O’Driscoll bids farewell in some style
The Irish centre played his last game for Ireland before his retirement
Brian O’Driscoll during Saturday’s victory over Italy. Photograph: Colm O’Neill/Inpho
It was impossible to escape the occasion being filtered through one person. He coloured and shaped the build-up, magnified the dimensions of the game and dominated the post match reaction.
A moderniser, a catalyst, a benchmark for over a decade and a creative trigger in three of Ireland’s tries, Brian O’Driscoll played the roll of the humble foot soldier but carried the influence of a general around Aviva.
Joe Schmidt, never given over to softly profiling his players, also paused to respectfully place O’Driscoll’s heart at the centre of his team and his hand at the tiller of Ireland’s 46 point win over Italy. It could so easily have spilled over into the hysterical inflation of a career and made the Irish centre a cartoon image of achievement. But the acknowledgements were perfectly drawn, hushed and respectful. O’Driscoll’s ability and influence have always created their own dimensions and carried their own freight.
The fanfare of O’Driscoll’s final international match in Dublin was an attractive distraction from the almost forgone conclusion of a win and road map that leads to Paris next weekend.
But neither player nor coach would allow that to suck away at the focus of the main goal, Schmidt turning the national outpouring and energy inwards towards the team. No one would have approved of that more than O’Driscoll.
“We were really isolated from it,” said Schmidt after a week of O’Driscoll’s canonisation. “It wasn’t mentioned at all in any team meeting, in anything that we did apart from just before we went to the ground.
“We said it is Brian’s last game at Lansdowne Road, but it’s also a first for Brian. He’s the first man who’s got to 140 Test caps, so let’s make sure we’re first in everything we do today. So, we framed it that way coming late into the game and the players responded really well to it. You know they’re going to respond to Brian. He leads by example and he did that today.”
“At the back of everyone’s mind, it was a journey to be continued with Schmidt explaining that in his years with French side Clermont, success in the Top 14 only arrived in the season he left for Leinster.
In that quest for the Bouclier de Brennus, he learned something about winning as well as failure and that success in rugby lay more in pragmatic tactics and the honest application of the players and less in the limiting superstitions of the French. Those things he will bring to Paris with Ireland’s one win there in 42 years. “One of the things that they talked often about in France is this ‘mal addiction’, this bad luck that was always going to haunt the Clermont team whenever they got to a final, and that’s why they didn’t win nine or 10 of them before they did,” said Schmidt.
“I’m not a big believer in superstition. I would describe them as the ‘pensée de parasite’.’ It’s a parasite of thinking that is a distraction and it erodes the logical mainstream thinking about what you actually need to deliver on the field.
“I’m not smart enough to be a sports psychologist,” he added. “So I rely on other people doing the mind fitness and making sure that they are process focused and game focused. We could go to Paris and finish third.”
Fergus McFadden was gifted the challenge of replacing O’Driscoll as 50,000 people rose to their feet. The Leinster player’s brio and selfless input have always brought an energy to the Irish team, his late try also adding to Ireland’s points mountain of plus 81.
“When Alain Rolland was sending me on, getting the numbers through the system he said to me wait till you hear the cheer when you get there,” said McFadden. “I think Brian has a massive heart. But there’s something else. Ahead of the flare and the flash he produces and people write about he never gives up. He created three tries today and a couple of them were out of nothing.”
For some players like Jordi Murphy, Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Paddy Jackson and Dave Kearney the prospect of Stade de France is not something to fear as it will be new to them. But in Schmidt there appears to be a belief among others that his experience of the French players and their peculiarities is an additional edge for Ireland.