x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

O'Driscoll is the centre piece of the Irish jigsaw

Brian O'Driscoll reveals his golf handicap, his affection for Dubai and his 2011 World Cup dream with Ireland.

Brian O'Driscoll, right, shows the poise and balance that has established him as arguably the best centre in the world.
Brian O'Driscoll, right, shows the poise and balance that has established him as arguably the best centre in the world.

The ball breaks loose outside the French 22. There is a discernible pause as the players re-adjust. A young Irish centre reacts quickest, he dashes forward gathers up the loose ball and hares for the French posts. Emile N'Tamack moves to intercept but the Frenchman has seen this twice already today and quickly gives up the chase. Paris in the spring, one career of a great centre ends and another is born.

The new century was in its infancy when Brian O'Driscoll announced his arrival on the international rugby stage. The Irish do not win in Paris unless they wield a pen and their names are James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Their rugby XV had not recorded a victory there in 28 years. And here was this tyro tearing up the script. Adhering to the old adage that attack is the best form of defence, O'Driscoll hit the French defensive line at will, punching gaps with his low centre of gravity and crossing for three tries. How Beckett would have loved to have seen that.

For Irish rugby, it was not so much a question of Waiting for Godot but rather of waiting for someone like "Drico". Ireland had their line-breaking centre and found their game winner. Since that career-defining hat-trick against Les Bleus, O'Driscoll has established himself as one of the great centres of all time. It is no wonder, given his glittering CV, that O'Driscoll is the picture of relaxation when we meet at the penthouse suite of the Aquamarine building in Tiara Residence on the Palm Island.

He gazes out over the fronds and seems suitably impressed. He looks made for Dubai in his T-shirt, shorts, flip flops and sunglasses. He is also a long way from Dublin and its 12°C days. "Ah, we had a good one the other day it was 15°C," he joked with the trademark O'Driscoll smile. "I have to pick my time of year when I come out to Dubai, this Irish skin can't take too much sun." He is happy to reflect on what has been an amazing season for him with club and country, winning the Heineken Cup with Leinster and the Six Nations with Ireland.

The manner in which Leinster lifted the Heineken Cup gives him great satisfaction. They came out the right side of low scoring encounter with Harlequins in the quarter-final, a game that would become synonymous with "Bloodgate", then defeated the European champions Munster in the semi-final and ultimately overcame Leicester, the champions of England, in the final. "The really satisfying thing is winning it the hard way," said O'Driscoll. "If we had not gone on to win the final, the win over Munster in the semi-final would have paled into insignificance. It will be remembered as a stepping stone to winning the competition."

Leinster turned the tables on their great domestic rivals with O'Driscoll delivering the coup de grace from an interception on his own 22 and then coasting away to score under the Munster posts. "Once I intercepted and I saw it was only 'ROG' [Ronan O'Gara] chasing me, I knew I'd make it," said O'Driscoll, again with a laugh. Achieving the Grand Slam was also a huge relief for O'Driscoll. He is delighted that Irish people at home and abroad derived so much pleasure from the slam.

It was something that Ireland had threatened since O'Driscoll had arrived on the scene in 1999. There had been triple crowns in the intervening years but the slam continued to elude the Irish. They had not achieved the Grand Slam since 1948 when iconic players like Jack Kyle and Karl Mullen had worn the green. O'Driscoll says the Six Nations is all about momentum and getting a good start. They got one with a win over France in a classic encounter at Croke Park and never looked back.

O'Driscoll's contribution to the slam was huge: he came up with two pivotal tries in hard-fought wins over England and Wales. And what of those grass-cutting tries, where his body position seems to be a couple of inches parallel to the turf as he goes for the try-line? From what playbook did they come from? "I don't know, I'll take any tries that are going," he laughed. "I can't say I've practised my pick and jam too much. I've taken a bit of stick over not making my touchdowns look good. But five points is five points."

"Against England, I fancied my chances when I saw that I had a prop and a second row in front of me. I thought, 'I can get below these two'. "Against Wales, the forwards had done all the hard yards and softened them up a bit and I was just next in line. I think the ball just touched the line and then I lost control of it. "It shows the differences between winning and losing at the very top level can be so small."

He has happy memories of the recent British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa. He talks of the great bond that existed between the players; how they had good fun together and enjoyed each other's company. He says the management got the balance just right between relaxation and training. O'Driscoll is fulsome in his praise of his centre partner in South Africa: "I really enjoyed playing outside Jamie Roberts. He is a serious handful and if you play on his shoulder, he has great off-loading ability."

