The Cult: Brian O'Driscoll
Brian O'Driscoll was a blessing to rugby union, but also a man who survived by being blessed.
Illustration by Dan Evans
If there was one thing that caught the eye at this year's Champions Cup final – and there really was only one thing – it was the conspicuous lack of Irishmen. While Saracens and Racing 92 boasted players from England, France, Wales, Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as a couple of Scots and even a USA international, there was not an Irish player to be found, either on the pitch or on the bench. The only representatives of the Emerald Isle to feature in the game were touch judge George Clancy and television match official Simon McDowell.
It was a far cry from the days of Irish dominance in Europe; days still fresh in the memory for many fans.
In the four seasons between 2008 and 2012, Irish club Leinster won the European Champions Cup three times. Having defeated Northampton with a scintillating comeback in the 2010/11 edition of the tournament, they went on to defend their title with a 42-14 thrashing of Ulster the following year. Leinster became only the second ever team (after Leicester) to win back-to-back titles, while no team has won the competition on three occasions in so short a time.
From Jonathan Sexton to Rob Kearney, Gordon d'Arcy to Shane Horgan, there were many great players who contributed to Leinster's unprecedented success. However, none of them were quite so talismanic as the man who pulled the strings at outside centre. That man was, of course, Brian O'Driscoll.
Cult Grade: The Blessing
Brian O'Driscoll was a blessing to the game of rugby. Watching him play was an impossible thrill. His vision, creativity and swift, crisp passing made him the ultimate attacking asset, while his grit, steel and square-jawed determination meant he was equally capable of playing on the back foot. He had incredible success at club and international level, and received numerous individual accolades along the way. Still, his career could have been very different.
In fact, it could have been ended in premature and shocking circumstances.
On 25 June 2005, O'Driscoll was involved in one of the most controversial incidents in the history of rugby union. Though he has been reluctant to talk about the event in recent years, it has to be considered one of the defining moments of his sporting life. Widely considered to be the best player in the world at the time, he had been made captain of the British and Irish Lions ahead of their tour of New Zealand. The first Test took place in Christchurch, and saw the Lions take on the top-ranked team in the world. Barely two minutes into the match, and O'Driscoll's tour was over.
Making only a cursory attempt to contest an early ruck, O'Driscoll was not prepared for what was about to happen. With the ball already won by New Zealand, there was no reason for him to expect sudden contact. All Blacks skipper Tana Umaga and teammate Keven Mealamu knew what was coming, however. They didn't just tackle O'Driscoll. They picked him up simultaneously, before driving him into the ground head first.
Extending one arm to protect his head, O'Driscoll took the brunt of the impact on his shoulder; it was instantly dislocated as a result. As he writhed in pain on the moist turf, he almost certainly didn't realise how lucky he was. It's not an exaggeration to say that – had he not got his head out of the way – he could have suffered a career-ending injury.
O'Driscoll was rushed to hospital, and would spend several months on the sidelines. While the independent citing commissioner initially ruled that the All Blacks had no case to answer, fan footage that emerged after the incident compelled the International Rugby Board to publicly condemn the recklessness on display. With no precedent for retrospective action to be taken, Umaga and Mealamu went unpunished for their 'spear' tackle. Nonetheless, it was the start of a targeted crackdown on dangerous tackling practises, the aftermath of which still resonates to this day.
If that was an inadvertent legacy for O'Driscoll, it was still an important one. Meanwhile, he was blessed to be able to continue his career, and rugby was hugely fortunate to have him.
Point of Entry: Bloody High
O'Driscoll made his debut for Leinster just before the turn of the millennium, even though he had already earned his first cap for Ireland. This was after he had won the Under 19 World Championships in 1998, a tournament that announced him as one of the brightest young talents in the game. His dynamism and inventiveness were evident from the off, while he soon became a lynchpin of the back line for both club and country. Soft-spoken off the pitch, O'Driscoll was driven and wilful all the same.
He had come from a rugby family, with his father and two of his uncles winning Ireland caps before him. However, it was he who would make the O'Driscoll name synonymous with Irish rugby union, and it was he who would break half a dozen records in the process.
Though O'Driscoll won the inaugural Celtic League with Leinster in 2002, he would have to wait until later in his career to start racking up the major honours. Nevertheless, his individual performances were peerless wherever he played. In 2000, at 21 years of age, he scored a hat-trick of tries against France. A lithe, pale youth arrived in Paris, and Les Bleus fatally underestimated his exhilarating pace and power.
A year later, he marked his first Lions tour by scoring a sublime try against Australia. It was a sight that would become all too familiar over the next few years: O'Driscoll running at the defence; O'Driscoll ghosting through space; O'Driscoll jinking his way past the covering man like a ray of light through shattered glass; O'Driscoll touching down, there, on the try line, triumphant.
Tries like these were his benediction, and he bestowed them generously He built up a head of steam over the next few years and – bar the time he spent recovering from his shoulder injury – his momentum was unstoppable. He inspired Ireland to win the Triple Crown in 2004, and then helped them to repeat the feat three times in the next five years. He was named Six Nations Player of the Year in 2006, an accolade he would pick up again in 2007 and 2009.
When O'Driscoll won his first and only Grand Slam in 2009, he scored four tries to ensure Ireland cinched the ultimate prize. Those included a vital score in the deciding game against Wales at the Millennium Stadium, a match the visitors narrowly won 15-17. Showing the grittier side to his game, O'Driscoll strained every muscle to force his way through the grasping arms of Matthew Rees and reach the line.
That was O'Driscoll's crowning achievement on the international stage, though he did claim another Six Nations Championship just before his retirement in 2014. All in all, he finished his career as the highest try scorer Irish rugby has ever seen, having crossed the line 46 times in an emerald green shirt. He remains the second most-capped player in the history of rugby union, the highest scoring centre and the eighth highest try scorer of all time. He scored tries any way he could, though most of his opponents will remember him as a blur, a dummy and then nothing – nothing but the roar of the crowd.
While O'Driscoll had more than his fair share of defining triumphs in his career, it is another moment of adversity that stands out as particularly seminal. Having inspired Leinster to the semi-finals of the Champions (then Heineken) Cup in 2006, O'Driscoll and co. faced regional rivals Munster at a packed Lansdowne Road. They were soundly beaten 6-30, by a team that included Paul O'Connell, Axel Foley and the imperious Ronan O'Gara. Munster went on to win the tournament, while Leinster were then cruelly denied a league title after a narrow defeat to usurping champions Ulster.
While those setbacks may have broken a lesser team, they galvanised Leinster. While they might have crushed a lesser man, they gave O'Driscoll purpose. Two years later, he had another league title to his name. Then came Leinster's European heroics. They were revenged upon Munster in the semi-finals of the 2008/09 Heineken Cup, while their thumping win over Ulster topped off the 2011/12 season.
It was no coincidence that this success coincided with an upturn in Ireland's fortunes. Leinster's setbacks gave O'Driscoll resolve, and he used that resolve to drive both club and country on to victory.
Having been blessed with so much talent – and having used that talent for all it was worth – O'Driscoll inevitably started to slow down in his last couple of years. With his retirement mooted, he went into the 2012/13 season surrounded by unaccustomed uncertainty. With a Challenge Cup victory on the horizon for Leinster, the fans were determined to salute O'Driscoll in the semi-final against Biarritz.
After he scored the fifth try of an absolute rout, the only thing that could be heard in Dublin's RDS Arena were chants of: "One more year! One more year!" While he did, in fact, extend his playing career for another 12 months, that wasn't the point.
O'Driscoll was God's gift to rugby. We all wanted one more year, and then another, and another, for evermore.