Subscriber OnlyRugby

Brian O’Driscoll: ‘The Tana thing is all fine now, it dragged out too long’

The former Lions captain looks back on the highs and lows of his days in the famous red jersey

These have been grim times for everybody, but some people had the good fortune to cope with the various lockdowns better than others. For young parents, and particularly fathers, to be afforded more quality time rearing young children made adapting to the new abnormal easier. Even enjoyable.

Brian O’Driscoll admits he falls into this category. For starters life could slow down a little. “It did feel like I was on a little bit of a hamster wheel. I was travelling an awful lot. It was ‘next thing’, ‘next thing’, ‘next thing’.

“So to be able step away from it, and not have to do an awful lot of work, particularly events, meant you could switch off a little. Being around on weekends, doing stuff with my kids, get my smoker up on a Sunday, that all felt novel for a while.

“I really enjoyed spending quality time with our kids. Now the home schooling was torture at times. But other than that it was all good, although after a while that novelty wears off. But definitely there were nice aspects to being at home and not feel like you’re chasing your tail.”


As well as Billy (eight) and Sadie (six), O’Driscoll and wife Amy brought a third child, Ted, into the world five months ago.

“We found out about Ted two weeks into the first lockdown, so to have the excitement of that, then his arrival and now the last five months, has been a huge distraction from the pandemic too.”

The arrival of a third kid and full-time parenting also filled the void created in Amy’s acting career, albeit she loves her work.

“With Sadie she was filming when six months pregnant, and she always has things going on in the background, but with regard to acting she didn’t really work for a year. She always gets itchy feet. She has a working mentality and she loves it and I think she needs it.”

O'Driscoll is cut from a similar cloth. There's his punditry and his business interests, such as setting up a production company with his Blackrock College/BT Sport sidekick Craig Doyle.

O’Driscoll takes his punditry seriously. He does his homework, doesn’t have his agendas or try to promote himself. In a new role, he will be a radio co-commentator with Newstalk during the Lions’ Test series.

A four-time tourist, and a Land Rover ambassador, the Lions have been a huge part of O'Driscoll's life for 20 years. They have given him some of his best and worst memories, but all on the biggest stage and he feels privileged for that.

Each had their own O'Driscoll storyline. Waltzing over the try line in the first Test in Brisbane. Suffering a dislocated shoulder from 'Speargate' when captain. Leaving everything out on the pitch to such an extent that he knocked himself out of the second Test in South Africa. And being dropped for the only time in his career on his final tour. He didn't do quiet.

“I’d much rather have been on that tour and dropped than not have been on that tour at all, because it was still a great experience. You learn a lot about yourself as well when you’re dropped, and understanding whether you’re the person you thought you were and dealing with the disappointment. No one gets a bed of roses their whole life.”

Aged 22 on the 2001 expedition to Australia, O'Driscoll had already announced himself with his hat-trick in Paris. But his virtuoso solo try in the first Test at the Gabba made him the biggest star in the game globally.

"People from the UK and Ireland, particularly non-Irish supporters, come up to me and say: 'I was there that day.' At the time I thought: 'I've broken the front line, I've had a good step against Matt Burke and I've had the gas to go in.' Living in that moment, you're thinking more of the impact it would have on the overall game."

For the record, it extended the Lions' lead to 19-3 at the start of the second half en route to a 29-13 win. Thereafter, it was the soundtrack of the tour. Sitting outside a cafe on a sunny afternoon in Melbourne during the week of the second Test, and hearing Waltzing O'Driscoll, adapted from Waltzing Matilda, and what looked and sounded like a quasi-Barmy Army from England, was surreal. Complete with synchronized hand movements.

“That stuff I find really nuts. I remember my folks telling me that after the first Test they got a bus back to their hotel in Brisbane and everyone started singing Waltzing O’Driscoll. They jst looked at each other and laughed. ‘This is our son these English and Welsh supporters are singing about’.”

Alas, one that got away.

The Lions led 11-6 at half-time in Melbourne before the Wallabies, then world champions, levelled when Joe Roff intercepted Jonny Wilkinson's pass and roared back to take the series to a decider, which they won in Sydney where 83,000 filled Stadium Australia.

The Lions had chances at 23-all after Danny Herbert was binned for a high hit on O'Driscoll, and even after two Burke penalties inched the Wallabies ahead, the series came down to the final play, when Justin Harrison beat Martin Johnson to the game's final throw.

Reflecting on those “winnable” second and third Tests, O’Driscoll recalls Roff’s intercept and his own knock-on in a move called ‘world-class” while Herbert was in the bin.

"I play that one over a little in my head. I might have got the ball to Jason Robinson in a one-on-one with Chris Latham and we saw what Jason did in that situation in the first five minutes of the first Test."

Four years later, Clive Woodward nominated O'Driscoll as captain of a 45-man squad for the ill-fated tour to New Zealand. There was also a separate coaching ticket for the midweek games.

