As good as it gets in the white-hot intensity of rugby

True icons such as O’Driscoll don’t get the chance to park their cultural significance

 Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll hands off Danny Care of England at Twickenham last month. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll hands off Danny Care of England at Twickenham last month. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Mon, Mar 3, 2014, 11:03

Brian O’Driscoll waved goodbye to anonymity years ago, navigated his way past papped celebrity, dispensed with mere fame on the back of that 2009 Grand Slam and now resides in that gated community reserved for icons. It’s great in one way, appropriate even: if anyone has to, then why not someone who is one of this country’s greatest sporting figures and one of rugby’s greatest-ever players. But it must be a bugger to live it sometimes.

Only the dim can see the pitfalls, which probably explains why, apparently, Lady Gaga wants iconographic reverence for herself by the time she checks out. If by some freak it does happen, the only consolation for us old fogeys not transfixed by her every self-involved manoeuvre is we’ll be long gone when the bleating begins.

You see, true icons don’t get the chance to park their cultural significance to the side. It’s an all-in deal for life that produces perks no doubt, but also reduces the individual to a near-cartoon, a convenient reference point for bouncing prejudices off, less flesh and blood than awed reverence which, quite frankly, must be a gigantic pain in the arse to live with. Is it any wonder Lennon railed or that McCartney is reduced to thumbs-up cliché by it.

Will to win
O’Driscoll can’t escape. In the public consciousness he is, and always will be, defined by that Paris hat-trick, the Lions spear-tackle, most of all the manic will to win that made the Grand Slam his achievement more than anyone else’s. No bad thing obviously. But even when he’s 70 years old, O’Driscoll will be peered at through that prism of youth. It’s actually happening already.

Ireland’s Six-Nations campaign is defined by O’Driscoll’s international swan song: the last time he will play at Twickenham, Paris, Lansdowne, blah-di-blah.

It’s going to be the same this Saturday presumably when he breaks George Gregan’s world record for test-match appearances: 140 matches – 132 for Ireland and eight for the Lions.

It’s a staggering achievement to perform for that long at the top level. It would be significant if he played lawn-bowls for a living. That he has managed it in the white-hot body-crunching intensity of international rugby is truly mind-boggling.

There’s been no missing though how that same focus throughout the championship has illustrated how deeply entrenched O’Driscoll’s iconic status already is, how skewed it consequently makes any realistic appraisal of the man as player now and how it sends perceptions veering wildly from one extreme to the other: no middle-ground here.

England defeat
There were sage nods aplenty on the back of that England defeat: he’s not what he was, should have called it a day before now, legs gone, too small in the modern rugby world of biff-bang behemoths subtly running over each other, time to head off into the sunset, give youth it’s chance; a regretful commentary based on nostalgia for O’Driscoll in his pomp, with accompanying tut-tuts at the inevitable comparative shortcomings.

The opposite end of the spectrum though comes with perhaps even greater vehemence. This is the one where no criticism of Irish rugby’s sacred cow is permitted at all and everything he does is near divine.

A perfect example came in the previous game against Wales and a crunching, possibly illegal, but hardly outrageous, shoulder tackle carried out by Scott Williams. Since the impact would have sent most of the rest of us into Pearse St, it was understandable that O’Driscoll took his time about getting up.

Brief smile
However some of the more panting punditry on this little cameo would have had it that he arose for the fourth time: in fact, quite how illustrative it supposedly was of O’Driscoll’s heroism became evident from lyrical punditry tears of such “Kiss Me Hardy” intensity that it might be worth checking if there are still puddles in the Aviva press box.

That he, after getting up, then gave Williams a brief smile became a gesture loaded with such significance that the only way of topping it off was for the injured Welshman to go off, which he conveniently did, accompanied as he went by frantic, near-Homeric inferences.

The reality is that O’Driscoll the icon can hardly pick his nose now without it being imbued with a cod-profundity, which says a helluva lot more about everyone else than the man himself. It’s got to the stage where the player has been assumed out of any reasonable middle- ground consideration. So here’s an attempt at some mundane, middle- ground, non-hyperbolic and hopelessly inexpert context.

O’Driscoll is 35. Age is no fun. A very clever man once said 40 is the old age of youth and 50 is the youth of old age. As someone closer to the latter than O’Driscoll is to the former, what I do know is there’s no upside to getting older. It’s a bastard. Things ache, twinge, even fall off sometimes: expecting to be as physically proficient as in your 20s is an illusion that the alcohol, drug and sports car industries are built on.

So verdicts on the man from either extreme, great or shot, are off-beam. He ain’t as good as he was. Maybe he actually was never quite as good as he is now in popular recall. That’s the thing with legends, they get bigger with time. But get this: the reality is that a 35-year-old with the sort of mileage up that would encourage ‘clocking’ if he was sold second-hand remains the best No 13 around.

Which, when you think about it calmly, is no mean achievement in itself.

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