The South African series was a close run thing, with scrum difficulties in the first and injuries in the second Test costing the Lions dearly. O'Driscoll provided the scoring passes for Tom Croft's two tries in the first Test but admits that the Lions had given the Springsboks too much of a lead, and after a stirring comeback succumbed to a five point defeat. O'Driscoll put everything on the line in that series, as evidenced by the bone-crunching hit on Danie Rossouw in the second Test.

"When Gethin Jenkins got his cheekbone fractured, Gethin's arm swung around Bryan Habana and caught me clean in the head. I was a bit groggy after that but I was just about OK when I put the tackle in on Rossouw and there was a clash of heads," he explained. O'Driscoll found himself on the sideline along with Roberts and props Jenkins and Adam Jones. "We were comfortably ahead, we gave up a really bad penalty just before half-time which gave them a bit of impetus, but losing our two props and two centres in the second-half was a huge blow and once they got a sniff of it, in fairness to them, they were lethal in finishing off their tries," he recalled of the second Test in Pretoria.

"And with Morne Steyne coming on, it was written for them; playing in a Test on his home ground for the first time." O'Driscoll acknowledges how important it was to win the Third test for the future of the Lions. "Winning the third Test, and the other two being as tight as they were, gave people renewed faith in what the Lions was all about," he said. The Irish captain is realistic about the season ahead. He says it is not so much a question of emulating the achievements of winning the Heineken Cup and Six Nations again but of maintaining the standard of performance. "We'll settle for an improved standard, we'll try to play better rugby and see where that takes us," he said.

The planning for the World Cup in 2011 is ongoing and O'Driscoll says the Ireland coach, Declan Kidney, will be concentrating on building up his squad. "He doesn't want us to be relying on certain guys, he wants players to come in and make seamless transitions into the team," said the 93-cap centre. " I've played in three World Cups and I've played in every game that Ireland has played at the finals. If you are to get to a semi-final or a final you can't play every game."

Which raises the challenge presented by the small pool of players Kidney has to choose from. "We have 120 professional rugby players in Ireland, probably 20 of which are overseas internationals," explained O'Driscoll. "So, Ireland has only about 100 players to choose from. It is not a huge number. Guys like prop Mike Ross, outside-half Jonathan Sexton, as well as Keith Earls, there is the Leinster centre Fergus McFadden, who had a good Churchill Cup campaign, are the guys we need to see coming through to provide strength in depth going into the World Cup. We've flattered to deceive in the past and it is about time we put that right."

The Irish captain has a big day ahead of him next July when he gets married to the Irish actress Amy Huberman. He says there is a lot of planning going into the wedding which will feature a who's who of the Irish acting and sporting worlds. The happy couple plan to bookout a hotel in Leitrim, in the west of Ireland, for the weekend, so that their guests can thoroughly enjoy the experience. In between he has a busy season with Leinster and Ireland, starting with the small matter of a reacquaintance with the Springboks in the autumn.

O'Driscoll is back in action on Saturday against Edinburgh in the Magners League and is looking forward to it, saying the pre-season can be tough going when there is no game at the end of the week. The 30-year-old says the level of competition in the Magners League has increased in recent years, making the Celtic teams a much tougher proposition in the Heineken Cup. This is borne out by the fact that Magners League teams have won three of the last four Heineken Cups. He acknowledges that Leinster will miss Rocky Elsom, the barnstorming flanker who has returned to Australia.

It is difficult to see O'Driscoll leaving Ireland to ply his trade elsewhere but he does enjoy the respite the UAE provides him with. He has purchased an apartment in Tiara Residence on the Palm Island. "I suppose it might be something more for when the rugby is finished," he explained. "My time is a little limited at the moment, but it is also somewhere family and friends can come out and spend some time."

O'Driscoll is also part-owner of Hive, a restaurant bar in Burj Dubai. "It gives me a good excuse to come out and make sure that everything is running smoothly," he said. So Dubai and its golf courses should be seeing a lot more of O'Driscoll in years to come. "I'm a nine handicap, but I'm a nine handicap since I was a teenager," he said. "I struggle to play to it now. I need to play five or six rounds before I can play to it."

In February, O'Driscoll will return to Paris a decade after he signalled his intent to become the leading centre of his generation. An accolade which few would deny him. Samuel Beckett, an aficionado of the oval ball, once ventured an Irish writers rugby XV which featured an optically challenged James Joyce at out-half. "Very crafty, very nippy. He might surprise you when the light is fading," opined the scribe.

Beckett thought Seamus Oliver Campbell, Ireland's leading player in the 1980s, was "a genius". But then some of the moves that Brian Gerald O'Driscoll has exhibited on a rugby field might have left the Nobel laureate momentarily lost for words. sbuckley@thenational.ae