Monday, November 15, 2004

Brian O'Driscoll, Captain of Ireland

If only they could get O'Driscoll to shave off that cursed smig he'd be perfect. O'Driscoll is an exceptional player; it's possible that his predecessor as Irish captain, Keith Wood, was more loved, as he was closer to the Plain People of Ireland than O'Driscoll will ever be, but we should cherish comets like O'Driscoll. Their flaring passage in the heavens is all too short, and soon darkness will return. We should make the most of them.

O'Driscoll's three try hat trick in Paris is over four years ago now, the first time he really announced himself on the international stage. There was that funny business he was doing with his hands after the try, a mixed bag in the Championship, and then the Lions tour. And suddenly, here he now, Ireland and the world's best rugby threequarter.

As a player O'Driscoll really has got it all. Critics of his kicking are talking through their collective chapeaux. His tackling is impeccable, as epitomised by his hauling down of Australia's George Smith by the dreadlocks in the last World Cup. Live by the curling pin, die by the curling pin. His eye for a break is superb, and his balance is beyond extraordinary. There were times during last Saturday's game against South Africa, as O'Driscoll dodged between the South African tackles in a midfield maelstrom that was like watching Jason sailing the Argos through the clashing rocks of the straits of the Bosphorus, that you had to ask yourself how could any human being be so parallel to the ground and still remain upright. It was as if he was performing a drunken reverse limbo, where you have to go forwards rather than backwards, and all this after a big feed of poitín.

And still no bother to him. O'Driscoll's attitude is exemplary. Twenty-first century rugby isn't "just a game," and the Corinthian ethic is long gone from professional sport, but still something of it seems to suffuse O'Driscoll. The next time he leads Ireland out, perhaps for that relaxed upcoming fixture against the USA (although my money is on Humphries to captain Ireland that day), or else for the game against Argentina, see the broad smile that O'Driscoll brings to the game. See how he always has the crack with the mascots. O'Driscoll knows the difference between price and value; the RTÉ panellists may have a cut at him for promoting whatever brand of pop it is he promotes, but in his other behaviour O'Driscoll is an exemplary sportsman, aware that the Great Scorer takes account of how you play the game.

The only time when I've seen O'Driscoll noticeably tense before a game was on Saturday. Who would have thought Jake White shooting from the lip would have got the Irish dander so? And get the Irish dander it did; while the anthem - which is Amhrán na bhFiann, of course, not some other thing about puppets on strings who are provincially equidistant and of equal pride and parity of esteem - was being played, a tear clearly ran down O'Driscoll's cheek. John the Bull Hayes was as the Niagra Falls, although that could have been partly attributed to the idea of going against Os du Randt for eighty minutes and the thought of the dark deeds that would be committed by the two monsters in nomine patria, but to see O'Driscoll, the man that at other times has been so relaxed; well, it was remarkable.

But not, perhaps, as remarkable as the performance that Ireland put in the ensuing eighty minutes. The press gave the credit and the man of the match bot of Bolly to O'Gara, but O'Gara gave the credit to the pack. O'Gara is playing long enough to know what it's like when you don't have eight tough guys to serve you ball on a plate, and he prefers it this way, thanks. All eight were superb. The front row, which looked like chaff to the Boks' mill up until two o'clock on Saturday were outstanding. Paul O'Connell and Malcolm O'Kelly would have driven devils back into the fiery pit of hell if those devils had been wearing the Springbok on their breasts. Anthony Foley and Guy Easterby were outstanding, while debutant openside flanker Jonny O'Connor claimed at least six balls on the floor from the teeth of the South African beast, according to a hawk-eyed friend of An Spailpín who was at the game. And when I tell you that same man had his house raided by the gendarmes in the early hours of Sunday morning due to the neighbours' complaints of overly boisterous carousing, you make take it that O'Connor made quite the impression.

But, when An Spailpín is old and grey and full of sleep, and the green sward of Lansdowne road is reduced to the size and aspect of a living room where spotted and sickly young men come to represent their fatherlands at some sort of Xbox Olympics or something equally ghastly, it's O'Driscoll I'll remember. The O'Connell, Kelly and Connor boys marching and churning through the Saffy ranks yes, O'Gara's two beautiful pinging touchfinders to the left and right corners in the first twenty minutes hinting that this would be Ireland's day, Geordan Murphy, of reduced impact but still considerable genius on the wing, but most of all, Brian O'Driscoll, chest parallel to the ground, right hand holding the ball, the left touching off the ground to maintain momentum, hips swinging and swivelling, short legs churning, pumping and stamping as he cut the best midfield in world rugby to ribbons once again. What a hero he is.