Brian O’Driscoll: Some journey, some man
As he prepares for his final home Test next weekend, Ireland’s greatest reflects on his career, family and what the future holds
He answers the phone to give directions to his house and explains that he’s in the middle of changing Sadie’s nappy. How he’s changed over the years. An hour later he talks about how his character and his life have indeed morphed, how he used to look at married men with kids in their mid-30s with sympathy, but now looks at what he used to be in his mid-20s and, save for wanting the body he had then, wouldn’t swap places. Retirement beckons, but Brian O’Driscoll is in a good place.
He’s all domesticated now and contented. Sadie has helped make a Welcome Home banner which hangs on the kitchen window for Amy, who is still feeling a bit zonked after returning from the States on Thursday night. They had the builders in yesterday morning as they’re giving the house a revamp, and the garden has been dug up and paved.
The barista in O’Driscoll makes a good cup of coffee too, and after Sadie takes Amy for a visit to the grandparents, he laughs as he reprises Quentin Tarantino’s cameo in Pulp Fiction when Jules and Vincent compliment him on his coffee: “I don’t need you to tell me how good my coffee is, okay? I’m the one who buys it. I know how good it is.”
He sits into a brown leather armchair and fixes a pad around his calf which is attached to a “Game Ready”, which he describes as “a serious piece of kit”, explaining: “It’s an icer and a compressor in one.” The IRFU supply the Irish team with several of them and after most matches and some training sessions he borrows one. It can work on the calves, ankles, knees and shoulders. If he was starting out again he’d buy himself one, even though they’re about €3,500-€4,000.
Fret not, his calf is fine, but although he feels good, O’Driscoll freely admits his training regime is based increasingly more on quality than quantity these days. “Would I like to have the body of a 21-year-old? Yeah, absolutely. But I’ll deal with this body that I do have.
“It’s funny, I didn’t know whether the head would go first or the body, by the head I mean not having as much passion for it. And that’s absolutely still there. The body doesn’t respond exactly like it used to, but well enough to still manage at international level and provincial level. But I know it’s a smart play, on a lot of fronts, to call it quits at the end of this season.
“I don’t want to undo any of the good work, because I think I would be pushing my capabilities and asking too much of the body to be able to do things that I just can’t anymore. And I’ve one eye on the future making sure that you do remain intact, to be able to play golf, to play with your kids, to play five-a-sides or play squash.”
As O’Driscoll mulled over retirement last year, he wasn’t sure whether to continue but has no doubts this time. “I just couldn’t do another pre-season, another seven or eight weeks of weights and really intense fitness work. That part of me has switched off. I haven’t got one foot in retirement because I’m excited about still being in three competitions, but it’s nice, too, knowing that this is it.”
Having the captaincy taken off him last season after leading his country 83 times, equal to John Smit, and surpassed only by Richie McCaw, hurt him badly. “It did. It would have been nice to have been able to do it on my terms but that’s sport.” It assuredly soured his relationship with Declan Kidney and Ireland’s results didn’t help either.
After the draw at home to France last year, he thought that might have been his farewell home Test, when going to a tearful Amy and Sadie in the crowd. “I kinda thought in my head that that was going to be it, and then a few weeks playing with Leinster I just felt I had too much left in me to cut it there.”
The appointment of Joe Schmidt, under whom he says he learns every day, was key. “He’s just been a real breath of fresh air in the last few years and injected a real enthusiasm into some of the older guys and I think he set really good standards for a lot of the younger guys, and you’d feel very positive about his team going forward to the next World Cup provided we can keep our players fit. That’s a very important factor.”
The body, as he calls it, has broken down a little more this season, notably that calf strain which was slow to heal and recurred twice. “That’s not me at all. I had thoughts like: ‘is this the older me? That’s not meant to happen. I’m meant to get better way before anyone expected’,” he says, a little self-mockingly.
He panicked about his lack of game time, and the realisation that he couldn’t have as much time on the pitch or do as much, but took solace in his experience. “You have to rely on being in that situation lots. You’ve gotta use that, and part of it is convincing yourself that that’s good enough.”
Schmidt exercises the brain muscles more than any other part of his players’ anatomies anyway. “Joe’s got a term, ‘being in the mind gym’. It’s just about thinking the game over a little bit, about scenarios and situations, rather than being on the park for five hours a day. Joe and detail are the two words that go together. Yeah, he’s a thinking player’s coach.”
