Brian O’Driscoll hopes last clash with New Zealand is the charm
Despite 13 defeats, the centre is still excited to face the All Blacks
Brian O’Driscoll is tackled by Sonny Bill Williams during the Test last June. Ireland lost 42-12, one of 12 defeats O’Driscoll has suffered against New Zealand in the Ireland shirt. Photograph: Sandra Mu/Getty Images
There are a few itches Brian O’Driscoll hasn’t scratched in the most illustrious Irish rugby career of them all. Not advancing beyond a World Cup quarter-final in four attempts with Ireland is probably uppermost amongst them, and of course not being picked for the Lions’ decisive third Test win over Australia will grate, but beating the All Blacks would tick one glaringly empty box.
In addition to his harrowing first Test as Lions’ captain in 2005 when speared out of the series after scarcely a minute, O’Driscoll has been on the losing side 12 out of the 13 occasions Ireland have faced New Zealand since 2001 at Lansdowne Road. (He missed the November 2005 Test as a result of the injury from the Lions Tour.) They came close that day, leading 23-7 early in the second half, had the All Blacks in trouble in Dunedin the following summer and were on the offensive against 14 men in Christchurch at 19-19 last June until a fateful scrum call by Nigel Owens. Close, but no cigar.
As to whether it will gnaw at him if his career ended without ever beating New Zealand, O’Driscoll said yesterday: “It will be a frustration for sure but I don’t know will it gnaw at me. It’s very hard to answer that going into the last time I’m ever going to play against them. Going in thinking that this week is a defeatist attitude. I’m going into it thinking there’s a distinct possibility of beating them, and we need to do everything we can to prepare ourselves for giving ourselves a good chance.
“Reflection is for when you’re not playing anymore and I’m not a reflective guy, certainly not now and I don’t even know if I will be in time. But I just can’t think of it not being a great chance, a great opportunity. All you can ask is for these opportunities. You’re never guaranteed any more than that and this is just one more opportunity and for me it’s my last opportunity.”
It doesn’t help that of those 13 defeats in the green jersey, Ireland have had to travel for nine of them, in part thanks to the IRB insisting on a three Test tour last summer at the end of a World Cup season which culminated in that 60-0 Hamilton horror show.
Admitting that a reprise of last week’s inaccurate, defensively passive performance could lead to another “cricket score” this Sunday, then akin to Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson in 1980 as a 42-1 underdog, fear can concentrate the mind wonderfully.
“A fear factor is often a good motivation. It’s a combination of the anger of our performance and then the realisation that yes we did get 60 points put against us to no score last time. For sure, for me, it is something that heightens my concentration that you need to stay on your toes for 80 minutes because they can score for fun; if you’re in any scenario they can score 14 points in two or three minutes if they are given the opportunity. Knowing that, you have to be very heightened in your awareness of everything that is going on for the full 80.”
Although they’ve only won one World Cup during O’Driscoll’s playing career, more often than not in that time span New Zealand have been the world’s number one side, generally winning the Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship and rounding off the year with unbeaten November tours. Since removing that World Cup monkey from their backs, it would appear the All Blacks have moved on to an even more rarefied air, winning all but one of their subsequent 27 Tests.
Added to their seven-match winning run in the World Cup, that means they have won 33 of their last 34 Tests.
“I think there has been a real increase more recently in the tempo and speed in which they play the game,” said O’Driscoll after reflecting for a while on what sets the All Blacks apart. “I think they back themselves on that front. You see the speed of getting to the ball that has been kicked out of the play, the speed at which their lineout goes, they are always playing front-foot football and they back themselves from a fitness point of view but they are a vastly skilful team right across the board.”
‘Sets them apart’
“You have got props that can throw 15-metre passes right into the breadbasket of the next guy running onto it so you see these guys at this level being technically very good too. They are so efficient in the breakdown, they are only clearing with two guys and one ball-carrier. That probably leaves 12 to play or organise. Not many teams can do that and that is probably one thing that sets them apart.”
Yet the opportunity to face the world’s best side excites him more than fazes him. “It is great. Who wants to challenge themselves against sides that you fancy yourself against? No, it is against the really great teams you find out about yourself. About whether you really have it in yourself, whether you have the physicality, the mentality, the bottle. When you win in scenarios like that, that’s why it feels special with those guys around you because you know what it has taken, because one day you are going to hit that brilliant performance and people are going to talk about it and make plays about it.”
Perhaps O’Driscoll can yet get to paraphrase Vitas Gerulaitis. Having finally beaten Jimmy Connors, also in 1980, after losing to his fellow American 16 times in a row, he explained: “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”