Next chapter in the real life of Brian O’Driscoll
His new book closes the first half of his life, but Brian O’Driscoll has a lot to look forward to in the years ahead
‘What’s the secret to happiness?’
‘Realising unhappiness is also fleeting.’
Within three days of the separation Penguin had recruited Alan English, editor of The Limerick Leader, who will also produce Paul O’Connell’s tome.
This all happened as O’Driscoll was imploring his creaking body to finish, triumphantly, in the same city where his wondrous international rugby career first ignited 14 years previously.
And so it came to pass. Paris last March brought the curtain down on his sometimes miraculous, always compelling journey in the number 13 jersey.
One last thrust of Lug’s spear went into Munster ribs before a “mad, hectic summer” colluding with English delivering “The Test” to book shelves last Thursday.
Tuesday: Penguin Offices, St Stephen’s Green.
What happened with Paul Kimmage?
“We had a difference of opinion, a disagreement, and we thought for the betterment of the book it was decided that we would part company.”
Kimmage said it was an argument over an exclusive interview, is that it?
Really? Or was it a case of the three-year process being too drawn out?
“I don’t know. What he said was true. He felt his position was untenable, when not doing an exclusive interview and I had already promised it out to your colleague [rugby correspondent Gerry Thornley].
“I am a man of my word.”
Was that frustrating, considering the amount of work already done?
“Yeah, it’s far from ideal to work together for a couple of years with someone that has gotten to understand what way you are. And the big thing for someone like me is trying to get my voice across, and for the book to sound like me. When you have a second ghost come in and pick up the work done by the first he can’t get a sense of transcribed words, as to how they are delivered.
“It was difficult because we were in a speeded up process trying to get to know one another. Largely for him to get to know me.”
Trust has to develop very quickly? “It does. Alan had interviewed me once but he didn’t know me and that’s it. By the end he got a good sense of who I was and how I wanted to come across in situations.”
By the end O’Driscoll got the book he wanted.
His nickname isn’t Drico. Or Bod. It has been – and remains – Briano to friends. Or “Fat Head” to the tight-knit group who were around from the beginning.
“Fat head” is Ciarán Scally’s fault – the four times capped, freakishly talented scrumhalf whose career was cut short by a knee injury in 1999. It was meant to be a road O’Driscoll and Scally travelled together. Not for the last time, someone trailed in the wake on his exploration of rugby’s global landscape.
Almost everyone born in Ireland before 1990 has witnessed O’Driscoll’s rise and fall and rise again. This writer’s first glimpse of him was on a Willow Park pitch playing under-13s in September 1991. Draped in black with a silver fern on his chest, the thought occurred that it takes some stones to come training in full New Zealand gear.
A skilful outhalf, he was considered too small to make the Blackrock College junior cup team in 1994 – a polished fourth year named Neil O’Donovan wore 10. In fifth year, his talent demanded inclusion among the “Dream Team” reserves, a team that eventually produced four other internationals – Leo Cullen, Bob Casey, David Quinlan and Scally.
The following autumn Leinster schools coach John McClean shifted him to inside centre. A sports scholarship to UCD led to a glut of tries in AIL Division Three, coupled with selection for the Ireland under-21s, prompting Warren Gatland to invite him into the senior camp in December 1998.
“One of the biggest moments was surviving that first Irish training session with Ireland. I don’t think I have documented that. I remember feeling I wasn’t out of place, that I could match it with these physically superior specimens. I knew I still had time on my side to grow. I was only 19.”
A fearless 18-year-old called Gordon D’Arcy and Scally were also present.
“I remember thinking we are not as far away as we thought.”
And away he went. In November 2002, after Ireland beat Australia in a monsoon, while filing on deadline every word the Irish captain uttered, from a Portacabin under the old West Stand, I struggled to recognise the O’Driscoll I knew. He sounded different, serious and cautious.
That’s until he strolled past. “Howya Gav? How’s the reporting going?”
Briano was still in there but under the bright lights his alter ego, Drico, was born.
