Magic Moments: Remarkable durability a key part of Brian O’Driscoll’s epic story

Ireland’s greatest rugby player has already inspired a host of memories as he prepares for his 14th season

Brian O’Driscoll celebrates his hat-trick against France in 2000. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Brian O’Driscoll celebrates his hat-trick against France in 2000. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Wed, Jan 29, 2014, 17:12

It’s hard to credit that this will be Brian O’Driscoll’s 14th Six Nations campaign – yes, 14th. Notable among the many qualities with which he has graced the world’s oldest rugby tournament – be it his footwork, pace, eye for a gap, finishing, handling skills, defence, kicking game, the big play at the big moment, leadership et al – has been his durability and longevity, especially given his willingness to put his body on the line.

He has played in every championship since his debut in 2000 bar 2012, which he missed after undergoing shoulder surgery. He is the tournament’s all-time record try scorer in history with 26, and is within three of equalling Ronan O’Gara’s championship record of 63 caps, as he is of equalling George Gregan’s record (139) as the most capped player of all time in international rugby with 136 Tests.

Of those 60 appearances in the Six Nations, O’Driscoll has a win-draw-loss record of 41-1-18 (equating to a winning ratio of 69.5 per cent), and with a winning ratio against all bar France (4-1-6). Against England, his win-draw-loss record is 8-0-4, while it is 9-0-4 v Wales, 9-0-3 v Scotland and 11-0-1 against Italy.

The 26 tries have been liberally dispersed as well, with seven coming against Wales, six against France, five each against Scotland and Italy, and three against England. He has captained in eight campaigns and 36 games, incorporating the 2009 Grand Slam, as well as the Triple Crowns of 2004, ’06 and ’07.

However, of course, in addition to the remarkable array of statistics have been the countless memories and moments which have set him apart as Ireland’s greatest rugby player.

To pick out one is well-nigh impossible, and it says everything about the great one that there are plenty of others to choose from outside of this selection.

Nora Stapleton is outhalf on the Irish women’s Grand Slam-winning team, and has won 18 caps.

“I’d probably go for the hat-trick in 2000 in Paris, especially the last try when Peter Stringer was tackled as he was passing and O’Driscoll picked up the ball at speed to slice through and score.

“It’s difficult enough for these lads to bend down and pick up at speed and not even break stride. It was as if everyone else stood still and then Emile Ntamack couldn’t lay a hand on him.”

“He’d scored his first off Malcolm O’Kelly’s pass and the second was off an inside pop by Rob Henderson. They were all very different tries, and he still had to do a lot of work to do.

“That third try was pure reactive skill. It was almost as if he had already guessed the ball was going to go to ground; just the awareness and the vision.”

“He was still only 21 at the time and to score three tries in a Six Nations game, not many people do that, least of all in Paris. Ireland hadn’t won there since 1972.

“He became Irish rugby’s first real superstar that day and with the amount of tries he has scored, to get five in your first Six Nations and three in your first game in Paris at 21 is definitely the way to go.”

“I was a teenager then, living in Donegal, and watched it in a neighbour’s house. That was when rugby took off as a sport in Ireland and I started to find out more about it. A couple of my friends, who were boys, were playing rugby and that’s when I started to get more interested.

“I played a lot of soccer and GAA, and had always shied away from rugby, but ever since my first training session I was hooked.”

“The way Brian O’Driscoll played and the number of tries he scored, just his attitude on the pitch, was something a lot of people looked up to. He helped to change rugby in Ireland.”

Shane Horgan capped 65 times by Ireland, played for 12 seasons with O’Driscoll at Leinster and for nine Six Nations campaigns

“The memories are a bit blurred now but I do remember quite clearly the hat-trick he scored at home to Scotland in 2002. He had scored the hat-trick against France which had set him into the stratosphere two years before. Nothing like that had really been done in the Six Nations and it was crazy because he was so young, but there was still almost a feeling that it was a one-off. For me, what was even more impressive was to get another hat-trick two years later. This was a guy who could completely dominate games. Here was a guy who could be the difference between us winning or losing games on his own. He scored early on off a set scrum move, and completed his hat-trick near the end off another strike move when the defence drifted onto the outside runners and he straightened through, but I particularly remember his second, a long run-in off an intercept at the end of the first-half. They were attacking in our 22 when their fullback, Brendan Laney, couldn’t hold on to a high pass from Bryan Redpath, and Brian nipped in front of the Scottish centre Andrew Henderson, scooping up the ball as it hit the ground without breaking stride.

“He was gone before anyone had reacted, and I have a vague memory of myself and Denis (Hickie) laughing because his head was so far back, as it was a long run-in.

