O’Driscoll marks home farewell with heroic performance

Festive occasion at the Aviva as colossus of the game wears Irish shirt for the penultimate time

Brian O'Driscoll on Irish fans and championship hopes.

Sat, Mar 8, 2014, 19:15

A giant Brian O’Driscoll floated across the pitch at the end of the match. No, it wasn’t the man himself this time: just his outsized likeness on a banner hanging from a blimp.

But having bestrode Irish rugby like a colossus for a decade and half, the great man had already marked his home farewell with yet another heroic performance. Not even a 50-foot high self-portrait could upstage him.

On a celebratory occasion in Dublin 4, all that was missing was a try by the Irish No 13. In the absence of that yearned-for event, we had to settle for a mere masterclass in his ability to set up scores for others: the famously soft, quick hands putting first Johnny Sexton and then Andrew Trimble in, before he completed the creative hat-trick with a brilliant one-handed pass in a move again finished off by Sexton.

Once, on 58 minutes, the field seemed to open up for the man himself, wide enough that a younger O’Driscoll would probably have finished the move alone. His foot-speed waning, alas, the 35-year-old O’Driscoll instead had to hold the ball up for team-mates, and in the process get clattered yet again for the Irish cause.

But this too added to the occasion. It gave the crowd - including wife Amy and daughter Sadie - one more chance to express relief and gratitude as the old soldier got up and dusted himself off for the thousandth time. A few minutes later, he was substituted to a standing, and spine-tingling, ovation. When the Man-of-the-Match award was announced later, nobody suspected a fix.

It’s a credit to the professionalism of this Irish team that in the 18 minutes remaining after O’Driscoll’s departure, they continued the job he had begun: putting as many points as possible past Italy. Despite Mexican waves, mass cheering every time a close-up of the departed hero flashed up on screen, and other distractions, the home side added three more tries, each of which might yet be crucial in deciding the Six Nations Title.

The bemused Italians played their part too. They must have felt like extras in a spaghetti western for most of the afternoon, but they did their best to make a match of it, with a first-half try against the run of play briefly threatening to spoil the plot.

They even started a brawl early in the second half, in which Irish captain Paul O’Connell became involved. A TMO review dismissed it as the proverbial handbags (Italian-designed), punishable by a penalty only. After that, the visitors’ resistance was spent and the home fans’ party got under way in earnest.

The love story between Ireland and O’Driscoll-the-player is now down to the last chapter. We’ll always have Paris, thanks to the famous game 14 years ago which Brian the boy scored a hat-trick of tries to end a 28-year Irish losing streak. Next weekend, O’Driscoll the man returns to the scene of that triumph, with a Championship title at stake. Thanks to the trouncing of the Italians, even a one-point win should be enough.