It’s a humdrum Wednesday evening in London’s suburbia and way too murky for the pilots descending into nearby Heathrow to observe in miniature the boys of Whitton rugby club putting themselves through their paces on the floodlit rugby field far below at The Reeves.
As it turns out, those paces aren't especially demanding but the turnout is strong. There's a special reason for this. Notionally speaking, we are on the stomping ground of Ali G but, in fact, Staines relocated to this determinedly functional patch of Hounslow in the 1960s and Staines rugby can justifiably plant the flag of St George at being the first club to put a ball in the hands of a young Lawrence Dallaglio back when rugby was still wedded to the Corinthian spirit and epic drinking yarns.
Tonight, Staines RFC is playing host to several of the game's walking gods from the amateur and professional eras. Martin Johnson is padding about the place; Gareth Edwards is here; Gavin Hastings pays a visit; and Brian O'Driscoll has come straight from the airport after attending a Laureus black-tie dinner in Monte Carlo the previous evening.
O’Driscoll has shed both tuxedo and the risqué white trainers in which he appeared on the red carpet. As a marketing idea, this gathering is pure gold: bring a group of Lions legends to a rugby field deep in Betjeman’s England and see them materialise through Ye Olde Gloaming to the delight of the ’umble yeomanry of the game.
So, at around half-past seven, O’Driscoll and Johnson accompany Lions coach Warren Gatland across the pitch to throw a ball about with a Whitton XV – or, more accurately XXVII and a few other blokes – and to have a chat with them. The players know that the visit is coming but still, when the heroes appear, all that’s missing is the cornfield and the excitement in their cheer is genuine.
Why not? How often are you going to get to fling a ball about on a damp midweek night with Martin Johnson? Having O’Driscoll show up at your Wednesday night run-around is a bit like having Daniel Day-Lewis pop into the town hall to offer a few tips on the local production of Hamlet.
The reason for their visit is to mark Land Rover’s sponsorship of the Lions tour to New Zealand, hence the Whitton players are kitted out in LR bibs and several prestige motors are parked close to the touchline – within range of the many, many photographic lens on hand to capture this meeting of rugby gods and rugby mortals.
For a few moments, O’Driscoll hangs back on the sideline and you are tempted to check if Gatland hasn’t gone and left him out again. But no: soon, he is out on the pitch throwing passes and then the players go into a huddle for a few words of advice. The Lions boys stay on field far longer than is necessary. It sounds like they are having fun.
The peculiar thing is that this is a side of rugby that O'Driscoll, in particular, never really knew. Fate and that blazing talent whipped him straight from schoolboy precocity into a supernova rugby life which ended in 2014 with a string of records, international tributes – including a nod from then US president Barack Obama – and a long, fond farewell at Lansdowne Road.
O’Driscoll’s experience of rugby holds nothing, besides the shape of the football, in common with the Staines lads, who are on this pitch for pleasure and for no acclaim and because it beats sitting on the sofa watching Eastenders. (When this theory is put to Martin Johnson his face folds into that magnificent frown. “Is Eastenders on on a Wednesday night?” he asks, genuinely baffled). O’Driscoll never had the chance to muck it, even if he had wanted to.
“Yeah, it’s funny because I was talking to those boys and I was asking them if they train twice a week,” he says when the coaching session is done and Hounslow has its curtains drawn for the night. “And they said, no . . . we train Wednesday and play Saturday. So I asked them if they play Saturday hung over.
"And they were saying ‘yeah, we drive by and pick up people from the pub, or the house’. We were having a laugh because their cardinal rule is no getting sick on the pitch. You have to at least make it off the pitch.
“And I was never in that environment. I never once played a game having had something to drink the night before. Never once. So I never even got a college taster for it or at under-20s. Which is fine! I’m not envious. Because I couldn’t think of anything worse than playing a game of rugby feeling unwell like that. Because I can’t . . . I can’t survive the day after having had a few scoops. And playing . . . doing physical exercise is the last thing on my mind.”
It’s after half-past eight now and O’Driscoll has done many, many interviews over long hours, rationed out and getting to know every corner of The Reeves clubhouse; standing in the bleak afternoon to cheerfully answer a blizzard of questions on the Lions; questions which will intensify as this year’s jamboree in New Zealand looms closer.
Tuesday night in Monte Carlo was haute cuisine: Wednesday evening in Staines is a (Land Rover-sponsored) burger-on-the-move between interviews and that was many hours ago. He hadn’t slept much on Tuesday night and would be up first thing on Thursday morning to fly home to Dublin.
What he doesn't yet know is how he or anyone else replaces the intensity and narcotic rush which comes with operating as a professional rugby at the elite level. Rugby is not like tennis or golf. You don't go play seniors. You simply stop.
By rights, he should hardly know his own name at this stage. But his demeanour, after hours at this lark, is what can only be described as unreasonably pleasant. He’s got to be starving – a cupcake, in a box, is placed in front of him for sustenance and although you invite him to tuck in he looks at the confectionary and shakes his head saying, with what might be a hint of sadness: “No. I won’t eat that.”
