A winner, a warrior, a once-in-a-generation talent
Rory McIlroy, Colm Cooper, Billy Walsh and more of Ireland's sports stars give their thoughts on Ireland's retiring hero as his final game looms in Paris
Brian O’Driscoll leaves the pitch after his final home for Ireland last week against Italy.
He’s my generation. I still remember him scoring that hat-trick against France when he first burst onto the scene. It would be a nice way to go out, start with a hat-trick and finish with a hat-trick against the French.
He’s been a real talisman for Ireland and Leinster for a long time. Nowadays I’d say that his defensive abilities are more of an advantage for the team he plays for than the attacking because he has probably lost just a little bit of pace. In his prime he had everything.
He’s a warrior and he’s not the biggest guy in the world. He’s just so tough. Everyone looks up to him and he has always conducted himself in the right way. He has always been just a true professional and obviously just a fierce competitor on the pitch.
He’s been one of the greatest, if not the greatest Irish sportspersons ever – obviously Pádraig [Harrington] is up there with the three majors and stuff – but he’s definitely been up there and he’s had a great career, a long career and I think it is the right time to hang the boots up and walk away. It would be great to see him go away with a win against France and a championship.
I did the same course as him at UCD and got to know Eoin O’Malley a bit. It always struck me that although Eoin was basically competing with Brian for a career, he only ever had good things to say about him. That has to tell you something about the man, whatever about the player.
I’ve always been impressed with how he handles himself. If you go back to the spear tackle in 2005 against the All Blacks, his response was never to bad-mouth the guys who did it. He had his whole Lions tour taken away from him but you never heard him have a go at them in public. He was always cool and collected. Or when he was dropped by the Lions, he didn’t go mad or make a big fuss about it. The whole country was going mad about it but his response was amazing. He has great calmness under pressure and he always seems to come out with the right thing. Often in life you look back and go, ‘I wish I said that.’ He seems to know the right thing to say at the right time.
And you can see that’s the attitude he brings to playing and training. He rarely does the wrong thing. You just don’t see him making many mistakes. When’s the last time you saw him knock the ball on, for instance? Or throw a stupid pass? He just has that calmness under pressure.
I actually saw him play under-16 for Clontarf because he was in the same team as my brother. I didn’t know much about rugby in those days because I hadn’t started playing. But he didn’t stand out or anything. They were a really good team but you wouldn’t say he was amazing. So what stuck with me as the years went by was the amount of work he had to put into becoming what he became.
As a rugby player, his awareness and his understanding of everything that’s happening at any given moment are incredible. Think of his pass for Simon Zebo against Wales last year – he had to know where Zebo was going to be, he had to time the pass to perfection, he had to decide what kind of pass to give and he just worked it all out in a split second. I remember watching him pass to himself over Denis Hickie’s head against Ulster one time and just going, ‘Are you even allowed to do that?’ Or when he would scoop the ball up with one hand when 99 per cent of players would have dived on it like they’ve been told to since they were kids. Other people might have those skills but nobody I’ve seen has known when to use them as well as Brian has.
First of all it was always a pleasure to meet him and to see him play because he’s the legend of Leinster and Irish rugby. The one thing that I admire is his ability to make things happen on the field. I saw a few games with Leinster where things weren’t happening and just his sheer determination just pulled things through and brought that try that changed games again and again. That determination and his fighting qualities – he reminds me in my sport of Sir Vivian Richards in that he was the man that was going to make things happen.
What would make him stand out from others for me is something that most other people haven’t seen. I would have bumped into him a few times down the years – I wouldn’t say we know each other well or anything but we would have met at functions or that. So I would have his number and over the years I would have asked him for a few things, jerseys or whatever. And honestly, you’d swear you were asking someone from the Armagh team.
There’s nothing in it for him in helping people out and yet his attitude anytime I’ve been on to him has always been, ‘Yeah, that’s no problem, I’ll sort that for you.’ Someone of that ability and profile probably gets people asking him for things constantly. But it was never a case of, ‘Why are you asking me and not someone else?’ It was never, ‘I’m busy, I’ll come back to you on that.’
That he would go out of his way for someone he doesn’t even know that well, I would say probably says more about him that all the tries and everything else he’s done. They say the measure of a man is what he will do for you when you can do nothing in return for him. He’s a guy with a lot of class and you can see that by the respect he has when he goes on onto the pitch.
