Irish put their faith in Bod

WEDNESDAY afternoon, and the biggest media circus that rugby veterans can remember has arrived in town. At the Citywest Hotel, Irish players are dotted around, their words directed at microphones and notebooks. Geordan Murphy in one corner, Denis Hickie in another, David Humphreys, Kevin Maggs, Gary Longwell.

Another player is engulfed by reporters, and can barely be seen. That will be the Brian O’Driscoll press conference. The day of days is looming, and the captain and superstar is in demand. Those asking questions are watchful, as if seeking special insight into the greatness, the magic.

It’s a sunny day, and O’Driscoll - known to friends as Bod, but increasingly to his awed but amused team-mates as God - is in a sunny mood. He is relaxed, has an open face and likeable disposition. There is no mystery: what you see is what you get.

He was born to be brilliant at games, and he took his talent seriously enough to bring it as far as he could, to the elite end of the international game. He is the one marked out as world class, the once-in-a-generation, and in Ireland’s case, maybe one in several generations.

The roll-call of truly great rugby backs is sparse, a thin green line that might yet link O’Driscoll to Mike Gibson and to Jack Kyle who, on March 13, 1948, won with his team the Grand Slam and a place in history that has not been emulated. Today, O’Driscoll and his team get their shot at the title.

"He automatically has the respect of world rugby," Jeremy Guscott, the former England and Lions back, confirms. "But in terms of history, if he was to lead Ireland to a Grand Slam, it would be unforgettable. It would bring him huge, huge credibility and respect."

But it is premature to call O’Driscoll great, he says, because you have to win the prizes: "Otherwise there’s nothing tangible that you could say you were part of."

As one of the great centres of his era, Guscott has been an admirer of O’Driscoll’s play from the start. "What appeals to me about him is that he plays what he sees. A lot of players are coached in the one-dimensional form. It’s very number-orientated: ‘This is what we’re going to do from first phase, second phase and third phase.’

"But when you’ve a character like O’Driscoll, he plays what he sees, and that’s a rare talent right now in rugby.

"The big X factor about Brian was that he broke into the team, had a great first year, and people said: ‘What’s going to happen to him next year, because they know all about him now?’ But he was able to go on, score more tries, have a huge impact on the Lions tour [of Australia] to the point now where Keith Wood is out, and he’s seen as a man who is the inspiration, the talisman and the captain - all wrapped up in one player."

Guscott was among the few who appeared to play the game in their own time, aloof from the frantic rhythm around him. He swayed through gaps languidly, gliding into space. O’Driscoll scrambles through gaps; he is not elegant, but exhilarating, a hustler.

"I think the difference between myself and Brian is that I saw the hole, and ran into it. Brian can do that as well, but he generally creates his own space, and follows through it."

Ultimately, though, the O’Driscoll package is more complete, and it probably makes him unique. The big tackle-count, physical courage, fierce defensive zeal. The appetite for attrition is integral to his game.

"Brian O’Driscoll?"Philippe Sella is somewhere in France on his mobile phone.

"Ah," laughs one of the all-time great centre-threequarters, "in France we call him Brilliant O’Driscoll.

"There is two things. One, as a man he has great values. He is very serious, and respects the team-mates, the game, the rules. But after [the game] he is one guy like everybody. I think he doesn’t want to be a star, he is a team-mate, he is...modest, ’umble. That is something I like a lot.

"And as a player, I think he is one player like few players in the world. And he accelerate very easy. Acceleration and [side]steps, good steps, I think that is his best skill. He is a winner player; it is very interesting to see him, and when you watch Irish team, you watch as well one key player - Brian O’Driscoll."

The man made his senior Irish debut in June 1999, against Australia, and the following spring he became famous with three tries in Paris. Few players seem to reach big-time sport without some crises along the way, such as injuries, self-doubt, mismanagement or personal baggage. The captain’s story is conspicuously smooth, a vertical ascent to stardom.