There’s a poignancy in the air these days around Irish rugby because, a week out from his penultimate Test, truly we can say that we will never see his like again. Not in the Irish green anyway. Yet next Saturday, his farewell home Test for his country, ought to be a celebration too, and not just because there have been so many memorable days.
There have been bad days too along the way, but more than anyone else, O’Driscoll helped to drag Irish rugby kicking and screaming out of the amateurish, slightly cowed role they’d long since assumed, to consistently compete with the world’s best. As much as captaining, and leading the charge, to the 2009 Grand Slam, and winning three Heineken Cups, that is arguably his greatest legacy, he instilled belief. He earned himself and Irish rugby global respect like no one before him.
Next Saturday he eclipses George Gregan as the world’s most-capped player when playing in his 140th Test. He smiles, shakes his head in wonder and describes this as mad. “I didn’t think anyone was ever going to get near 139. I certainly didn’t think I was going to get there. I thought at about 105 or 106, there was no way. I was obviously feeling it back then.”
O’Driscoll reckons Richie McCaw, for one, will eclipse his own mark, and perhaps one day someone will reach 150. “I know the game is brutal but then there are these freaks too.” But he has the height of admiration for Gregan. “To maintain that level of fitness as a ‘9’ for 139 Tests, he is probably travelling the most in a game, that’s incredibly impressive.”
Next Saturday against Italy could get emotional, although O’Driscoll has no doubt he’ll be able to compartmentalise this. “Before the game it won’t affect me at all. I won’t play out the game in my head. You just react the way it is, but I would imagine there’ll be some sort of emotion for sure when it’s over.”
He never really dreamt of playing for Ireland as a kid. He played football and Gaelic football, and his boyhood heroes were Mark Hughes and Kerry footballers. “I had a love-hate relationship with it [rugby]. I didn’t love it initially when my dad came in at Willow [Park] and coached some teams and refereed a few games I was involved in. He encouraged me to play rugby because he thought I’d like it. I remember scoring four tries the first game I played for Blackrock, at under-12s, and thinking ‘that’s alright. I enjoyed that there today’.
‘A shy child’
“I was small at under-13s. I didn’t feel I had the frame to tackle the way I wanted to, and I was a shy child. I played Junior Cup and trained extremely hard, and still didn’t get on the team. I went back to Clontarf under-16s and had a brilliant year. We won the league, had a trip to Wales and just had a laugh playing with all my buddies and that re-invigorated me for the Senior Cup. But I needed that year out to start enjoying it again.”
Playing for Ireland schools prompted an idea of playing for Ireland, but only an idea. “I didn’t think rugby was going to be a career growing up. It wasn’t like it is now. I came out of school in ’96 and Irish rugby wasn’t in the boom it is now. We’re in a very different spot.”
Ultimately, he’s only had three teams really, Leinster, Ireland and the Lions. “I think it means representing my family first of all,” he says of playing for Ireland, in reference to Frank and Geraldine, his sisters Susan and Julie, and now Amy and Sadie. “I take huge pride from making them proud, and because there’s such huge rivalry between the provinces, all the more now, whenever everyone comes together under one jersey it’s something I haven’t become bored of in any shape or form since the first time. If anything it’s accentuated every single time, and I think if you played another 100 it would be the same.”
He thinks aloud about all the fans who would love to play for Ireland and says: “The next best thing to playing for Ireland is supporting Ireland, and they are as passionate in the stands as you have to be on the pitch. You feel the same emotions, the same pain of defeat, the same ecstasy of winning, and it has such bearing on your mood.
“I won’t miss that aspect of it. You can be as high as a kite or as low as a worm for days and days, and it’s horrible, and I agree with Rog, you do grieve the losses more than you celebrate the victories. I do anyway. I won’t miss that low.”
The game is a different sport, he has a different body, and he is a different player. He reckons some people claimed he lost a yard a few years before he actually did.
In 2009, at 30, he may not have had what he calls high-end pace, but he still had a break, and had it the next season. “If I do make it through a half gap I start looking for people a lot quicker now than I used to,” he admits, laughing.
He tries more to understand his body and play to his limitations. “It’s compensating. I don’t know if I was necessarily conscious of it, but when you begin to decline in one area of your game you have to make sure you’re very good at the others, and I’ve always wanted to be a rounded player, and not be renowned for one thing.”