O’Driscoll had led Ireland 22 times but he was still only 26. That was a little wild too.

“I was undercooked for it to be honest. I didn’t have enough experience to properly do it. I was still learning on the hoof. I think it probably came a tour too soon for me to fully appreciate the magnitude of what was involved.

“On top of that, it was a very different tour from other tours, the way it was split into two, so that probably didn’t help me in pulling it all together. I learned a lot about myself, my captaincy and how you behave on tour.”

By comparison, Lawrence Dallaglio was 32, had regained the England captaincy from Martin Johnson, was a World Cup winner and had started all three Lions Tests in South Africa.

“He might have been better experienced to deal with all of what was going on during that tour,” O’Driscoll admits. “Nonetheless it was a very proud moment for me to be named as a Lions captain.”

In the event, Dallaglio fractured his ankle in the opening game against the Bay of Plenty while O'Driscoll's tour was ended two minutes into the first Test.

Time heals.

"The Tana [Umaga] thing is all fine now. It dragged out too long, that was put right and now we're all cool."

An abiding memory was of a forlorn O’Driscoll, his left arm in a sling, being wheeled out to the Irish travelling media days after Speargate, having already been put up for all and sundry previously.

The Alastair Campbell-led Lions PR machine made full use of their wounded young captain that week. O'Driscoll also remained on until the drawn-out, rain sodden final week in Auckland when the All Blacks completed their whitewash.

“I should have been gone the next day and when I got injured in 2009 I tried to get out of there as quickly as I could. I didn’t hang around for the third Test,” he says, in reference to the concussion he sustained in the second Test against South Africa four years later.

In hindsight, staying on in New Zealand was “a real error”.

“There’s no place for any injured player, captain or otherwise, to stay on. It’s pointless, because you feel like a spare tit and you can’t add any value. It’s impossible to be what you want to be because ultimately you’re a rugby player. We’re not cheerleaders.

"I remember collecting balls for Jonny Wilkinson after training with my arm in a sling, and he said: 'I can't actually concentrate here. Go away. Stop doing this'. Even the value I thought I was adding, I wasn't actually adding."

South Africa in ’09 was another one that got away. Falling 26-7 down after 50 minutes in the first Test, they took the Springboks to the wire before losing the second Test to a penalty from beyond halfway by Morné Steyn.

He vividly recalls other missed opportunities, such as Jamie Roberts taking out Jean de Villiers with a decoy run, from which Frans Steyn landed a penalty on half-time in the second Test.

“Those things are really important momentum swingers. Looking back, that had a big impact on that game.”

The 2013 tour was another mixed bag; part of a winning Test series but dropped for the decider.

“It was a very enjoyable tour but I think the quality of rugby we played in 2001 and 2009 was a lot better than in 2013. It wasn’t a good Wallabies team and we should have had that won in two Tests but didn’t close it out.

“Even when we lost the first two Tests in 2009, the rugby was gladiatorial whereas I don’t look back on the first two Tests in 2013 and think of any real standout moments other than George North’s try in the first Test, until the third Test when they wiped the floor with the Wallabies.”

Lions tours seem to bring out the inner child in the players. Ask O’Driscoll what makes Lions tours so special and he says: “The kit. Ah no, only joking.”

And yet there was something particularly special about receiving that bag of kit with his initials inscribed, even a fourth time. Most of all, there’s the standard of training every day.

“There’s so much to learn from Lions tours, so much to tweak and improve yourself, because you’ve got players at the very height of their capabilities in the international game.”

There’s also the bonding, the new friendships.

In 2009 he roomed with the Welsh scrumhalf Mike Phillips, one of a kind and not exactly lacking in self-confidence.

“I was thinking: ‘Christ, what’s this guy actually like? He comes across as an absolute twit on the pitch and now I’ve got three days with him!’ I walked into the room and within 90 seconds he’s asking me if I know Bono. I think he had just broken up with Duffy, the singer, and I was thinking ‘is that what I’ve got?’

“But I was quickly surprised by how much fun he is and what good energy he brings, and I built a good friendship with him. You only get that from hanging with people and just chewing the fat before going to bed. That’s what Lions tours are all about, getting to understand the people rather than the players.

“Phillsy is obviously very confident and he plays that slightly arrogant card, and he’s funny with it. A little bit of it is serious and a little bit is taking the piss. He’s well able to laugh at himself.”

His favourite tour? No hesitation here.

“Yeah, ’09. We had a great team bond, we had lots of fun and it was perfect for me because I was playing really well, I’d had two tours, I’d been captain, I wasn’t captain on that one, so the pressure was off. I could be a senior leader. I felt I was in the best shape I could be in and South Africa is a great country to tour. The balance was great.”

– Join Land Rover’s Lions Adventure this summer at and follow @LandRoverRugby