He explains this process in the book: “Once you let your guard down in any kind of interview, once you fall into conversational mode, more than likely there’ll be trouble round the bend.
“You get hammered for being bland . . . you’re never far from a serious error. And there’s no benefit in throwing out headline remarks unless you want the headlines.
“So you switch into character, you become a slightly different person. You do your best to give journalists something they can work with, but you stay in control – remembering that your fellow players will be reading what you’re saying. And when you do it often enough, for long enough, that persona is what 99 per cent of people put you down as.
“Careful. Safe. The stereotypical southside Dublin rugby jock.”
O’Driscoll, the interviewee, interjects: “I don’t think I created [that character]. I think it was created because of my schooling . . . ”
But you played it safe?
“When you are captain you are never speaking for yourself. I was there to speak on behalf of the team.”
Do you regret not trusting your own inherent decency?
“No. I was trying to find my feet as a 23-year-old Irish captain.”
But that meant the public never got a genuine sense of what you were really like?
“They are getting to find out now. I don’t care that people thought I was one way for my whole career because now that I am not attached to a team I can have my own opinion, I can have my own voice. I can link myself to my own thought process rather than a generic message most teams try to get across.”
We protest, citing the lack of transparency in Irish sport, particularly with Leinster rugby, Kilkenny hurling and Dublin football; their drip-feeding of occasionally truthful information.
“Why would you let everyone know what you are going to do at the weekend? Rugby is a game of secrecy. Afterwards, depending on the result, you can be very honest or pretty honest.”
His potentially career-ending neck fusion operation in October 2011 is a good example of keeping his cards close to his chest. He didn’t want to “alarm” the “mothers of rugby-playing kids” but the details of the procedure are liable to petrify them now.
“I think a book is a better time to be honest. I didn’t want to alarm them while I was still playing. Maybe I’m –what’s the word? – contradicting myself a little bit but people want a fair reflection and I am trying to do that in the book. You have to be honest but there is no time for that brutal honestly, not during my playing days.”
The operation was a success as O’Driscoll dragged two more seasons out of his body.
The book takes a unique turn when O’Driscoll’s largely unknown story of loss and imprisonment is revealed. Barry Twomey, a close friend and former house mate, committed suicide in May 2008. O’Driscoll was away with Ireland and recalls collapsing to the ground when Shane Horgan told him.
Twomey is a constant presence throughout the book, even at the end as Adidas stitched “Face”, Twomey’s nickname, into O’Driscoll’s last pair of boots. “It’s my story and he just happened to be intricately involved in so many aspects of it.”
And he was. Twomey went on romantic holidays with O’Driscoll. Showed up the first time he met his wife, Amy Huberman.
Have you ever come to terms with the loss?
“Dark Days” led him to New York and an REM concert. There followed a scuffle, wrongful arrest and charge for assault resulting in a night buried in “The Tombs” – Manhattan’s far from salubrious prison cells – along with 30 felons.
Was it avoidable?
“No. It really wasn’t. It was avoidable if we hadn’t piled into the lift. You see it on the Dart every day, people pile in. This guy just went hysterical. And he was heavily juiced. And I don’t know what else. He was pretty out of control.”
Only a month had passed since Twomey’s suicide.
“Fruity [Kieron O’Boyle] and I were just talking about Barry during the concert. I couldn’t even tell you what they played.”
Did the loss of Barry tighten your circle of friends?
“It did, but I’m someone who doesn’t have a lot of good friends. I always had a tight enough crew. The loss of one seems enormous because there aren’t that many. So many situations for the first few years prompted me to give him a call. Like something as simple as lunch. I don’t mean to sound drastic about it but I found myself lunching alone a lot. He was always easy company.”
O’Driscoll cites the 2011 World Cup quarter-final defeat to Wales as the biggest disappointment of his career.
“Our attack shape was terrible. We didn’t really have a good understanding of what we were trying to do in attack. Wales were brutally efficient with what their gameplan was. We weren’t drilled in attack as well as they were.”
