BRIAN O’DRISCOLL INSISTS that the focus within the Ireland camp, both from a personal and squad point of view, has got little to do with the fact that the forthcoming Six Nations clash with Italy will be his last home game at international level.
There is far more to rugby than individual landmarks, and Joe Schmidt’s men are intensely concerned with keeping their championship bid on track with a victory in Dublin this weekend.
Underestimating the Italians is always a perilous business and with points difference likely to play a role in deciding this year’s Six Nations winners, there is a danger that this weekend’s game becomes all about racking up tries.
The sage O’Driscoll points out that such an approach would be foolish.
“I don’t think you can go into an Italy game thinking about a score. You’ve got to go in thinking about the process of trying to be clinical in finishing your opportunities. If that means that the Italian team you face has a brilliant day and you win by a point, well then so be it.
We have too much respect for them, particularly after last season’s result. They won the game and deserved to win. They are capable of beating any team in the championship; England are the only team they haven’t beaten in the Six Nations.
“We’re absolutely aware that they’re a team very much on the up and we’ll have our work cut out to contain them and beat them.”
Ireland have had a weekend to reflect on the narrow loss in Twickenham last time out, a performance with which many saw as holding several positives for Schmidt. Typically, O’Driscoll has instead pinpointed the areas that need swift improvement.
“We have obviously analysed the tape extensively and realised that we weren’t very good. We left a few scores out there ourselves, but probably our last ditch tackling saved us from conceding another couple.
Source: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
“When you look back on it and pull it apart that way, we have lots to improve on. It’s hard to specify in one area. Definitely our defence and our one-on-one tackling needs to be more accurate.
“We have certain targets that we expect; you want above 90% tackle completion. When you start slipping below that, it tends to get more difficult to win Test matches. I think that’s a good place to start.”
Having limped off in the closing stages against England, much of O’Driscoll’s time since that fixture has been spent tending to a problematic calf. Although the issue now looks remedied, the 35-year-old admits there was “little bit of apprehension” as he recovered.
The Leinster centre has come to know his body – and therefore, any signs of injury – with intimate detail, and says he was positive he “caught it in time”. He will take a full part in training tomorrow and stresses that he is “feeling good.”
A deeply worrying concussion for Luke Marshall last weekend means that O’Driscoll is more likely to be partnered once again by Gordon D’Arcy in midfield against Italy. That pairing has proved to have more longevity that any other in world rugby, as well as a high degree of success.
O’Driscoll says he feels utterly at ease with his provincial teammate by his side.
“We just know each other’s style of play. We’ve a good ability to be able to read what one another are thinking and have a lot of comfort in being beside one another. In a lot of new centre partnerships, you need communication to be a huge aspect of your cohesion.
“Whereas with us – not that there’s an element of telepathy – there’s an understanding that I don’t have with other people. I can see, having been in the situation lots of times with him, what he’s thinking.
Source: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
“There’s huge trust as well, particularly from a defensive point of view. He’s a dream to defend with, because I know he’s going to make his tackles. I can only remember one missed tackle, pretty much, in his whole career that was costly.”
“He’s been an exceptional defender and I’ve really enjoyed playing with him. When he’s there, I feel as though we’ve got a good relationship that can cause teams trouble.”
That trust and understanding could easily be used to describe O’Driscoll’s playing interaction with Jonny Sexton too, even if himself and D’Arcy have several years more of experience linking up.
The Racing Métro man faces a specialist examination on his thumb injury this evening, but even if he is passed fit to train this week, Schmidt may be tempted to give one of his young understudies a starting chance.
Paddy Jackson would appear to be next in line, judging by his three substitute appearances in the tournament so far, and O’Driscoll would be more than happy to play outside the Ulsterman.
I played a bit with Jacko last year and I think he’s really stepped up to the plate in the first half of this season for his province. He’s deserved his chance, albeit he’s playing behind one of the best 10s in the world [Sexton].
“But if he gets his opportunity, he’s trained with us the whole time and he’s got his own qualities that he brings to a game as well. If the situation arose, we are lucky that we have strength in depth in that position.”