BRIAN O’DRISCOLL HAS only experienced the feeling of being a Test match sub once in his 136-match international career.
He came off the bench in a 44-14 World Cup pool match victory over Romania in 1999. O’Driscoll, who was 20 at the time, was joined on the bench by Gordon D’Arcy that day. This Sunday the duo will hope to start in the Irish midfield for together for the 52nd time. O’Driscoll is in line for Ireland cap number 130 but confesses that coach Joe Schmidt is giving nothing away.
“He plays it well; there’s a lot of guys fitting in and out,” said O’Driscoll. “I’ve never been certain that I’m going to be a starter under Joe. It’s a good way to be from a player point of view. It keeps you sharp; make sure you’re focused, make sure you know your detail as he is big on detail.
I’d never say I’d take anything for granted. With [Schmidt], invariably if he starts from 15, I don’t hear numbers 12 to 1. Once you hear your name read out you kind of blank out a bit. I’m still delighted to be part of it. That will be no different this week or any future weeks.”
Connacht out-half Dan Parks, who played 67 times for Scotland, had another way of listening out to the team announcement. He told TheScore.ie, “The Scotland teams were often read out 1 to 15 so I would listen out for players’ names and be on the look-out for trends; the unknown. Anyone not on the team that you thought would be there would make me think ‘Wait a minute’.
“Unless you’ve been spoken to beforehand you know that you should be ok. The first game of the Six Nations, though, is different. No-one is dropped and no-one is there on merit. When your name is called, you get very excited about it. The jersey is yours for the tournament if you can hold onto it.”
Rory Best has been Ireland’s first-choice hooker, when fit, for more than three seasons and has also captained his country. He agrees with O’Driscoll and Parks, however, that the morning of team announcements are often fraught affairs for individual players.
The obvious competition for places, says Best, ultimately benefits the squad as a whole. “When you are training it puts pressure on because there are some real quality players there now,” he said, “so whenever you are training, if you don’t get it right in the scrum, you are going to get done. It closely replicates this weekend [against Scotland].”
Robbie Henshaw (right) is the main threat to O’Driscoll’s starting spot. INPHO/Dan Sheridan
“That type of thing is great to see,” Best added. “Especially with their age profile. These guys are young. They have got a fantastic future ahead of them but it is important now they know this is just step up. Getting into the extended squad is step one and the next thing is getting into the matchday squad. Then you got to be looking to start and looking to push on and better yourself every time.”
“With the attitude these boys have, that is the attitude they are going to adapt. They will give you that impression. It is great for the squad. You need to be able to bank against injuries but competition for places drives everyone on and it’s a good thing.”
“It’s much more difficult than when I broke into the team in the late 90s,” said O’Driscoll. “Trying to establish yourself as a 20, 21-year-old, because there is so much strength in depth you have to do your few years of apprenticeship and being involved in the squad.
“There’s always going to be the exception to the rule. Guys like Robbie Henshaw that have broken in at 20 and he has already managed to get capped. There are few and far of those guys coming through because such is the competition for each place.”
If O’Driscoll avoids the pat on the shoulder before the team announcement he should be a safe bet to hold off Henshaw for another while yet. The talismanic centre will not relax, however, until he hears 13… Brian O’Driscoll.