FOR THE PAST decade, Irish optimism before the Six Nations has been through the roof. While many supporters get swept away after an operatic RTÉ promo, Brian O’Driscoll feels it on a cold Monday in January.
“It’s great driving through the [Carton House] gates, last week and this week, knowing it’s game-week,” he said. “I still get as much of a buzz. Maybe more so now that [I'm retiring]. I have huge belief in the squad and the coaching ticket that we’re going to go in the right direction, building with the lads for the World Cup.”
Ireland record try-scorer is just over three days away from the start of his final Six Nations campaign. He is confident of getting off to a winning start against Scotland, on Sunday, and hopeful Ireland will knock over Wales. Two wins from two in O’Driscoll’s final campaign may send the country into a state of hysteria but the outside centre is quick to temper expectations.
He commented, “You’d think that, most years, a Grand Slam winner is unlikely. It’s a bloody hard thing to do. Because of the calibre [of teams] and how the games are all so close now.
Definitely, with the improvement of Italy in recent years — they have beaten every team bar England in the Six Nations — all teams are capable of beating each other. You look at the calibre of the teams and think that for one team to win all five games is going to take a massive effort. That’s why we’ve got two of them [in our history]. Invariably some team gets up for than the in-form team and manages to topple them.”
O’Driscoll, who played his first game against Scotland 14 years ago, admits he allowed emotion to intervene last season as he contemplated retirement. Form and injuries aside, O’Driscoll will finish up away to France in March. His mantra in the coming weeks will be to ‘just go out and play’. “Just because it is the last one, it doesn’t add any more incentive. As professionals, you’re expected to deliver each time. There’s always peaking and troughing throughout a career and I’d like to think I’ve maintained a standard,” he said.
O’Driscoll celebrates his first win over Scotland in 2000. He scored a try in a 44-22 win at Lansdowne Road. INPHO/Patrick Bolger
As for the team’s frame of mind, O’Driscoll admits the raw emotion that came close to scuttling New Zealand is not available on-tap. He said, “You have to play with a mindset, not that you have a chip on your shoulder but that you have, and know, what your capabilities are and not relying on emotion. If we can have your details and strategy as second nature then we can focus on the way we go out and play our game and the physicality you bring and the territory you play.
“When you have to take a second to think what plays are you take away a certain part of your game. That has been a big focus — what we know we’re doing for two or three phases is second nature. Then you can concentrate on cleaning out rucks, where you’re meant to be or what lines you’re meant to run.”
Being a leader of men is also second nature to the 129-cap veteran. With the World Cup in mind, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt selected Paul O’Connell as his captain. The decision, says O’Driscoll, makes life ‘a little less stressful’. He added:
I’ve always said it’s a lot easier to be a leader when you don’t have the captain’s armband than when you do have it. There’s less expected of you. When you’re not captain there is an extra onus on you to help out and share the workload. I’d always expect that [of others] as captain and, now that I’m not, I’d offer Paulie a bit of a dig-out so it’s not as stressful for him being the only voice. I don’t miss the day over in London, for sure. I’ve done plenty of them.”
Sunday’s clash with Scotland will be O’Driscoll’s last. He has played them 14 times, winning 10, losing four and scoring five tries, including a hat-trick at Lansdowne Road in 2002. He said, “In the last four years we’ve shared the spoils so we have a healthy respect for them. We definitely feel that, if we implement our game, we’re totally capable of beating them. You don’t get results from expectation. You still have to deliver.”
“They’ve always been an awkward team to play,” O’Driscoll added. “Traditionally, they are very effective at the tackle area, very good in possession and in defence. They’re about slowing the ball down and playing right on the offside line. They’ve tried to develop their game in the last few years, playing a more expansive game. You can see their two Rabo teams [Edinburgh and Glasgow], they play an awful lot of width so you have to adapt your defensive systems.
“They play with a huge amount of passion when they pull on the jersey. They’re a very passionate team and I know that if they are in the game in the last 10, 15 minutes they are a very difficult team to shake off. A big aspect will be starting well against them.”
O’Driscoll tells TheScore.ie Ireland are ‘totally capable’ of beating the Scots. INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Warren Gatland’s Wales arrive in Dublin six days after the Scotland match and the subject of O’Driscoll’s axing from the third Lions Test against Australia will rear its head again. “That’s why I’m here this week,” the centre joked.
“I don’t really pay that much attention to it,” he continued. “Look, what happened happened; no-one can change it. I bear no ill will towards Warren. Afterwards your emotions are a bit different; time heals all wounds and I don’t have any animosity towards him. What I will look to do is be involved in a team that can beat his team. That’s next week. We’ve got a game to think about this week.”