sorrow for public bewitched by splendid player
O’Driscoll farewell: reports of French disarray likely to have been wildly exaggerated
Last Saturday’s occasion at the Aviva stadium was at once hugely gratifying and mildly embarrassing for Brian O’Driscoll and nobody can accuse the IRFU of allowing the occasion to slide by unnoticed. Photograph: Inpho
The grand farewell to Irish rugby’s favourite son has reached its day of days. And there is much about which to be nervous.
News that the French rugby team is in disarray is not reassuring. Are the French ever in array? When it comes to rugby, the French can transform disarray, disorganisation and general disenchantment with the world into an art form that usually culminates in the kind of off-the-cuff try capable of breaking Irish hearts.
The accepted wisdom is that on O’Driscoll’s 141st and final international appearance, the Irish team needs a second Six Nations title to gild the achievements of an exceptional generation of players. For the past decade, the teams built around the irreplaceable trinity of the three “Os” – O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara – have produced high expectations during international seasons. There have been thrills, landmark victories and crushing disappointments.
The failure to advance beyond the quarter-final of a World Cup tournament is arguably more significant than Ireland’s record of “only” winning one Grand Slam and it is only in the years ahead, when O’Connell takes his final bow, that the achievements of the era will be analysed.
This season has been about a combination of optimism generated by Joe Schmidt and a new wave of talent with the bittersweet acceptance that O’Driscoll’s departure marks the end of a magical period for Irish rugby.
Last Saturday’s occasion at the Aviva stadium was at once gratifying and mildly embarrassing for O’Driscoll and nobody can accuse the IRFU of allowing the occasion to slide by unnoticed. Very few sports stars have the opportunity to leave on their own terms: injury or a managerial fallout or decline in form or, in the case of O’Gara, realisation between seasons that the time has come to quit, means many players can’t identify their final game until after it has happened.
Saturday’s goodbye to O’Driscoll was never going to be defined by understatement.
The luxury of a handsome lead against Italy meant Schmidt could call O’Driscoll ashore after an hour so that he could enjoy the final 20 minutes and rising ovations. The player himself might well have preferred to have passed them by doing what he does best – playing rugby. But it was a switch which the occasion demanded and with victory secured, fond emotion took over. There was a frightening moment when it seemed as if O’Driscoll was becoming teary, a development that would have thrown the Lansdowne faithful over the edge altogether.
But the day went perfectly and ushers the Irish team on to Paris to face a side guaranteed to demonstrate indifference to Irish sentiment: that the match should end with a fitting exit for the world’s most capped player.
Reports from France suggest the rugby public are in mutinous form, that they have tired with the eccentric coaching methodology of Philippe Saint-Andre, that they were embarrassed by the stuttering victory over lowly Scotland and that Saint-Andre has retained the air of detached amusement which set him apart when he was a talented three-quarters.
The French spent from 1999-2007 wavering between euphoria and despair under the vision of Bernard Laporte and grumbled their way through the reign of Marc Lievremont, under whom the squad squabbled and sighed their way all the way to the World Cup final of 2011.
Since O’Driscoll bust through the glass ceiling of international rugby with his three-try Paris extravaganza of 2000, the French have won five championships and three Grand Slams. Through that period, they learned that Ireland was not the limited proposition of old, where a frenzied opening 20 minutes from the Irish pack would eventually subside.
Ireland beat France in Dublin in 1983, when O’Driscoll was a mere stripling and did not do so again until he trotted up on the field in Paris in 2000. With the exception of a draw in 1985 France reigned supreme until O’Driscoll’s hat-trick in that Irish victory of 2000.
Tony Ward emphasised during the week that Ireland no longer fear going to Paris in the way that Irish teams used to. And it is also true that the crushing sense of being playthings in the hands of a superior team is no longer there.
In a professional era, Ireland’s fitness standards were comparable to the French, they arrived with better game plans and deeper reserves of talent. But playing in France has been as unforgiving for the golden generation of Irish players as it was for their predecessors.
The hope and optimism with which Irish fans have travelled to Paris through the years, and which most of the country will have watching this afternoon, is the true testimony to what O’Driscoll has given Irish rugby: the thrilling sense that anything is possible. The idea that his career might somehow close as it opened – with an era-defining try in Paris – is farcically neat.
But you can’t quite rule it out.
Ireland may win this afternoon. The French have an infuriating habit of contradicting their form with a sublime performance out of the blue and have chosen Ireland to demonstrate that more than once. The point is that O’Driscoll leaves Irish rugby in the same state to which he elevated it all those years ago: as live contenders in a rugby tradition too often characterised by spring sunshine, stray cockerels and deep humiliation.
In the deluge of tributes and reflections on O’Driscoll this week, it is hard not to return to a succinct and sobering observation by O’Gara on the radio. The Cork man spoke about trying to fill the “void” O’Driscoll’s departure will produce. He said he was worried about it and left you with the sense he wasn’t so much talking about the obvious difficulty of grooming a successor to the number 13 jersey as replacing the aura that O’Driscoll possessed, bringing an intangible magic and belief to the Irish team. It is the one contribution that can never be measured by statistics and is all the more valuable for that.
Time will tell how quickly the Irish rugby team can adapt to his absence.
And it is is all the more reason why this occasion is to be savoured.
It doesn’t get any better. What a wonderful way for this splendid exponent to play his final game for Ireland – the championship there for the winning and the swirling notes of La Marseillaise and the French cognoscenti saluting the Irish man’s record. Then the spine tingling last stand for O’Driscoll and his team-mates and, indeed for all of Ireland when the team lines up for the anthems in the knowledge that this is it: that 14 years have been reduced to 80 minutes and . . . what’s it the French say about regrets?