TWENTY FOUR GAMES, thirteen wins, eight tries and three trophies; that has been the tangible sum of Brian O’Driscoll’s 2013 – the fittingly numbered final full year of his illustrious career.
Behind the cold hard facts, though, it has been a year of firsts, lasts, highs and lows.
In six months’ time Ireland’s finest ever rugby player will hang up his boots and gum-shield alongside his snazzy green gloves. From here on in, we’re in for a long goodbye.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because that same scenario was a possibility this time last year too. This time, however, O’Driscoll is one year older, there is no odd transfer link to the Waratahs and no doubt that he will cross the line for the final time this season.
In March, crossing the line is exactly what BOD did. His ill-tempered stamp upon the chest of Simone Favaro an act of sheer frustration at an international campaign that had contorted into such a sorry state.
YouTube credit: RBS 6 Nations
Such a glittering career, ended with defeat in Rome and the office of the disciplinary commissioner? ‘It can’t end like that’, we said as much in hope as expectation. It had all began so beautifully, the centre proving his worth to any uppity quick-draw doubters with a performance of guile and wit to make up for the deteriorating raw speed and acceleration.
O’Driscoll’s sublime pass to Simon Zebo set Ireland on the way to victory over Wales and gave the nation cause to hope in the final months of Declan Kidney’s contract. The tables had turned within 40 minutes, but O’Driscoll’s ‘warrior spirit’ was in full view as Wales attacked in waves. Fortunately, his second half try with loud echoes of his one-yard efforts in the Grand Slam season, had been enough to claim one of only two wins for his country in the calendar year.
If that one game showed the full range of the centre’s powers, the wider competition ensured he would inspire the full range of emotions among fans. The stamp in Rome brought disappointment; the draw at home to France will have moved most to grave concern as the down side of that ‘warrior spirit’ took him back onto the field after a heavy blow to the head and directly into a tackling mismatch with Vincent Debaty.
The image of O’Driscoll’s wife Amy on the sidelines, their child Sadie just four weeks old, spoke volumes of the new realities and responsibilities that O’Driscoll must shoulder. However, neither he nor Luke Marshall were officially marked as concussed that day and so the Italian job was allowed to happen.
The failures of 2012 meant that April arrived with only Amlin Challenge Cup action to distract from the push towards the Pro12 title. O’Driscoll’s three-week suspension ended in plenty of time for two finals on home turf. The 34-year-old helped his loyal lieutenants Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa – not to mention Joe Schmidt – take their leave from the province with two further medals to add to the collection at the expense of Biarritz and Ulster.
O’Driscoll celebrates the Pro12 win with Eoin O’Malley, who would be forced to retire later in the year. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
His one-year contract extension was a welcome arrival, if only to end the constant questions about finishing up, but as soon as one pile of ‘lasts’ was postponed until the 2013/14 season, the double-edged sword of the Lions tour caught the light.
Back where he first caught the attention of the rugby world, O’Driscoll was again the man who made people sit up and take notice.
By Test time, there had been little reason to doubt his place. In he slotted alongside Jonathan Davies, but the last of his four Lions tours would also bring a first; O’Driscoll was dropped.
The cold, hard scoreboard made Warren Gatland feel vindicated, but Ireland is simply not accustomed to seeing its finest produce seated and suited in the stands when there is a serious result at stake.
O’Driscoll, to his credit, did not take the bait. He bit his lip and fired the starting XV up as if he were still one of them them. Sexton felt as if he’d been dropped himself and that pretty much summed up the confusion and anger on these shores.
The Lions won, O’Driscoll claimed his first series at the fourth attempt. Jonathan Davies did the job at outside centre, but it was a humdrum performance compared to the domination displayed by the touring pack.
Back on home soil, O’Driscoll’s season was delayed by the tour of Australia and made to stutter by a niggling calf injury, but Joe Schmidt must have had nightmares about going into a first Test without O’Driscoll as a safety blanket. Ireland were slow starters when Samoa came to Lansdowne, but BOD’s quick-thinking between-the-legs pass opened up the Pacific Islanders and led to a crucial second half Sean O’Brien try.
Australia’s visit to Dublin is best forgotten for anyone outside the green and gold umbrella, but no matter how hard we try, 2013’s final international cannot be erased. INPHO photographer Billy Stickland has since spoke about the balancing act that goes on at a moment such as Ireland’s late 22 – 17 lead over the world champions.
‘Brian was about to explode’, Stickland recalled in an interview on Second Captains. However, the final whistle would come only after the former captain – this time withdrawn on concussion protocols – had watched another possible ‘first’ slip agonisingly away as Ryan Crotty slipped past Ian Madigan. There was no explosion, just a vacuum.
The centre would bring highs again in the shape of another trademark-able pass shifted blind between his legs to help Leinster carve open Northampton in the Heineken Cup, but despite demonstrating his endless skill at the beginning and end of the year, two subsequent losses underlined that 2013 will not be his favourite vintage to look back on.
Fortunately, O’Driscoll still has 2014 to keep his stats ticking upwards. ’14 may not be a number that identifies so easily with one of the world’s best ever centres, but to come away from Paris on 133 caps (and hopefully another medal) might just be a fitting way to finally bow out.
One thing is for sure: the game will miss him when he’s gone.