'You don't properly earn it until you beat them'
Now on his 13th tour, Brian O’Driscoll can look backwards with a satisfied air – but there are still a few itches left to scratch, writes GERRY THORNLEY
ON A rugby magazine television programme last week, former All Blacks’ second row Ian Jones was asked if Brian O’Driscoll was a great player. “Not in my house,” said Jones, on the premise that he had “never done it against the All Blacks”.
He is entitled to his opinion, but given O’Driscoll was stepping Sonny Bill Williams at full tilt in his barnstorming final quarter last Saturday, fully 11 years after waltzing with the Lions in Australia, Jones’ house clearly has very black windows.
Admittedly, this is O’Driscoll’s seventh tour here and, including his brutally curtailed stint as captain of the Lions, all told he has been on the losing side a dozen times.
“You don’t properly earn it until you beat them,” admits O’Driscoll. “I can understand to a degree, but there is black bubble stuff, without a shadow of a doubt. You can see it in their media, as well as their former players and their comments and the patronising stuff, but we’ve yet to beat them. They can only be so sympathetic.”
With the next tour to New Zealand not for another dozen years, this is not only the last chance saloon for O’Driscoll. First-timers may not fully appreciate that, he reckons, “but I’d very hopeful that no one has one foot on the plane for their summer holidays; ‘live in the now’ and give yourself an opportunity to be part of something that people will always remember.
“And I don’t think people realise the enormity of that. But ifs and buts are no good to anyone. You just have to go and do it.”
This is O’Driscoll’s 13th tour, including three World Cups and three with the Lions. His Test career began on the first of them, in 1999, in Australia. “You really don’t know what to expect and you’re just trying to fit in as best you can. I was a young guy and all of a sudden you’re training with guys you’d have watched on the telly for years. It’s very weird and very exciting.”
Back then, he saw whatever sights and did whatever activities were on offer, but tours tend to mean return visits, and save for a little golf, he enjoys having his own time nowadays. On one day in Takapuna on the outskirts of Auckland, he had lunch on his own, walked the beach with some music in his ears and, one of his favourite past-times, checked out handsome houses. “And I was content as you like.”
He appreciates the captain’s privilege of having his own room, which extends back to his days as vice-captain on the tour here in 2002. Room sharing now would be difficult. “That could retire me,” he quips with a smile. “It’s like your own little getaway from things. So now, when we have a day off, Earlsy is like: ‘More Brian time, was it?’”
The novelty of touring, if not the rugby, has also worn off a little. But after the nightmare of ’05, he has come to like New Zealand, not least Queenstown, and he could envisage returning to this relative escapism from rugby on holidays.
“Obviously, ’05 gave me a bad taste and some of the reaction didn’t endear the country to me. But that was seven years ago. Everyone – well, a lot of people – have gotten over that. I certainly have and so you just have to put that behind you. I could see how this country is as beautiful as everyone makes it out to be. We see it in the depths of the winter, and we don’t see the Bay of Islands. We hadn’t seen Queenstown up to the World Cup. I would imagine there are some beautiful parts to it.”
If NZ in ’05 left the most scars, he loved the World Cup in Australia in 2003. “We started in Terrigal for two weeks. It’s class, and although we got well beaten by the French in the quarters, there was great relief post-99 in getting to the knock-out stages and beating Argentina. We were close to Australia but no cigar, but when I look back on fun times I had I really enjoyed that tour.”
In South Africa in 2009 he also began to appreciate the true Lions’ ethos. “That gave me a flavour for what all the hoo-ha was about Lions’ tours. We did a lot of things wrong (in ’05), such as not rooming together,” which he believes should include the captain.
There was also player and management overload. “One hundred percent. For example, I don’t think I ever trained with Denis Hickie on the tour, certainly not after the first week in New Zealand. Irrespective of what happened injury-wise, there was minimal fun to be had, and that’s why, before ’09, I thought these Lions tours were going to be way better, as they’d been made out to be by all the Lions greats of the ’70s. You see all these guys talking about lifelong friendships and I thought: ‘I don’t have any of that and I’ve been on two of them.’”