“To be able to do it once, you could put it down to luck, but to do it twice within a couple of years, was remarkable. During that game he picked up another ball off the ground and switched from the open side to the narrow side and cut through a swarm of players, and the crowd just gasped. He also set up a try for myself that day with a brilliant catch and pass out of traffic. He demolished them by himself that day. He was untouchable. It showed he wasn’t going anywhere, and that this was someone who was going to dominate the Irish rugby landscape for a long time.”

Ruby Walsh
National Hunt jockey, who has ridden over 2300 winners, including 32 at Cheltenham, two Gold Cups, two Aintree Grand Nationals. He is an eight-time Irish champion jockey.

“March 21st, 2009, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. I happened to be there. I played rugby in Naas as a kid and always loved it. I played scrumhalf, and I couldn’t even pass off my left. I was an excuse of a scrumhalf, thinking I was great, but I go to as many games as I can.

“At the end of the day, all great players are judged on what they have won. That was the day they won the Grand Slam, and he scored. To define Brian O’Driscoll in one moment is a huge question and he scored some spectacular tries, but what sets him apart is that he could have been a scrumhalf, he could have been a hooker, he could have been a backrow forward, he plays at centre and it was a try which a number eight would have scored. It wasn’t a try which an outside centre should have scored, but it was typical of Brian O’Driscoll.

“You’d think he smelt blood, and he was at the back of a ruck where a number eight should have been. I was at the end of the stadium and watching it you’re thinking ‘why is he wandering in there?’

“That should have been the wing-forward or number eight, but it wasn’t, it was the second centre.

“He should have been out there fixing his hair, but he wasn’t. He shouldn’t have been there, but no-one ever questioned O’Driscoll because he always did the right thing at the right time, and never more than at that moment on that day.

“Many outstanding careers would have been incomplete without that day – Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell and a lot of other wonderful players. It was a great era for Irish rugby and they all had their finest moment on the same day, and led by the best of them all.”

Eddie Butler
the 16-times capped Welsh number eight, is a journalist and broadcaster.

“My favourite moment would be his pass for Simon Zebo’s try, in the first-half of Wales against Ireland, last year at the Millennium Stadium. We’ve elevated him so often as the centre that he was in his early days, to the extra wing-forward that he became in his latter days, and in this moment in his twilight years he gave a glimpse of the combination of the two. And it was just a sublime pass. It had vision. It had execution. It was just a thing of beauty, and it meant that he wasn’t the scorer, he was the provider, and I liked that. He is Ireland’s record try scorer, and the Six Nations’ record try scorer, but he’s also done so much more than that. He was the complete package.

“Everyone says ‘Ireland’s greatest player’. I’ve got a thing about Mike Gibson. I would think that there might be a contest there, but he’s up there with the genuine stars and to see him complement a little flourish on the portfolio I thought was exceptional.

“In a way I think what I admire about him the most is his adaptability; to go on for so long when your body takes such a battering and to be able to go from somebody with such pace and with such balance and such footwork, to more of a workhorse.

“When the new laws came in about the tackle area he was the first to be able to stay on his feet, using the newly formed muscles in his thighs to say ‘I am not moving here’.

“ So he was a conservatory that became an outhouse, and I like that. It’s not just a physical exercise, it’s a mental exercise as well. He was thinking ‘how am I going to survive and prosper in this game as it moves on? And I’m not going to be caught lagging. I’m going to make the move to be ahead of it. Because actually injuries will drag me behind, but my mind will always be working.’ And maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s just his intelligence out there that set him apart as much as anything else, and that’s also why I liked that pass so much.”

Matt Williams
O’Driscoll’s first backs’ coach with Leinster in the 1999-2000 season, he was then Leinster’s head coach for three seasons until taking up the offer of Scottish head coach in 2003.

“When Ireland won a Grand Slam in the Six Nations of 2009, Brian O’Driscoll’s talents were displayed at their zenith. Brian was the dominant player in every game of 2009. It was an extraordinary performance spanning the entire championship.

“In 2009 we witnessed Brian as the relentless defender, the sparkling, agile attacker, the fearless poacher of the ruck ball and the leader of immense knowledge. He displayed to the world that he was the complete player.

“From a ringside seat I witnessed his journey, from a raw talent at Leinster, to the greatest player Ireland has ever seen.

“It was even more extraordinary to witness, as I knew the huge workload Brian had shouldered to drive himself, his team and Irish rugby to the point where it could win a major championship.

“More than any other person it is Brian who drove the cultural change in Irish rugby that lead to the Grand Slam. Brian is no shrinking violet, his opinions are strong. He demanded excellence from every corner of Irish rugby and he got it. He was the leader. This was his opportunity and he was not going to let it slip by.

“There are the “soft” statistics that display how Brian dominated one of Ireland’s greatest sporting moments. A try in four of the five games and winning the player of the series. These statistics do not tell the story of Brian’s inspirational bravery.

