You’ve never spoken to him. In fact, you’ve even met him but still, you’ve known him for so long that it feels as though he is part of the furniture.
When Brian O’Driscoll first became part of Irish life, scoring three tries in Paris during March of 2000, it was early in the millennium and Ireland was roaring with new-found confidence and belief that came from, well, no one was quite sure where from. And here was this Dublin youngster; this kid, in a baggy jersey kind of issuing payback for decades of French hauteur and of Irish rugby visits to Paris that existed somewhere between fear and resignation and a maybe it won’t be too bad fatalism.
Two years earlier, when Denis Hickie intercepted a loose French pass and ran along the tramline for glory, it felt as if some unwritten hex had been broken. Especially to those who had begun to believe that the notion of an Irish team crossing the French try line in Paris was somehow impossible. But Ireland lost that day and finished that year in a familiar place: bottom of the Five Nations table with no victories. There was a limit to wonder.
Then O’Driscoll entered the scene. Even now, when you look back at O’Driscoll scoring that trio of tries – and in particular the indescribably perfect pick-up at speed, the clean, waving lines through two stricken French fullbacks – you can see that he wasn’t even all that surprised to be doing what he was doing.
This was the beginning. Ireland holds its sporting heroes in high esteem and that was the start of a national love affair with a rugby player who was out-and-out tough, a pure magician with really good manners.
Maybe the greatest
Ireland has had world-class rugby players before and in the years ahead O'Driscoll will become part of the conversation that can never be proven: who was the greatest ever
? It hardly matters. All that mattered to those who followed O'Driscoll for the last 14 years is that whenever he stepped on to a rugby field with Leinster, Ireland or the Lions, he brought with him the sense that anything was possible.
He wasn’t alone, coming through with a generation of exceptionally talented players. But he was the most extravagantly gifted player in his group and, it emerged in the following years, among the very best in the world game. And even for Irish people with only the faintest interest in rugby or sport, that splendour was something to celebrate. Fourteen years is a long time and O’Driscoll’s years of committed brilliance coincided with extraordinary social changes in Ireland, from the vanity and floods of money of those first eight years of the millennium to the chastening years afterwards. Through the craziness and the trauma, O’Driscoll just turned up and did his thing, winter after winter.
Apart from the occasional appearance on television chat shows, you never much heard from him after that. There was surely something comforting in his reliability. Yes, he was handsomely paid and had terrific endorsements and by his own acknowledgement lived a privileged life. In that sense, he was the embodiment of the new professional. But at heart and in combat he was old school.
Even when the laughable speed he possessed over the first five metres began to fade, you could see him adapt and tailor his game accordingly, keeping defences honest with little fly-kicks through pockets of space. Or setting up others with the outrageous blink-of-an-eye passes which will in time be celebrated as much as the tries or just doing what he always did best: tackle like a demon.
So it may well be harder for the public than for O’Driscoll to come to terms with the fact that all of that is coming to an end. There has been an elegiac note about this week and the handkerchiefs will be out in force around Lansdowne Road. All week long the Irish players and O’Driscoll seem a little unsure about how to handle what will be a layered day.
Last 80 minutes in green
There is the ceremonial aspect of his becoming the most capped international in the history of the game, a staggering achievement gilded by the fact that this is the last time he will play for Ireland in Dublin. For those with tickets for tomorrow's game, that is the occasion. They will be among the lucky few to see O'Driscoll's last
80 minutes in green. But for man himself and the team, sentiment is for outsiders.
It is something to be feared lest the Italians take advantage of the distraction and the conflicting emotions floating around the stadium. There is a match to be won. And today should be about the celebration of a brilliant sporting life.
The argument that Ireland should have won more than one Grand Slam in O’Driscoll’s time misses the point of what he was about.
It should be remembered that Ireland could have easily have lost that 2009 Slam as well except for Ronan O’Gara’s outrageous drop goal. No, it wasn’t about the Triple Crowns or the slams, fun as they were. It was about changing the way the Irish rugby team was regarded – -at home and abroad.
On RTÉ Radio 1 yesterday morning, Will Carling was among those who paid tribute to the splendour of his play, instantly casting minds back to that black time in the early 1990s when England didn’t so much play Ireland as brush them aside.
Carling was debonair, capable and confident; the natural captain of England. Ireland had players then but seemed to lurch from crisis to crisis, which is why the 1993 and 1994 wins against England stand out in the memory.
They were precious precisely because they were so unexpected. When O’Driscoll was in his pomp, Irish teams expected to win and the fear of playing the best teams in the world – let alone in Europe – became a thing of the past. That is his legacy as he takes a final bow in Dublin. So if you are going to the Aviva stadium today, just don’t lose the ticket stub.
Occasion to savour
Take a look around at the glass arena and remember, if you can, the old place
– the great, hulking stadium and a place of ghosts – that was there when O'Driscoll played his first Six Nations season for Ireland.
Get there early and make sure the seats are filled when the teams come out and enjoy the occasion: March 8th 2014. It will be a date worth remembering and you might just get to see another glimpse or two of spontaneous magic and you might well get to see another Irish victory. Moreover, whenever you see the number 13 with the ball, remember: you are watching what greatness is all about.
Enjoy the ovation and give the kid everything you’ve got. He deserves it.