Monday, March 02, 2009

Our Chief of Men - Will Ireland Ever Know Who Brian O'Driscoll Really Is?

Brian O’Driscoll delivered a performance of extraordinary heroism last night, dragging Ireland to a one-point win over England by what seemed like sheer force of will alone. Watching him struggling to get his bearings after another cheap shot tackle it was hard not to think of Cúchulainn lashed to the rock, making one final stand for home and heartland.

At the start of the season there was a clamour to replace Brian O’Driscoll as captain of Ireland with Paul O’Connell, in whom the nation likes to see the embodiment of ourselves. O’Connell is perceived as very much a heart on the sleeve sort of man, whereas O’Driscoll is hardly known to the country at all.

O’Driscoll’s predecessor as Irish captain, Keith Wood, is an opposite sort of character. Wood was clearly devastated by the implosion of Ireland at the World Cup, and he was retired four years from the team. Even now on the BBC, from the comfort of the analyst’s sofa, you can see the agony on Wood’s face when potential Irish weaknesses are suggested to him.

O’Driscoll has never been like that. O’Driscoll does his media duty but he sups with a very long spoon indeed. The real Brian O’Driscoll is hidden far, far back while Public Brian churns out platitudes about how he and the guys are really enjoying their rugby and, you know, if we execute the game plan good things can come from that. This diffidence doesn’t sit well with the nation. The nation likes tears rolling down John Hayes’ face. It does not like fancy haircuts and model girlfriends.

The mask has slipped very rarely. Brian O’Driscoll was interviewed by Marian Finucane at the start of the international season back in Autumn, and he was happily batting back the questions until Marian referred to George Hook. O’Driscoll made a throwaway comment that he wouldn’t consider Hook much of an analyst. Marion seized on it, her nose for a story being always very good, and O’Driscoll spent some minutes under pressure on his five metre line before clearing his lines.

The disdain expressed for Hook was a flash of the real Brian O’Driscoll, the man who hammers into rucks with such fury, who swung Australia’s George Smith around by his dreadlocks, who was exchanging slaps with a precocious Benoit Baby of France at Lansdowne Road some years ago. O’Driscoll has been responsible for two autobiographies but the real man remains resolutely hidden, while an impostor is sent out to tell the media that he’s really enjoying his rugby and, you know, if we execute our game plan good things can come from that.

There’s tremendous goodwill in the country towards O’Driscoll, especially now the bleak ‘eighties are back and we’re relying on the current rugby team as we relied on Ciarán Fitzgerald back in the day. And there’s an unspoken understanding that once Ireland win the Grand Slam we’ll all be able to sit back and say “O’Driscoll? Great player. One of the best ever. Why, I remember back in ’09, he did this, he did that, he did the other.” And this is worrying because the sad fact is that Ireland are not going to win the Grand Slam this year, and the nation will be no closer to knowing this giant who has worn the emerald green with such distinction and such glory for so long.

If they do not win the Grand Slam, Ireland may well still win the Championship, which would still be a considerable achievement. Every other nation bar Italy has won since Ireland’s last Championship twenty-four years ago. It puts things in perspective.

Scotland will be seen as something of a pushover in a fortnight’s time, even though they have won the Championship twice, in 1990 and 1999, since that last Irish win. Ireland should still beat them, as Scotland seem to have adopted worst of the Home Nations to professionalism. But if Ireland do successfully avoid a tartan banana skin, they still have to win in Cardiff to win a Grand Slam and it’s very, very difficult to see that happening.

Wales got cold-cocked in Paris on Friday night. These things sometimes happen. Ask New Zealand what the French can do when their tails are up. But Wales are richly talented, expertly coached, fiercely proud and want the Lions places they were done out of in 2005. The fault lines in the Irish team are becoming more and more obvious and the Welsh at home are just the boys to spoil a party.

Ireland could lose in Wales and still win a Championship on points, and that would be good. I seem to recall the Welsh and Scottish both winning Championships after losing their final games in the ‘nineties, and there are no asterisks in the record books because of it. And when he’s asked at the press conference afterwards if he has any regrets about not winning a Slam, Brian O’Driscoll will tell the media that Wales are a really great team, that he and the guys are really enjoying their rugby and, you know, if we execute our game plan good things can happen.

An then he’ll get up and thank the media for their time and walk off into the shadows, almost certainly into retirement if he chooses not to tour with the Lions this summer, or is too smashed up to do so. And we’ll never really have known him at all, Brian O’Driscoll, this latter day Cúchulainn, this chief of men.

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