He’s morphed from a brilliant attacker to a decent defender to a decent attacker and brilliant defender. When did the two meet at their highest combined peak?
In his own estimation “2009 was the best year of rugby I ever played. I don’t think I necessarily did that much wow stuff, but it was super solid and creative when it needed to be creative and had an aspect of being clinical when I needed to score a try. Turning up at moments that are important and rolling the sleeves up.”
He laughs at Paul O’Connell’s assertion that it’s rare when a team’s talisman is also the first you’d have in the trenches alongside you. “I don’t know when he said that initially but our best attacking player? Really? But something like that coming from him, it means a lot more than it would coming from most people because you know he knows what it takes to deliver on the big stage and really front up.”
As he grew into his body and became less timid, he came to the realisation that “what is there to really fear on a rugby pitch? Getting hurt? You recover from it. And pain does subside and I don’t know, in a really perverted way, legally inflicting pain on someone else gives you a great thrill,” he says jokingly. “Scott Williams must have taken huge satisfaction in absolutely annihilating me in that tackle.”
This fearlessness probably comes from his dad. “Yeah, I believe he was a demon tackler,” and then adds revealingly: “I’d take the quality of being tough as far more of a compliment than I would a silky runner or very evasive. That would be, for me, one of the greatest compliments.
“I’m not worried about the bangs to the head because what’s the point in worrying about it? Are we guinea pigs? I don’t know, maybe, but there are plenty of guys that would have gotten multiple head knocks in the amateur days and very few of them have had symptoms going on into their forties, fifties, sixties.”
Maintaining his shape will be a challenge. “I’ll always have to have a good diet because, as past years and pictures would tell, I am prone to carrying an extra bit of weight,” he admits, again laughing at himself.
What he’ll miss most is competing and winning with mates, and the adrenalin rush of of playing in front of 80,000 people in Twickenham, or 50,000 in the Aviva. “That’s irreplaceable. No matter what you do, you just can’t get that rush and the euphoria that that brings. It’s really hard talking about it because I know that it’s coming but I don’t know what that feeling is going to be like.”
O’Driscoll has plans if not a “masterplan”, which he’s keeping to himself, but initially intends doing little in the first year. “I won’t be going to games, unless I was working at them [as a pundit]. I don’t think I’d go to a Leinster match as a fan, not in the first year. I find it so hard to watch teams that I could be part of. I’d say it’s even harder watching teams that you used to be a part of. I’ll always be a fan of Leinster and of Ireland but I think from my armchair for the first while or from a studio if I decide.”
He doesn’t mind all the instant identification, and helping to make a kid’s day, provided the requests come with a please and a thanks – he’s adamant his kids will have good manners. That said, he doesn’t mind the notion of living abroad for a while if Amy’s acting career takes them elsewhere, especially somewhere warmer, nor him becoming her sidekick in the public glare. Beyond that, he intends doing more skiing and enjoying his own schedule and not having to ask permission.
“I’m excited about the next part of life, a little bit nervous about it because you want to be as successful in your next life as you have been in your first career and there’s a little bit of trepidation to that. But there is great excitement in shelving one part and having new challenges to look forward to. Yeah life is good. I have an unbelievably contented family life. Your kids become your life, big time, they really do and that’s cool too.
“I remember looking as a young lad at older guys, going: ‘Oh my God that’s so grim, like being married with a couple of kids and having all those limitations’ and now I think of those young lads and think: ‘Oh my God, I’d hate to be them.’ It’s the circle of life.”
His career has almost come full circle but there is still some business, mind, to attend to over the next fortnight and the next three months. The hurt of defeat to England stayed with him through to Wednesday’s review and he’s also acutely conscious that his last game will linger long. He’s had a good innings, but just one title seems a shame when set against Wales’ list of honours, and he’s envious of Adam Jones’s three Slams and a title.
“I remember as a one-time Heineken Cup winner thinking ‘that’s nice, two would be lovely’. And it was. I think the second one was nearly better. We’re not winning the Slam this year but there’s a championship to be won and it would be lovely to be able to be a two-time winner. One title is not a lot to shout about is it? Because of the calibre of players and the amount of seconds that we had. And the next chance you have to do it is the time to do it.”
Yeah, thankfully he ain’t finished quite yet.