Part of the reason for sitting down with him is to try and discover how a rugby player lit with genius copes with the realisation that the sport is now behind him. The organisers have decreed that 30 minutes is ample time in which to grapple with the existential complexities of Being Drico, post rugby. But maybe the answer is right there in the official photographs from Monte Carlo which flew around the web, or in just watching him in action throughout this interminable media afternoon in Staines. He does stuff like this. He works at his media role, as a broadcast analyst with Newstalk and BT Sport. He enjoys his family life at home.
He gets on with it, in other words. What he doesn’t yet know is how he or anyone else replaces the intensity and narcotic rush which comes with operating as a professional at the elite level. Rugby is not like tennis or golf. You don’t go play seniors. You simply stop. And when you are Brian O’Driscoll –- when you’ve spent a decade existing on a plane that very few professional athletes get to know – replacing that can’t be easily done.
“That’s the million dollar question. I don’t think there is any replacing it. In a weird way, I don’t miss the rugby. Funny, I liked it out there tonight. But I don’t miss the rugby really. I don’t miss the collisions. I certainly don’t miss the fitness and all the hardship that comes with that. I can’t push myself any more in the training sessions that I do. I just can’t get to that dark place.”
Still, it's clear that O'Driscoll is doing something: if anything he is lighter than in his playing days and he's a far cry from Jake La Motta in the stand-up stage of his life. "I manage," he laughs. "I do pilates a couple of times and lift a couple of times a week. But I don't do a whole lot of cardio. I don't run, really. I did for a while. And I realised I hated it.
"I eat well. I’m pretty good that way. I did boxing for a while too . . . and that petered out. I need a reason to really get myself back into it. And I am afraid of what that is. Because it is not going to be a triathlon or not going to be a marathon . . . I dunno what it is going to be. I am open to anything. But I haven’t been gripped by the need to do anything yet. I don’t know whether that is coming or whether I am waiting in vain for it. But I am happy enough . . . I do feel when I train and I do miss that endorphin release . . . but obviously not all that much that I’m unhappy if I’m missing training .”
O’Driscoll retired after the 2014 season. He realises now that he felt the game – his game, which was in its essence a rare combination of frightening speed, limitless courage and unorthodox thinking – leaving his body before the rest of us saw it. Contrarily, even after he retired, he privately wondered if he could have squeezed another season out of it, particularly when the 2015 World Cup came around.
“I knew it was the right decision, but still have these questions. Could I have made it? It wasn’t: could I have made a difference? Because I thought Jared [Jared] was doing a really good job at 13 even though he was getting a lot of stick. It was more: yeah, could I have still done it at that level. I will never know. And I think I would have been chancing my arm a bit. Because the game was getting away from me. I didn’t have the juice in my legs any more.
"Where I could still see and read the game in a way I felt was quicker than most, I just couldn’t react to what the brain was thinking. And . . . the zip goes in your legs. And that was my game. And it is so frustrating when that happens. And it went . . . before the year I retired . . . even that Lions tour in 2013 . . . the real zip was gone for four years. And I managed to modify and change up my game, but then by the final year, I really knew.”
By then, watching O’Driscoll playing rugby was sometimes an uncomfortable experience for the rest of us. The glazed expression he sometimes wore after another heavy tackle, the moments when he was slow to rise from the grass or cradled his head for a moment like a man trying to shake off migraine were not fun to watch.
He gave so much joy and exhilaration to Irish sports fans over such a long period that it was a relief to see him getting out with a beaming grin on his face and daughter Sadie in his arms. His career wasn’t quite charmed – because man, he took some wallops – but he knows he was lucky to have enjoyed such a long run in a sport with a remorseless attrition rate.
Conversation turns to his first days as a rugby player in Blackrock College, when nothing was inevitable. Physically, he was a sprite and a fairly shy boy in a year of 200 kids. The celebrated Blackrock team of which he was a part would have had its 20th anniversary last year.
There is a parallel story which would have seen his school friend Ciáran Scally translate what was an exceptional teenage talent into a celebrated international career. O’Driscoll briefly served as understudy to Scally at scrumhalf in Blackrock, just a few short years before they would play for Ireland. But Scally was compromised by an early knee injury and was advised to quit professional sport just before his 21st birthday, having won four senior caps for Ireland. He was done even as his friend was about to explode over both hemispheres.
O’Driscoll is adamant that he was never introspective about his rugby life as it happened – “when you are involved, it is always the next fix or the next game. Even on summer holidays, I wasn’t one to reflect. It was just: ah, this is great, isn’t it” – but he admits that deep down he always knew that the ground beneath his feet was precarious.
“Yeah, that a little bit. I thought about how unfair that was. Skiddy [Scally] would have a lot of caps. He really would. He was class. And even when I was playing with him – we never got actually capped together – he sat on the bench for my first cap and the knee injury flared up after that.
"So I don’t even know if people saw the best of him because he carried that from school. And injury-free, he was class. He really was. Skiddy . . . is one of my best pals. He was groomsman at my wedding and he is probably one of two people I am friends with in my year. Which isn’t a lot out of 195. I find myself bumping into other people through my wife’s friends’ husbands and stuff.
