Six Nations 2014: Brian O’Driscoll set to finish where it all began
Six Nations 2014: Oisin Gregorian reflects on Brian O'Driscoll's decorated Ireland career ahead of his Paris showdown
The clock gone dead and the ball in touch, Peter Stringer fell to his knees and yelled in delight. Around him, his team-mates struggled to take it all in.
It wasn’t long before the camera then turned to the man of the moment; a young, fresh-faced Dubliner, complete with the baggy collared jersey rugby has since long moved on from. 14 years on, Brian O’Driscoll’s hat-trick in the Stade de France remains legendary, and now he has the opportunity to cap it all off in Saint-Denis once again.
In the 14 years since, the man affectionately known as BOD has amassed an impeccable set of records.
Leading the way in both games played and tries scored, Ireland’s former captain also leads the way in terms of metres made, clean breaks, defenders beaten, offloads and turnovers won, according to stats group, OPTA. For the majority of the aforementioned, the player in second struggles to come close.
Nine months before that explosion in Paris, O’Driscoll had made his Ireland debut in Australia. Following that, he scored his first try against the USA in the 1999 World Cup and added a second and third respectively at Lansdowne Road against Scotland and Italy.
For those who witnessed the young Brian work his way through school’s rugby and Ireland development, his tries on a World Cup stage came as no surprise. To the world’s media gathering for the event, it more than made them sit up and take note. By the time of Ireland’s elimination to Argentina, O’Driscoll had done enough to have those looking down purring. Paris the following springtime all but confirmed it.
A Lions tour to Australia and victory over them in green were soon to follow. Just under four years after his debut, O’Driscoll was then named as captain of the national side following Keith Wood’s retirement, making him one of the youngest captains to ever feature for Ireland.
It was in this period that Ireland’s influence within world rugby began to rise.
Such a rise coinciding with O’Driscoll’s captaincy is far from coincidental. Under BOD, Ireland had their lynchpin, their captain and their game-changer, and like any key player, his absence whenever injured was often felt.
A first Triple Crown since 1985 in 2004 was influenced by O’Driscoll’s fledgling partnership with Gordon D’Arcy – a partnership that went on to be one of the most cohesive in the sport. Two further Triple Crowns were to be added in 2006 and 2007, before a disastrous World Cup campaign in France did its best to break down everything O’Driscoll and company had built in the years previous.
A breakdown between players and staff ensued. Amongst all the quizzing, O’Driscoll showed a character off the pitch that was both admirable and gentlemanly as he refused to give much away to cause any awkwardness towards the Irish set up whilst competing.
Unfortunately for the captain, a distant fourth place in the Six Nations following the World Cup confirmed the suspicions that all wasn’t well within the camp.
A coaching transition quickly gave O’Driscoll and Ireland the shot in the arm that was needed, and nearly ten years after making his senior debut, O’Driscoll led Ireland to its first Grand Slam in 61 years, and an unbeaten 2009 to boot.
Sweeping personal awards before him, he was to be unfortunately denied the IRB World Player of the Year a few months later to Richie McCaw. It was to be the closest Brian was to ever come to claiming it.
It is before 2009 and the years that followed that perhaps O’Driscoll will look back on and lament. Yes, the Triple Crowns, tries and individual performances could all make a collector’s DVD of at least two disks, but the sad reality here is that only one Six Nations medal in 14 years represents a poor return for such a player.
That said, a second crown on Saturday won’t be a third, fourth or fifth like some of his peers amassed in their careers, but it will no doubt improve his legacy just that little bit more.
Despite the knocks, blows and injuries in between, O’Driscoll seemingly managed to recover and return stronger. There were times when he could have packed it in, even as early as the 2009 slam itself.
Opportunities to call it a day came and went, and his decision to play on one final year following last season’s annus horribilis following a 2012 out injured suggested there was pride to be had.
Come Paris on Saturday evening, O’Driscoll’s career will have fittingly gone full circle.
In the Stade de France, he will once again pit his body against an array of opponents both bigger and larger than him, once again proving just how well he has done to last 14 years at this level despite all that’s changed around him.
A fortnight later, he aims to line out for Leinster when they face Munster in front of over 40,000 spectators – a far cry from some of the numbers witnessed at the time of his debut.
The stage is set for O’Driscoll to go out on one of sports greatest highs. Whether or not France find it in them to muster up one good 80 minutes despite yet another inconsistent campaign to deny him this remains to be seen.