Describing Declan Kidney as someone who doesn’t pretend “to be a coach with cutting-edge ideas” but had enough “self-confidence and common sense to empower the talented coaches around him”. However, he also says a coach’s “rugby philosophy is always going to be the single biggest influence on a squad.”
It begs the question: Were these lack of “cutting edge” ideas detrimental to Ireland reaching the semi-final?
“You can’t be that cut and dried about something like that. I won’t go, ‘Yes’ to a question like that! It certainly has an input into how far a team goes in a competition, without a shadow of a doubt, because that was a talented group. In the Australian game defensively we were extremely strong. We won that game on defence and kicking goals.”
Les Kiss was defence coach. Geordan Murphy stated, in his 2012 autobiography, that he made several attempts before the tournament to transfer Leicester’s multi-phased attacking playbook, ironically concocted by Leinster coach Matt O’Connor, into the Ireland camp. Kidney declined.
“You can’t rely on your defence to win a World Cup,” O’Driscoll says. “You have to have an attacking game and we just didn’t have one of them. That curtailed our capabilities, you look back on that now, for sure it did.”
In stark contrast, there’s barely a finger of criticism laid on Eddie O’Sullivan with O’Driscoll bewildered by the stalling of his career path since 2008.
“I don’t understand it. Technically he is a very good coach. I don’t know where people had issues. Maybe his man management.”
Did you have an issue with his man management?
“No, I didn’t. From a UK point of view he might not have got on with key people in clubs over there. That’s the only way I can imagine he didn’t get picked up by a Premiership club at some stage.”
The 2007 World Cup failure is briskly put down to poor preparation. Nor would he, in hindsight, advocate changing the starting XV sooner. Everyone was undercooked. “We just got our prep wrong. It was a bit of [Eddie’s] fault, a bit of the strength and conditioning fault and a bit of the players’ fault as well – that we didn’t say, ‘Hang on, we need to be doing ball skills. Stop the massive focus on physicality and getting bigger’.”
Could you and other players have been more pro-active with regards the coaching of O’Sullivan, Kidney or even Gary Ella?
“There is still a big onus to be coached. I understand the best teams don’t need a huge amount of coaching but that’s when a coach should decide not to do coaching.
“Gary Ella’s team needed coaching.
“Deccie’s team needed coaching.
“With Joe [Schmidt] and Cheiks [Michael Cheika] we probably got to a point where we didn’t need much more coaching, just kept us on track and when they felt we needed coaching they would go hard for a while, then step off again.”
The only time O’Driscoll was out cold on a rugby pitch was a Leinster v Munster schools game at Musgrave Park in 1996. Do the other concussions – especially after smashing Danie Rossouw at Loftus Versfeld during the Lions series in 2009 – not count as KOs?
“No, ‘cause I never lost consciousness. Like, actually waking up and going, ‘Oh, last time I had my eyes open all of you medics weren’t around me.’ Whereas those knocks, I don’t think I ever lost consciousness.”
Why do you feel the need to differentiate? “Well, back in the day concussion for me was being sparked out. I was 100 per cent concussed in Loftus so I am just differentiating. In my head I would have thought losing consciousness completely was a considerably bigger deal than a bang on the head and seeing stars.”
There were many occasions when his bravery led to concussion. The attempted tackle on 19 stone All Black lock Brodie Retallick last November led to Dr Eanna Falvey refusing to allow him return to the field. After hitting 20 stone Vincent Debaty against France in 2013 he needed “smelling salts” before cheating protocols to return to the fray.
The roar of the crowd was guttural. It was Maximus, their hero, returning to the arena, with the game tied at 13-all, to tell the brutish French to think again.
“I 100 per cent knew I wasn’t right,” he admits now. “I didn’t want to be finished, coming off for concussion in what could have been my last game at home. At all costs you get yourself back on the pitch. You are deluded sometimes. Concussed or not you think maybe I can make the difference.”
