It’s not yet clear whether Brian O’Driscoll has played his last home game for Ireland, but he is certainly well into the twilight of his career. For a man who has been a standout performer on the world stage for so long, he has had minimal reward in the test arena despite his seemingly superhuman efforts. A fourth Lions tour beckons and a winning test series would provide the perfect opportunity for O’Driscoll to bow out on a successful note.
O’Driscoll was part of the Irish team that won the Under 19 Junior World Cup in 1998, but failed to match that success in four subsequent IRB World Cups. A solitary Grand Slam in 2009 (albeit Ireland’s first in 61 years) and four Triple Crowns do not do justice to the contribution he has made to the game. Despite travelling on three Lions tours he has yet to experience a test series win. At provincial level the three Heineken Cup winners’ medals with Leinster are undoubted highlights in his long career.
There have been historic test wins, but in a peculiarly Irish way they have been sporadic at best. Highlights include O’Driscoll’s three tries in the win against France in Paris in 2000, a first win in nearly 40 years against the Springboks in 2004, the Grand Slam in 2009 and the defeat of Australia in the World Cup in 2011.
There have been occasions when O’Driscoll appears to be one man carrying his team, with moments of individual brilliance and, in more recent times, heroic bravery. The personal records amassed are testament to the extraordinary contribution he has made to the game – 124 caps for Ireland, 83 as captain and 46 tries scored.
However, there are significant gaps in his résumé, including the failure to register a win in nine games against the All Blacks, ongoing World Cup disappointments for Ireland and the losing Lions tours of which he has been part. The so called Golden Generation of Irish rugby has failed to deliver consistent success and has failed to claim the biggest scalps in the game.
Some very good players have worn the green jersey during this period but few of them have been truly world class. Keith Wood, Paul O’Connell and O’Driscoll have been the standouts, with O’Driscoll by some margin the most influential.
His game has evolved as time has gone on. He leads by example, whether captain or not, inspiring those around him. The young O’Driscoll was noted for his speed and guile, while these days he is as likely to be found contesting the breakdown as finding gaps for his wingers. He puts his body on the line, playing the game with bravery and an apparent disregard for his own safety in the manner of McCaw, Pocock and Warburton.
Mike Gibson, Danie Gerber, Philippe Sella, Tim Horan, Jeremy Guscott, Will Greenwood, Frank Bunce and John Dawes are amongst the best centres rugby has seen in the last 50 years. All were special players, who left their mark on the game in different ways. While it’s difficult to compare players from different generations, it’s fair to say that O’Driscoll’s name sits very comfortably within this group but surely at the top of the pile of outside centres in the professional era.
O’Driscoll burst onto the international stage in the first test between the Lions and the Wallabies in 2001. The sound of “Waltzing O’Driscoll” echoing around the Gabba, after he scythed through the Australian defence for a stunning individual try, is a memory that will never fade.
His legacy as the greatest Irish player of them all is assured. With success in a World Cup and a win over the All Blacks now out of reach, it leaves the Lions tour as probably his final opportunity for international glory. It would be fitting for O’Driscoll to bow out of test rugby as part of a winning Lions team in Australia. If fit, he will surely play an integral part in the tour and only a brave man would bet against him influencing the final outcome of the series.
What’s your no.1 Brian O’Driscoll moment in the green jersey?