For me, his commitment has been the thing. Both his commitment to Ireland and his commitment on the field. He has always been so tenacious in tackles but it’s more than that. You watch any game he plays in, he nearly always makes sure he’s at the cutting edge of whatever’s happening.
For a small man, he forces himself into the most physical areas of the game and gets in among the monsters – normally coming out the good side of it too. The game against England in Croke Park in 2009 was about as tough a performance as you could imagine. His tenacity that day, his toughness – you could only admire it.
And away from the pitch, I really admire the fact that he’s so humble. He’s been the superstar performer in his sport for the length of time he’s been in it, yet you never hear stories coming back about him being big-headed or obnoxious or anything like that. You can see he has a real sense of the person he is and the people he represents.
I wouldn’t be a big rugby follower to be honest – it’s just not a game I ever really got into. But even saying that, I admire Brian O’Driscoll. How could you not? He’s so tough, you can see it even as a casual observer. He has an effect on other sportspeople. I remember he sent a video message to the Dublin squad ahead of the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary. The Ireland squad was away training for the World Cup at the time but in fairness he took the time to do it and to say good luck to the lads. They were all mightily impressed by it.
When he came along, he was just instantly Ireland’s best player. You don’t often see that. I had heard of him and had heard he was supposed to be good alright but I had no idea that this was what people were talking about. I didn’t imagine that it was going to be this sort of standard. Where he really came alive for me was in the Lions Test in 2001. He just proved that even at a very young age, he was the best centre in the world.
Defensively, he has been absolutely awesome for 15 years. But I think what really stood out for me is how he has managed to come through those spells where he was getting criticism. He has always responded really well to those down periods. The sign of a great player for me in any sport is that even when he has a bad game, there’s never two bad ones in a row. That sends a message to team-mates. You can see how he galvanises them because he doesn’t let one bad day ruin the next day. I can only imagine what he’s like inside in a dressingroom. He commands respect, that much is obvious. And the only reason he can command that respect is because people see from day to day what he’s about and what he brings to each session.
That mental toughness must be inspiring to play alongside. You can see that it doesn’t matter good, bad or indifferent to him how a match is going, he takes responsibility. I’ve seen him in games where he obviously just decided, ‘Right lads, jump up on my back and I’ll carry ye here for a while.’ That’s an awesome quality to have.
He plays every game. That to me is the thing that stands out a mile. How often has he been injured down the years? Very rarely. Or if he has, he’s played away anyway. I look at great sportspeople to see what they have and what they don’t have and he just always turns up with his A game.
And yet you watch him in every game and he gets in where it hurts. It’s not like he’s standing back and minding himself. He’s a great man to get in over the ball and win it back. He’s just a tough, hard man. People use the word legend nearly too much but there’s no doubt that’s what he is.
I like the way he’s so unassuming. You never see him in the papers for the wrong reasons. Every young sportsman must look at him and go, ‘That’s what I want to be.’ He sets the example.
Even when he was coming off the pitch last Saturday against Italy and the whole place was going mad for him, you could see his reaction was kind of, ‘Ah lads, let it go, would ye?’ He was acting like he didn’t deserve it, even though nobody could possibly have deserved it more.
Most successful teams usually need a genius in among them. The rest can be hard-working bit-players but you need that one genius. That’s what I saw when I was looking at the Irish team, admittedly through an untrained eye. I used to feel like a bit of a fraud going to rugby matches because I wasn’t a big fan of the sport itself but his genius stood out. The speed, the sleight of hand, the timing, the power, the bravery – that was all the stuff of genius.
But the thing with geniuses in any team – and it doesn’t matter of it’s soccer, rugby, Gaelic, cricket, whatever – the genius can sometimes be a pain in the arse. That’s just the way of it and sometimes you have to put up with it. The genius can be annoying around the place but because he delivers on the big day, you make allowances.
That never seemed to be the way with O’Driscoll. You never heard anyone speaking out of the side of their mouth about him, saying that he was actually a prima-donna or anything like that. He just seems to be a smashing all-round team player and a decent guy who is liked by his teammates. I’ve been around him at a few different awards functions and that kind of thing but all I’ve ever really been able to do is shake his hand. I never really talked to him, I’ve just really admired him from afar. I’d be a bit in awe of someone like that really. You’d nearly feel you’d want to hug him for all the great days he gave us.