Ireland to do it for that bloke O’Driscoll

Iconic centre will break George Gregan’s 139-cap Test record today

Brian O'Driscoll is cheered off the pitch as he plays his last home game for Ireland at the AVIVA stadium


Never has an Ireland-Italy game carried such resonance or importance or poignancy or impending sense of celebration. Yet when some bloke called Brian O’Driscoll sauntered out grandly if tardily for the squad photo at the Aviva yesterday, he was greeted with a round of mocking applause from his team-mates. The grand gestures for his farewell home test can wait until after the business is completed, and as ever with him it’s all about team Ireland and the result.

There is the added distraction of chasing points in the knowledge that if Ireland are to win the title by completing the job in Paris next Saturday, but ala marking the day in fitting fashion, there has to no need to mention this. It is understood.

“I suppose the fairytale would be nice. I mean, you’re probably not human if you can’t relate to that,” admitted Jamie Heaslip yesterday.

“It would be a nice story. I think it would be an even nicer story if we were going over to France and winning the Six Nations where, I suppose, he (O’Driscoll) landed. I think that’s a nicer story and Mick (Kearney) addressed it really nicely saying it was like a semi-final for us, and that’s why there’s no point in thinking about points difference to be honest.

‘Play to win’
“So let’s just worry about wining and playing our gameplan and if it evolves and happens like Kissy (Les Kiss) was talking about and we get opportunities, we take them, but otherwise we play to win. But yea, the romantic in me thinks it would be a nice story obviously to send him off.”

Unfortunately, but helpfully, O’Driscoll’s totemic counterpart for the Azzurri is missing, and Sergio Parisse’s omission with a back problem does suggest that Jacques Brunel prefers him to play at home to England next Saturday, perhaps with entreaties from Stade Francais. Aside from missing his phenomenal carrying and skills set, this maybe sends out a subliminal message to the rest of the squad that the English game in the Olimpico, sold out early last week, has been prioritised. Alessandro Zanni, who has been living in Parisse’s shadow but he is also a fine footballer, is also injured.

Roberto Barbieri is a good footballer too, whose sharpeness off the base and offloading skills Heaslip highlighted, and he may be inspired by inheriting the number eight jersey, but Italy have been denuded their first-choice backrow, and their influence is generally the team’s focal point.

Tito Tibaldi, whose strength is his kicking game, has also been parachuted in for his first game after being cast adrift by Nick Mallett four years ago for the jettisoned Tobias Botes, who has looked their best scrumhalf. Admittedly Edoardo Gori has often tended to perform better off the bench but it’s a curious call.

More understandably, Brunel has also temporarily aborted his investment in Tommasso Allan. Like Allan, Luciano Orquera is a resolute member of the non-tackling school of outhalves, but he is a wilier operator and more dependable goalkicker, who can line up a mismatch against a frontrower, albeit he has always tended to perform better at home than away.

Festering doubts
Viewed in light of all this, an early breakthrough or two would be no harm in festering doubts in the Italian psyche. But failing that, and Kiss even warned this could be one of those three-all games at half-time, home team and crowd alike may have to be patient.

Marco Bortolami yesterday spoke of his team having “nothing to lose”, of trying to “destroy” the confidence Ireland bring into the game with a good start and strength in their set-pieces and in defence. They have a much more aggressive defensive line speed, but they are also flexible in how they adapt and vary the numbers they keep back, which the Irish Brains Trust are conscious of.

Italy have had 60 per cent or more of both territory and possession in their last two games, and the return of Bortolami, along with Josh Furno moving to blindside, should avoid the hiccups of the first half-hour against Scotland, until when they had the best lineout in the tournament.

Ultimately though, you sense this game is more about Ireland. The starting point, as ever with Italy, will be hugely physical, but Ireland won’t want to become embroiled in an arm wrestle, and will want to inject the game with as much tempo as possible.

After two weeks to stew over the Twickenham defeat, they should be well primed, and after a slightly off-colour game by the exalted standards of the best outhalf in the northern hemisphere, no one more so than Johnny Sexton.

In the heel of the hunt, this weekend could have a decisive bearing on this fascinating Six Nations. In that regard, quite simply the bigger an Irish win the better, and while better can come next Saturday in Paris, there will never be a more celebratory send-off than this one. That could invest this occasion and Irish performance with a unique, and inspiring, emotional charge. Imagine the psychic energy if he scored?

There are distractions afoot, but there is also motivation aplenty.