At 13, he was already precocious. Shane Moore, now contracted to Connacht, partnered him at centre in the under-19 side which won the World Cup in 1998. He played against him some six years earlier when O’Driscoll was at Willow Park and Moore at Belvedere College.

"I think we were 12 or 13. He was playing out-half, and he was kicking balls off left and right foot, and it was like: ‘What the hell is this guy doing? You’re not allowed do that.’

"I don’t remember anything else about that game: it just stuck out in my mind, Brian kicking with both feet, pinging it down into different corners."

They crossed paths regularly thereafter, eventually teaming up in a Leinster schools side, and subsequently for the under-19s.

"He just kept blossoming from there on. He was a key player on the 19s that won the World Cup, and then he took flight, basically - two years later he was scoring three tries against the French in Paris. But I don’t really see any difference: he played the way he plays for Ireland. There was the same hunger and desire and will to get the ball, and to tackle the guy with the ball."

At Blackrock College, the only doubt concerned his size, and he did not make the senior cup team until his final year. Bob Casey, now at London Irish, was one year ahead: "Very small back then, but you could see the touches of brilliance. He came on for one game in the junior cup, and got this amazing try: a move off the back of the scrum, and he went blind, dummy, dummy, and went over in the corner."

A scholarship followed at University College Dublin, where he graduated after two years with a diploma in sports management that he may never need. He had obvious potential, says UCD’s director of rugby John McClean, but was by no means a guaranteed star in the making. Indeed, they put him on a series of weights programmes, athletics specialist Liam Hennessy worked with him on his speed, and they played him in the university’s under-20 side, deliberately calibrating his transition from schools to adult rugby.

Towards the end of his first year, 1997-98, he was moved up to the UCD first team, then playing in division three of the All-Ireland League. The following season, bulked up and faster, he was UCD’s best player, and that summer made his Ireland debut on the tour of Australia. "He was moving up and moving on," says McClean.

In the spring of 2000, the sports management department at UCD invited him back to attend an open day for school-leavers. It was scheduled for the Monday after Ireland played France in Paris, and O’Driscoll’s hat-trick had made headlines everywhere.

"He came along to the stand," McClean recalls, "and he was mobbed. They were all looking for his autograph, and it was chaos." An overnight sensation. "Exactly. He was a bit bewildered, I think, at that stage, but he’s handled it very well since. He’s an intelligent guy and a very solid fellow, and he knows that the thing that has got him to where he is is his rugby ability. That’s the most important thing to him, and I don’t think he’s likely to lose that in any way."

In fact, it will probably only get better. He has scored 18 tries in 37 games - but only turned 24 in January. "I think he can probably get better. He’d say that himself, I’m sure," McClean says.

Admirers have one reservation - his passing.

Kevin Flynn was capped 22 times over three decades at centre, and his two all-time favourites in that position are Sella and the South African, Danie Gerber. "I would rate those the two best I have ever seen, and I think O’Driscoll has the capacity to surpass them. He’s the first guy I’ve seen in a long time, if indeed ever, who can run straight at a man and come off either foot. Oh, he’s a special talent.

"I think his passing could be developed. It’s just experience. Mick Gibson had this vision - he had the total vision of the field - and I think if Brian was playing with a New Zealand side or the present English side, he’d get more opportunity to display his repertoire, and in the process he would better his timing with the ball.

"With this Irish side at the moment, they’re not getting enough ball to him to display his talents. He has to take on the senior role himself when, in fact, age-wise he still needs time to develop."

Everything else is there, says Sella: he just needs to be "more consistent for the pass at the right moment. Sometimes he need maybe to be more precise. But Brian O’Driscoll today is a great player, and tomorrow he will still be a great player, maybe better."

Back in the Citywest Hotel, the man of the moment retains his mellow mood. He can switch off easily, he says, and likes "to chill out" before a game.

But it was difficult at times last week after the victory against Wales, "because of what the possibilities are. A Grand Slam. It’s a great thought to have, the opportunity of lifting a trophy."