The premature end in the final game of what can only be described as a ‘long good-bye’ to Brian O’ Driscoll also signals the end of the first era of professional rugby players.
The uncertainties surrounding rugby going ‘pro’ would suggest that the likes of O’ Driscoll would, in effect, be seen as ‘guinea-pigs’ to the rigors and strains that international and club rugby could unleash. If there ever was a season to cast-iron O’ Driscoll’s ‘Roy of the Rovers’ like career, not even Cecilia Aherne (or would it be more pertinent to write Amy Huberman) would write such a plot.
A Six Nations Championship capped by a memorable night in Paris, a heart-breaking defeat to the economic powerhouse of Toulon in the last season of the Heineken Cup, and a Pro 12 winners medal.
The eight minutes in which he donned the blue of Leinster for the final time was undoubtedly anti-climatic. However, it allowed one to reflect on a career less-ordinary. The annals of Leinster, Irish, Lions and even international rugby will be adorned by BO’D, to paraphrase Stuart Barnes, he was even more important than that.
After 133 Test appearances for Ireland, several Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam would see O’Driscoll loved by both Northern and Southern hemisphere supporters, no mean feat in itself.
The adulation that Brian O’Driscoll has received is a statement of respect in his achievements but also the manner in which he played the game; his youth characterized by flair, his burst of pace encapsulated in his hat-trick scoring exploits against France in 2000, and his try against Australia for the British and Irish Lions in 2001.
This, compared with his defensive capabilities and even sacrificing his body for the benefit of the team, would see him pivotal to both Leinster and Ireland well into the final year of a sixteen-year career.
O’Driscoll’s Leinster career is a further demonstration of his stamina and ability to adapt. In effect, one can divide his career for the province into two periods.
His first eight years would see many disappointments at club level, only for his international career to be a welcome distraction from the lack of silverware. All of which would change with the entrance of Michael Cheika, who was then succeeded by Joe Schmidt, which would see O’Driscoll and Leinster claim seven trophies in seven years.
Three Heineken Cups and an Amlin Challenge Cup, an impressive return compared to the envy that Leinster fans showed towards Munster rugby for the early years of European club rugby.
186 appearances for his club would also yield sixty-one tries, nearly a try every three games.
For all the successes with Leinster and Ireland, the British and Irish Lions would appear to represent a bittersweet footnote in O’Driscoll’s career. His brief stint as Lions captain in 2005, ended by a horrific spear-tackle, and the disappointment of being dropped for the final deciding Test of the 2013 tour would illustrate O’Driscoll’s qualities as a team player.
Rather than wallow in self pity he would be a key voice in preparation for those key games. Many would suggest that latter event would benefit O’Driscoll in the long term; if he was to enter the arena of management it would be a feather to his bow to understand the hurt of being dropped.
However, it better serves as a reminder that he is human like us all. His immortality as a rugby legend is unquestionable, but his feats measure more impressively when one realises that he was just like you and I. He could feel hurt, but the way he channelled that hurt is an impressive lesson to us all. It transcends the game of rugby, and even sport itself. It is a lesson in life.
Eight minutes of his final game was surely a disappointing end to a truly fairytale season. A change from his Leinster uniform of sixteen years to a training top and runners would serve as an ample example to figures like John Terry, who would appear to tog out at any opportunity to celebrate a trophy. O’Driscoll demonstrated more class than a figure like Terry in that regard, while also showing more respect for his team-mates.
It was their effort for the further 72 odd minutes of the games delivered O’Driscoll his fourth Celtic/Magners/Pro 12 medal. His exploits are therefore all to be seen, whether it be through his medal haul or clips on YouTube that well be replayed by fathers to sons for generations to come.
O’Driscoll’s retirement, coinciding with Jonny Wilkinson’s, will see the first two icons of the professional age absent next season. Their loss to their clubs and rugby itself is immeasurable. A gap to be filled in the iconography of rugby and constant comparisons for the next generation of players to these deities of the game.
The next BO’D or Jonny will not only be disrespectful to the younger crop, but also to the two figures themselves. Uniqueness is what makes anything notable. Both O’Driscoll and Wilkinson were doused in it. Where will their qualities carry them? What next?
We haven’t heard the last from them.
Cian Manning, Pundit Arena.