His family expressed concern. His old friend Mick Quinlan – a doctor whose brother David was forced to retire from rugby due to repeated concussions in 2007 – suggested that it might “be a good time to get out”.
“If I had retired after that 2013 season my folks wouldn’t have been devastated,” he admits.
O’Driscoll was the epitome of rugby’s gladiatorial ways, a fact illustrated in his endorsement of Robbie Henshaw to ultimately become his successor in Ireland’s 13 jersey.
Henshaw’s “a quick learner” who is constantly improving defensively but he also bestows the highest compliment he can on the 21-year-old Athlone man: “He has an appetite for hurting people,” says O’Driscoll. “ If it’s there to be hit he is going to give it everything.”
You’ve had some good belts in your career?
Any lingering effects?
“No, Tommy, none whatsoever.”
That’s some going because you shipped as many heavy blows as a pro fighter.
“No, none that I am conscious of. I don’t think I have issues with shorter term memory or remembering things. That’s always been a challenge. I don’t feel I have become more sluggish.”
The NFL is being forced to pay out millions of dollars in compensation due to head trauma, can you see that happening in rugby?
“I suppose if there is a precedent that has been set by the NFL, there is always a chance. There are some in the IRB that are concerned about it for sure. The way they have responded to it I think is a knee-jerk reaction to NFL and public disgust and outrage.
“ I think you are going to see more players not coming back on the pitch.”
Onwards and upwards
He’s no longer the captain or the magician that seemed to slow time, that made any victory seem possible. That’s all gone.
You will hear and see plenty from him in the coming years though, and realise he was never the stereotypical southside rugby jock who stuck to the script.
Still only 35, there are business interests to explore with Ikon talent management and the Ultimate Rugby app.
“I have plans to be involved in stuff outside of rugby and punditry and radio.”
“Nothing worth talking about yet.”
Old habits die hard. Off he goes to let the builders in – a brother or sister for Sadie arrives next month and the house needs readying for their growing family.
We all had our time with him. He’s theirs now. That’s the secret to happiness.
Home. Family. Future.
Brian O’Driscoll on...
Being the Last of the Mohicans:
The caligulaesque sessions ended after November 2004. Certainly during the season.
O’Driscoll played one of his best games for Ireland as the Springboks were beaten at Lansdowne road despite a five-day bender the week before entering camp. Eddie O’Sullivan, his staunchest backer, sidled over to him on the Tuesday to enquire about his state. Girlfriend trouble. Case closed.
“I shouldn’t have compromised myself; having to focus more on a game than I naturally would have.”
Did performances ever drop in games because of your lifestyle?
“No but I played out of sheer fear that day. I never had to do that before. You don’t want to test that too often. Once was enough.”
Any lifestyle regrets?
“No, I don’t. I came into a group of guys who had played in the amateur era. My peers weren’t the professionals that Jonno and the boys are today.
“That was the norm. The cycle eventually had to come around to where it is now.”
The best Irish team he played in?
“The 2009, the slam team.”
“We had a very good team against France this year but man for man, there are one or two people, you would swap around.”
Is 2011 – the obvious addition being Cian Healy – not a better team than 2009? Or even 2007?
“Den (Hickie) on the wing, yeah, and Shaggy.”
He names the 2007 team aloud. Is the 2003 World Cup team in the debate?
“I still think ’09, reluctantly.”
“I’d say ’07.”
Best player you ever played against?
“Most complete player I ever played against, Richard Hill.”
Really, better than Richie McCaw?
“It’s easier to say Richard Hill. For me he was the perfect six.”
Did you ever feel out played, either during that time or in the latter years for Ireland?
“Tim Horan out played me in the World Cup game in ‘99. I got schooled.”
“Jonah in 2001.”
The French game in Paris in 2010, yeah, he ran through you twice.
“No, not that one. The one just gone more so. I just thought this guy is actually undefendable.
“Darce had every right ot be angry with me for leaving him alone on that first play. We needed three people on him.”