Ireland may never see the like of stalwart centre Brian O’Driscoll ever again, according to prop Mike Ross.
O’Driscoll brought down the curtain on 15 stellar international years as Ireland claimed the RBS 6 Nations title with 22-20 victory in Paris.
The 35-year-old signed off on his Ireland career with neat symmetry, swiping a second Six Nations title at the scene of his stunning 2000 hat-trick.
Ireland’s second win in Paris in 42 years handed them the title on points difference, Johnny Sexton running in a brace and Andrew Trimble also claiming a score.
But they were hanging on by their fingertips at the end of the match, and after waves of French pressure, French back-row Damien Chouly thought he had scored a last-minute winning try for the much-improved hosts, but referee Steve Walsh correctly ruled that Vincent Debaty’s pass was forward.
And tighthead prop Ross paid heartfelt tribute to Leinster and Ireland team-mate O’Driscoll, whose world-record 141st and final international appearance proved a fitting farewell.
“The man deserves every accolade that comes his way. He’s been an absolute legend for the team for the last 15 years,” said 34-year-old front-rower Ross.
“One of the most impressive things for me is that his level never drops – can you remember the last time he had an off game? That sort of talent is very rare, and if his equal comes along in my lifetime I think we’d be lucky to see him.
“The feeling when the final whistle went, it’s feelings like that you play for. It’s the first time for many of us to get any silverware with Ireland, so it’s very special.”
Lock Devin Toner said there was precious little talk of O’Driscoll’s big farewell leading up to the France clash because there was no need, with everyone well aware of their duty to send him out on a high.
“Joe [coach Schmidt] mentioned it just briefly, in our team meeting,” said Toner. “He said he’s obviously one of the greats to pull on the jersey, and it will be awesome for us to do it for him. It was in the back of our minds but we never really talked about it, and to be honest we didn’t need to.”
Five years ago, Ireland’s ‘golden generation’ won their first Grand Slam but even with O’Driscoll at his peak, they were wary of targeting success at the World Cup coming up two years later. This time, according to flanker Chris Henry, it is time to go for broke, even though they will have a new man playing at 13 in England for the finals next year.
The 29-year-old seized the opportunity left by Sean O’Brien’s season-ending shoulder injury to claim Ireland’s openside berth throughout the Six Nations. And the Ulsterman admitted Ireland’s class of 2014 will forever look back with pride on their part in O’Driscoll’s 141st and final international turn.
“I think definitely we will look back and one day, say: ‘I was there’,” said Henry.
“I feel very privileged and honoured to be able to play in his last game, and to play so many games with him.”
While all Ireland will salute the passing of a modern great, Henry said Schmidt’s squad must not allow themselves to dwell on the memories.
Instead Henry has called on Ireland to start their build-up to next year’s World Cup in England without delay. “I think we have to capitalise on this now in terms of the World Cup,” he said.
“We’ve got such a massive run-in to the World Cup now, that when we get together next we’ve got to focus on that.
“I want to use it as a springboard for myself as well. Every time I go out there I put pressure on myself. I’ve just loved every minute.”
Henry’s deft offload opened a half-gap for Johnny Sexton to scythe home for the fly-half’s first of two tries in the edgy win. The combative flanker revealed he has worked hard to add a level of finesse to his renowned fiendish breakdown acumen.
“I just thought I needed to get it away, then Johnny did all the hard work,” said Henry.
“The feeling overall is just incredible. I don’t usually give one-handed offloads but I just thought we had the advantage, so I’m relieved it worked.”
Hailing the impact of Schmidt, Henry now wants Ireland to take advantage of the shrewd head coach’s analytical approach in future.
“It gives you a lot of confidence because you know you’re in excellent hands with his preparation and his attention to detail,” said Henry.
“He’s been incredible to deal with, you’re on your toes and you have to know your stuff.
“The pressure is on you to know your stuff. But once you do know all that, it gives you huge confidence to go out and do what he wants.”