Will we have BOD on our side for much longer?
This afternoon could witness the home farewell of Ireland’s greatest ever player
In the CD shoe shop in Stillorgan, one of the staff who would normally baulk at spending €200 for a brace of tickets to a rugby match has long decided to make an exception. Although he fervently hopes it is not so, he is going to bring his son on the premise this might be Brian O’Driscoll’s last game for Ireland on home soil and well, we’ll never see his like again.
Similarly, one ex-Junior player turned “professional supporter” who regrets never having met the man, is intent on marking the occasion by not only attending – again just in case it is a home farewell – and keeping his ticket as a keepsake, but will make a donation to the IRFU Charitable Trust in O’Driscoll’s name.
The game has been a sell-out since early January and judging by this and other anecdotal evidence of a late surge in interest for tickets, the vast majority of those filling the Aviva to capacity today – including the French – are mindful of this huge sub-plot to this evening’s encounter.
In all of this, the fervent hope is O’Driscoll will carry on playing next season. But it could be the anti-climactic nature of this season’s campaign – and the knowledge this year’s bi-annual itinerary with England and France coming to Dublin affords Ireland’s it’s best tilt at glory – will sway him toward retirement.
There is also the not so small matter of changed priorities, namely Amy giving birth to Sadie on the morning of that England game. He spoke of this two days after the Scotland defeat, when also going some way to dispelling the notion he might like to see out his career by playing solely for Leinster by admitting he would find not being part of the Irish set-up difficult. Alas, it sounded like he was moving more toward the idea of retirement.
Ronan O’Gara’s subsequent demotion and then omission, given O’Driscoll is a year younger, might also influence his decision. But, although the desire to go out on one’s own terms while not leaving anything behind has been the hardest call of all even for the great ones, that is much less likely to happen to O’Driscoll.
He was excellent against Wales, while no one can imagine his mental state against England when even pitching up for battle was an achievement, before mixed judgments on his performances against Scotland.
TV viewers would have had the soundbite “worst performance in 10 years” ringing in their ears, but his breakdown work and defending were as good as ever.
There were also some lovely touches on the ball; he ran some good decoys and was twice in support of Keith Earls after line breaks by Marshall and Earls. Had the winger given either of those two try-scoring passes O’Driscoll’s display would have been rightly hailed as up to his normal high standards. Had Earls given both, not alone would Ireland have won by a street, O’Driscoll would have had another man-of-the-match gong.
All of which serves to remind us rugby remains very much a team game and outstanding individual performances hinge on the collective display. It is true the accompanying table highlights a diminishing number of home matches in latter years, primarily as he was sidelined both for last season’s Six Nations and the November Guinness Series.
Nevertheless it also underlines consistently high-quality performances and durability over 14 seasons, and it is this, as much as his many days and moments of brilliance, captaining Ireland to a Grand Slam and three Triple Crowns as well being a three-time Lions’ tourist and captain, that leaves no room for argument regarding his status as Ireland’s greatest rugby player. End of.
He made his home debut in August 1999 against Argentina in a World Cup warm-up match at the old Lansdowne Road, having earned his first Test cap on the preceding June tour to Australia. In all, 62 of his 123 Test caps have been earned on home soil, and with 48 wins, a draw and 13 defeats, he has enjoyed an extraordinary win ratio of 77 per cent (compared to 62 per cent for Ireland).
Nor, a little surprisingly, is his strike rate notably higher at home, given he has scored 25 of his 46 Test tries for Ireland in home games. Of those, O’Driscoll scored 19 in his 45 Tests at Lansdowne Road, be it the old ground or the Aviva Stadium, where his win ratio with Ireland is 75.5 per cent.
Remarkably, O’Driscoll has only missed 11 games at home through injury in 14 seasons, playing in every home game until autumn 2005, when without him and Paul O’Connell, Ireland lost 45-7 to New Zealand and 30-14 to Australia, before beating Romania.
Most infuriatingly of all, the next time he was sidelined for a home match was Ireland’s first game at Croke Park, against France in February 2007 when, of course, a try by Ireland’s bête noire Vincent Clerc denied Ireland victory at the death.
Until last November, the only subsequent games he missed were World Cup warm-up matches in 2007 and 2011, and only then did Ireland show signs of managing to cope without their talisman with wins over Italy, Scotland and Argentina last year.
Nevertheless, the win ratio of 75.5 per cent with O’Driscoll in Lansdowne Road, dips to 36 per cent in the 11 games without him (four wins and seven defeats).
Statistics, damned lies and statistics? To a degree perhaps, but he has also been rather good. Still is too, and the hope remains we have the opportunity to more or less cut and paste the accompanying statistics a year hence.