Trying times in the life of Brian O'Driscoll

 

Stardom, like silverware, has not been a feature of Irish rugby in recent years. But today, as Ireland take on Wales at Lansdowne Road, there is a new star in the football firmament. One commentator has said that if Brian O'Driscoll was a Hollywood actor he would be early Tom Cruise: impossibly young, reasonably good looking and destined for the top.

For the rugby illiterate (this reporter included) who wouldn't know Garryowen from Gary Owen, the name of this 21-year-old would have meant nothing just over two weeks ago. That was before Paris, when O'Driscoll, a player with 11 Irish caps, burst out of the confines of the rugby journals and on to the front pages of newspapers.

In Paris, where Ireland beat the French, O'Driscoll scored a hattrick of tries - a feat which, put in context, was truly incredible. The Irish team had not won there since 1972. In one match O'Driscoll, who plays at centre, equalled the number of tries scored by Irish players in Paris over the last two decades.

"Scoring in Paris as an Irishman is special," said Peter O'Reilly, sports journalist with The Sunday Tribune. "He comes along and scores three . . . he usurped Keith Wood as the person most associated with Irish rugby and he did it in the space of one weekend."

Stardom does not sit comfortably on O'Driscoll's not inconsiderable shoulders but the cash-making opportunities it brings should make his bank manager ecstatic.

He is said to be particularly embarrassed about the fuss over a hand signal he made after scoring two of his tries. The former Blackrock College student said the circular shape he made with his fingers was a private message to good friends, but it was interpreted by one tabloid as a secret sign of love to his girlfriend. The story was carried on the front page of the Irish Mirror alongside a news item revealing that Madonna was pregnant. A reluctant star was born.

The last two weeks have been a test of O'Driscoll's abilities to handle pressure off the field: he has been besieged by journalists and mobbed by rugby-mad schoolboys.

On Wednesday he refused requests from English journalists for a five-minute interview. The manager of the Irish team, Donal Lenihan, said that the young player has "stepped back a bit from the press".

"He is certainly very calm about the whole thing. . . he wants to focus on the match after all the attention last week. By and large people are being understanding of this." The manager has dubbed him Steve Silvermint because he is such a cool customer.

For their part, journalists are deciding if O'Driscoll's behaviour is that of a young man getting used to fame or the calculating action of someone who knows his worth. "We are trying to figure out if he is shellshocked from being love-bombed after Paris or whether he is going for exclusivity," said one observer.

Informed sources say he earns around £50,000 but that the IRFU may be forced to pay him at least three times that to ensure he stays in Ireland. Since Paris, four agents have reportedly contacted him and interest has come from English clubs, including London Irish.

For the moment his father, a GP, is handling his affairs. Frank O'Driscoll toured Argentina with Ireland in 1970, when the IRFU did not award touring caps (Ireland lost the two test matches in which he played). O'Driscoll senior is said to want his talented son to stay in Ireland.

His parents will go to any lengths to see him play. Last year they considered renting a helicopter from Bristol to a match in Wales after travel plans went wrong. In the end they forked out £120 for a taxi. The stakes are higher now. "Paris was the end of the honeymoon," said Tom English of the Sunday Times, who interviewed O'Driscoll recently. ". . .No team will underestimate him again, they will make special plans and try to stop him, the same way they take notice of Keith Wood."

With O'Driscoll now a marked man, the Irish team may use him as a decoy in the same way soccer wunderkind Michael Owen is used by Liverpool. Either way, those who have even scant interest in the game will be watching O'Driscoll closely, although even his most ardent supporters view it as extremely unlikely that he will be able repeat the extraordinary performance in Paris.

Whatever the score today, O'Driscoll has been part of an about-turn in the fortunes of Irish rugby. Last October the squad were knocked out of the World Cup and a severe trouncing by England in Twickenham followed. It was the first time Ireland had been beaten by a 50point margin in the International Championship.

Subsequently, Ireland beat Scotland, Italy and France, instilling a new confidence in a team that had gotten used to handling the wooden spoon.

The middleclass preserve of Irish schools rugby is satirised in a recently published book, The Miseducation of Ross O'Carroll-Kelly by Paul Howard. Ross talks Dortspeak, calls Northsiders skangers, and finishes most sentences with like totally. He is obsessed with designer clobber and has utter contempt for his parents, who are "total spas". TOTALLY.

"Brian is the exact opposite of Ross," said one source close to the player. "He is a genuinely nice guy and he does not fit the stereotypical image of the spoilt southsider."

But like Ross, O'Driscoll was educated at Blackrock College where he excelled at the game, despite not being as big as some of his peers, and won a senior cup medal in his fifth year, albeit on the bench. The team lost in the semi-final the following year.

On leaving school he studied for a sports management diploma at UCD, helping the college rugby team to go from division three to division two in the All-Ireland League before he was recruited by the Blackrock rugby club.

Last summer he was picked to tour Australia with the Irish squad and played his first test. He had not yet played for his province.

Donal Lenihan said that he was noticed by the older players as soon as they began training with him: "It was obvious there was a special talent. . .some of guys were asking: `Who is this young fella?' "

Already he is being compared to Mike Gibson, the legendary Irish centre. Experts say O'Driscoll has everything, including speed, ball-handling skills and acceleration.

RTE sports reporter Ryle Nugent says he is the most talented back he has ever seen. "He is a hard tackler, has great hands and seems to be a complete footballer. . .he is spectacular," he says. But it would be wrong to expect too much from O'Driscoll today. "Pele didn't score in every game he played and nor did Mike Gibson."

O'Driscoll stands to become very wealthy in the near future as companies who want to be associated with the brightest star of Irish rugby throw big bucks at him for sponsoring this or appearing at that.

Already a mobile phone supplier has put up a million pounds for any Irish player who can score four tries today. It is a tempting carrot that O'Driscoll, who an acquaintance described as disciplined, hardworking and perfectionist, will find very difficult not to be distracted by.

What a total mare. Like, totally.