“Brian’s try against Wales from the base of a ruck, through a forest of flaying boots and bodies personified his commitment. To quote Paul O’Connell, ‘what a lot of balls from Drico to show up and score that try. That was a massive try’.

“While Paul and Ronan were also giants in 2009, without Brian there would have been no Grand Slam. We will never see the likes of him again.”

Gordon D’Arcy, capped 75 times by Ireland, holds the world record for a midfield partnership at international level with 52 tests alongside O’Driscoll.

“I could pick out so many things he did on the pitch but my favourite is him lifting the trophy at the Millennium Stadium in 2009. We had been nearly men for so many years, like that anxious wait in Italy in 2007 when we lost out on the championship by a try to France. For Brian as our captain, not having any silverware up until that point, not even a Heineken Cup at that stage, to see him lifting the trophy was a special moment.”

“He was our talisman. We’ve had a lot of very influential players but Brian was the main focal point of Irish rugby. For him to go through his whole career and not lift a major trophy would have left his career unfulfilled. I would have looked at my career and reflected: ‘Damn, I wanted to win trophies.’ But he was the guy, as captain, who had to explain to the media why you’re not winning trophies. That moment, seeing Brian lifting the trophy, would have resonated with us and with the whole country as well.”

“You’re captained by a variety of different people and every one of them is unique in their own little ways. I think what you see with Brian is what you get. People always talk about his unbelievable resilience on the pitch and his ability to keep getting up and keep fighting when he looks down and out, he does something particularly important or calming in that moment, and that’s what players respond to. Some captains almost talk a good game but main not deliver whereas Brian says very little, but delivers in the most important games and on the most important stages. You always talk about the player that you’d go into battle with, and Brian would be the first guy on your teamsheet.”

Ronan O’Gara, who, like O’Driscoll, won 128 caps for Ireland.

“I would say his preparation for the England game at Croke Park in 2007. Brian was more an action man than a speaker but when he did speak sometimes it was really powerful, and he was very aware of the significance and history attached to the game, and what it meant to the people of Ireland. I just thought he set a really good tone in everything he said that week in terms of, I suppose, controlled mayhem.”

“We could have been emotionally over-pitched for that game but we were absolutely spot on and essentially that’s down to the tone set by the captain. I think with all great victories it’s due to week long preparation. You’re intense on the Monday and Tuesday, and you’re able to go for a cup of tea and an apple tart on the Wednesday, and a bit of down time and then back in and build it up again for the Saturday. That wasn’t a rugby match; that was a statement for our country.”

“He was a great captain as well as a great player. People outside would have no idea of the amount of work involved in captaincy; he’s constantly expected to speak, to lead, to attend every press conference and every photo call. It’s a lot of work and Brian was happy to do that, tirelessly, but there is only a certain amount of people who can do that. He’s the greatest back I’ve played with. I’d probably have a similar opinion on Paul for the forwards. I was very lucky that they were my two leaders. I couldn’t have played at a better time. As well as the skill level, and the X factor, but he had the appetite to get the better of his opposite man. Brian is just a warrior.”

My moment

Gerry Thornley, rugby correspondent of The Irish Times.

“A personal favourite would be about half an hour or so after the Grand Slam win in the Millennium Stadium, in the low-roofed post-match conference room along the never-ending corridor in the bowels of the stand along from the dressing-rooms.

“O’Driscoll arrived alongside Declan Kidney with the Six Nations trophy, placing it beside him on the table, and you’d guess it rarely left his side that night. He has rarely looked so content. It was his and the golden generation’s valedictory moment, without which his and their careers would have been incomplete.

“To pick out one moment on the pitch it would be the third leg of the Slam against England at the Aviva. Although Ireland were winning the collisions and the territory, Ronan O’Gara had, unusually, missed three penalties. An O’Driscoll intercept had led to O’Gara’s sole first-half success, and the captain then landed his only Six Nations drop goal before he was poleaxed by Delon Armitage’s late hit. While O’Driscoll was receiving treatment, O’Gara and Paul O’Connell opted for the corner. England looked as if they wished Ireland had taken the kick at goal.

“Two more penalties followed, Phil Vickery was binned, and after opting for a scrum, Jamie Heaslip tapped. Five more close-in surges by the forwards were repelled as O’Driscoll, back on his feet and brave to a fault, hovered. He stood one off from Tomás O’Leary and he was charging low for the ground as he received the ball to score under Nick Kennedy and Julian White. There was to be no stopping him or Ireland that day.

“O’Connell once said of O’Driscoll that it was rare for a team’s star turn, the go-to man for the big play, to also be the first player you’d want in the trenches. That moment encapsulated what O’Connell meant.”

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