“There are other contacts with guys in my year. But from my own point of view, I am friendly with two which . . . I am not someone who needs a million friends. And he dealt with all of that so well but he vanished from rugby for a while. I think you have to grieve that disappointment. I don’t know how I would have dealt with something like that. He got four caps so he had got a taste for it. And he is a smart guy, so he was able to survive that. But yeah, there is a huge element of chance and fortune to what you can achieve.
"Eoin O'Malley [the Leinster centre forced to retire in 2013 at age 25] too – did his cruciate getting hit in a tackle when he shouldn't have had the ball and that's . . . you can't recover from it. And who is to know that Eoin couldn't be in that Irish set-up now. There are people who are lucky and who are incredibly unlucky. I got my breaks, and I do think I took advantage of those, but also I look back now and think myself very lucky to be able to call it quits on my terms."
O'Driscoll and his wife, the actress and writer Amy Huberman, have two children now. Billy, their youngest, is two. Since marrying in 2010, the couple has managed to walk the fine line between lives in the public realm and normalcy. Last year, both contributed independently to 'An Irishman Abroad', the terrific series of podcasts hosted by the comedian Jarlath O'Regan.
O’Driscoll’s interview is further evidence of just how assured he has become as a public persona since his early days as Irish captain, while Huberman’s conversation is coloured with sharp comic timing and observation. O’Driscoll nods resignedly at the prospect of besting her with comebacks. “Ah no . . . like, the putdowns are gonna come. She is very, very funny.”
Before they met, he watched films and dramas for pure escapism but has become interested in the whole process. Huberman's most recent acting performance was in Striking Out, the RTÉ drama which was broadcast on Sunday nights through January. O'Driscoll posted a good luck message, noting he'd be watching it alone while his other half hid behind the couch.
But the volatility of the acting world makes professional rugby seem like a dull, reliable career choice in comparison. While he was being feted as the rising star in world rugby, Huberman was waitressing in London in between acting roles.
"You put yourself out there," he nods. "And auditions are ruthless. You get a tiny percentage of the roles you go for. So the vast majority of your experiences are of defeat. So to constantly put yourself up there . . . And sometimes they are not paying attention to you or looking at the next profile, so Amy tells me. There is a bit of that actually in La La Land. It is a brutal business and I do have huge respect for people willing to put their head on the block time and time again."
What it means is that that the routine of their life together is likely to be influenced by acting opportunities and projects which suddenly materialise.
“You have to react at the drop of a hat. We can’t plan anything in advance. Nothing. And that is the reality of the future of being married to an actress. We don’t plan holidays any more than a couple of weeks in advance – like, I have gone off on holidays with my family and the kids while Amy was working. She has to take roles as they come in.”
Which is a challenge but a privilege too: actors can still work, impervious to time. The role of their lives may come when they are 80-years-old. Brian O’Driscoll has already excelled at what will be his most lauded role: the Irish rugby virtuoso. The tricky thing about being a living legend is learning how to live ordinarily.
Over the course of the day and evening in Staines, O’Driscoll’s natural affability doesn’t fail him. In a way, you kind of want him to be a bit more reserved: to remember he’s Brian O’Driscoll. But there is a strong sense that he’d be genuinely mortified if he came across as being up himself.
I am sure that with every year that goes, you become less relevant. That is the reality of it. That is life. Everyone is replaceable. But that is okay too.
He nods quickly at the idea that as the winters pass, the vividness with which his rugby wizardry is remembered will lose a little sharpness and that the day will come when he can move through shopping aisles or airport terminals with less attention or notice.
“I am sure,” he says, leaning forward. There’s a knock on the door; O’Driscoll’s day in Staines is reaching its end.
“But I never battled with not having privacy,” he says as a parting thought. “Provided away from the cameras you don’t go looking for it . . . and I understand that a lot of what I do now necessitates the media so you can’t have your cake and eat it. But provided it is done in a nice manner when people are out and about and are pleasant and mannerly and don’t come up in the middle of you eating your spaghetti but ask afterwards, I have no problem with that. And I am sure that with every year that goes, you become less relevant. That is the reality of it. That is life. Everyone is replaceable.
“But that is okay too. I hope I’m not an egomaniac and that I will be craving it and wondering where it is gone. I do have a belief that when people are asking you for a picture or an autograph, it is a good thing because it means you are still relevant in their eyes. So I will never see that as a negative. And a lot of what I do now: I enjoy it.
"I am still in rugby circles and I suppose being on television means you are still relevant, or working on the sevens circuit which means you stay relevant in a different way, because you are talking about what is going on in rugby. You aren’t involved in it but you are talking about it. So . . . it is a lower version of relevance.
“And listen, I’m not in a hurry to shift it one way or the other. It is all good.”
*Land Rover is on the hunt for grassroots Lions to join them on the British & Irish Lions Tour to New Zealand 2017. For your chance to win a place on tour, go to @LandRoverRugby #WeDealInReal