BRIAN O’Driscoll will be enshrined as one of the greatest rugby players in Six Nations history over the coming weeks as he plays his final international matches.
Few are as well placed to judge his career as Scotland’s Alan Tait.
The Borderer made his debut for Scotland as a precocious 22-year-old, having come through the club game with Kelso, and left to make his mark on rugby’s only professional code of the time, rugby league. He represented Great Britain and then returned to union to play a try-scoring part in the British and Irish Lions series win in South Africa a decade after his international debut.
He was still scoring tries two years on as Scotland claimed the last Five Nations Championship, showing a knack for scoring that has him ranked as his nation’s most prolific try-scorer, never mind centre, in terms of tries-to-games ratio (17 in 27 Tests).
He retired at the age of 35, the same age O’Driscoll will be when the curtain falls on his career at the conclusion of this Six Nations, and Tait believes that he should be held up as the greatest player of his generation.
He said: “I grew up watching great Welsh players Gareth Edwards, JPR [Williams], Barry John, Gerald Davies, and Gareth was my hero to be honest. But I rank O’Driscoll up there now, better in my mind than any of them.
“If you took a vote on the best five players ever to play in the Five or Six Nations, Brian would be in every one.”
Tait retired in 1999, the year that O’Driscoll was finishing his age-grade rugby and being readied for the step-up to the Test arena in 2000, but he recalls having his eyes opened to the new talent pretty swiftly.
“I remember clear as day when I first took note of him,” said Tait with a laugh.
“We went to Paris in 1999, which Scotland fans will remember well, and I scored two tries that day as we won the Five Nations trophy, with Wales’ help. I should have had a hat-trick, but the ref said the pass from Stuart Grimes was forward. It never was – perfectly flat. But I remember coming back with the lads the next day thinking that was a special achievement, to win in France the way we did and to score two tries in Paris.
“And then, the next season, this kid in his first Six Nations, first time playing in France, scores a hat-trick against them. It was amazing and I thought then ‘this kid is going to be something special’.”
Then Tait had to try to put the shackles on him.
“I retired in ’99 and joined Ian McGeechan as defence coach, but it was not a lot of fun trying to stop him. He scored against us in that first year  and got a hat-trick back at Lansdowne in 2002. His footwork was just so good that whatever you did to get in front of him he was able to dart in and out, use his feet, his strength and his pace to get away. He was always a step ahead.”
O’Driscoll has scored more tries against France (eight) than any other nation in his 128 games for Ireland, but since that hat-trick 12 years ago the only other time he has scored against Scotland was in the 2010 defeat at Croke Park. He will win his 129th cap when he runs out at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow afternoon, taking him past Ronan O’Gara as Ireland’s most-capped player, and it is that longevity that Tait points to as what lifts him above all others.
“It is not just that he has played for 15 years at the top,” he explained, “but that he has adapted to the way the game has changed so that he has been one of the top players year in year out.
“That’s hard. Most players have a few good years, if they’re lucky, but it’s rare for any player to maintain a really high standard week in week out for club and country now, because the professional game changes so quickly. Players are analysed to death by opposition coaches, who eventually work out a way to shut them down.
“But O’Driscoll just keeps coming back. He started out in an Irish team that used a hard, sliding defence, and he was a good defender in that system. But then the team changed to a faster, straight-up defence, which asks different questions of the defender as well as the attacking team.
“Youngsters take a while to get to grips with a change like that, because it’s the total opposite of what you’ve been doing before, but I watched O’Driscoll and he adapted quickly, and he has again and again and still been one of Ireland’s best defenders.
“As the game developed around the breakdown, he led the way in learning to play like an openside flanker, getting to the breakdown and stealing ball. His body shape is perfect for it, a squat fella, physically strong, and good at getting over man and ball.
“But I remember Jim Telfer telling me when I played to get my head into the rucks a bit more and I just thought ‘keep out of there; you can’t score tries with your head in rucks’. But O’Driscoll has done that, and still scored tries; more tries than anyone.”
Tait sees a kindred spirit there.
“It’s all about support lines, which is something I learned in league. He will do the dirty work but he can read a game and sees where breaks are happening, and he has the speed to get there and support. It doesn’t matter who’s breaking, he’ll be on his shoulder, there for the last pass if he’s needed, and that’s why he’s got a shed-load of tries.”
The figure is 46 to be precise, not including his memorable score against the Wallabies in the first British and Irish Lions Test win and his introduction to the wider world on the 2001 tour. He shares that tally with All Blacks Christian Cullen and Joe Rokocoko, with only seven of the world’s greatest wingers ahead of him. Umaga (36) and Will Greenwood (31) are the next centres to appear in the list.
“People probably think he was born with that ability,” said Tait. “He’s not. I know from playing the position, and the different codes, that you have to work really, really hard to learn that, and still be good at it.
“Lots of players get caught out and go from being a kingpin to average or slipping out of the team because they can’t adapt. But he has learned the game and that is what has helped him adapt and still be so influential with Leinster and Ireland.
“But he also has that real competitive streak that all champions have. He wants to go the extra mile to score, or to win, and will push guys around him, and I think that’s why he’s come back for this last championship. He doesn’t want his last memory being dropped for the last Lions Test.
“He wants to go out on his own terms and I’m sure he believes it will be with a last Six Nations title,” added Tait. “He has been a main part of the rise in Irish rugby, at Leinster and with Ireland, and you’ve got to applaud him. Hopefully, not this weekend right enough, but, 35 or not, I wouldn’t bet against him being the star of the show in this Six Nations again.
“And that would be a fitting end for the best centre I’ve ever seen.”