He was back in the trenches in ’09, with Paul O’Connell assuming the captaincy, and with less pressure came more of an opportunity to understand what the Lions were about. “And I did that. And I had a great time.”
You’d imagine O’Connell maybe didn’t? “No, I would imagine not. It’s a very stressful environment being captain of a situation like that. Incredibly tough. Way more so than your national team, ’cos you’ve got help from guys, unless you’ve got guys who’ve been captains before and give a helping hand and take some of the responsibility away. And there was so little bitchiness on that (’09) tour. There was bitchiness in ’01, and in ’05 things went badly and staying on the tour was a massive error.”
Hence, when injured in the second Test in ’09, he was on the first available flight home.
With good friends such as Hickie and Shane Horgan no longer part of the Irish set-up, having someone like Ronan O’Gara on this tour is all the more important. O’Driscoll is the squad’s second oldest player, O’Gara the eldest, which he admits feels weird. And including World Cups, this is their 13th tour together.
“It would be a bit over the top to say I’d be totally lost without Rog but he’s very important to have around, because I think we understand each other very well. We’ve a similar existence. He’s got a young family, I’m married, and some days I can see he’s a bit down, or likewise. It’s a difficult time spent away from loved ones, whereas there’s novelty factor in that at the start. When I was 20 (in ’99) I was getting away from the folks!” he says with a broad smile.
The flip side of all that is new friendships, with O’Driscoll feeling an onus to pass on some of his experience. “But sometimes you have to make mistakes to learn from them. I can see myself in different people throughout the different profiles. Young guys in their first tour, guys in their mid-20s; there’s a bit of you in everyone. ‘Yea, I remember that phase.’”
But both the new and familiar help to ensure the fire still burns. “I don’t enjoy everything that goes with the touring but I do love the competitiveness of the games still. I think it brings out a different animal in you. You can’t recreate it for training. It’s just impossible. I just think there’s a switch that changes when you go out on the pitch and pull a green jersey on. I’ve talked to Rog about it, and you can see it in him. It’s the desire, and you can see it in guys that don’t. And the guys that have it are the ones you want beside you. It’s the ones that have that dog in them.
“Loads have them. Ferg has it. I’ve seen him snap. You want to see him in the gym. He just wants to win. He won’t be broken. I love that mentality, and it’s infectious. You want to play harder for someone like that.”
Exposed to the All Blacks’ tempo after nine months away from Test rugby, and pressed into an unfamiliar inside centre role, O’Driscoll admits “I got a shock” in the first 25 minutes of the first Test. “But sometimes you just need that shock to remind you that’s what’s expected of you. So second time round you’re not caught on the hop like that and settling early. We were very proactive in what we did. We were very reactive in a lot of what we did the previous week.”
The same and more is required tomorrow. “If you get into a defensive mindset down here, that’s what they thrive on. I think you’ve got to go after the best teams and play them at their game.” That, and clinically maximising opportunities is, he says, the main difference between great sides and very good ones.
Ideally he would like this to be his penultimate tour, as another box to tick would be a winning Lions’ tour. “You’re not guaranteed anything. All I can do is put myself in a position to be selected for a team that could go to Australia and win. And I think I’ve definitely got one more big year in me, and who knows, this time next year, I might go ‘I’m feeling good’ or ‘do you know what, that’s me done’. I really genuinely don’t know.
“I’ve changed dramatically as a player over the last 13/14 years. Lost things and gained things. So it’s understanding whether you can still provide as much as I demand of myself to provide. When I start faltering at that, when you can’t still deliver at the big stage like you used to be able to, that’s got to be the time to go. I don’t want to get to the point of picking up a wage.”
That’s one of the drawbacks of starting at the top and staying at the top.
You have to exit at the top.