‘ONE MORE YEAR,’ they chanted. And who could have blamed them.
2013 seemed like a fitting enough number for Brian O’Driscoll to finish on.
However, aside from the magical interventions in the Millennium Stadium, the first five months of the year could only force you to think: ’No. It can’t end like this.’
‘Not in the Amlin Challenge Cup, that’s not right.’
‘Not battered and scarred in a disastrous Six Nations for Ireland.’
‘There are records still unbroken, Brian.’
‘Not in that Roman sin-bin.’
‘One. More. Year.’ Yes!
“There was a bit of bullying both ways really, going back quite a few months,” said head coach Joe Schmidt after BOD’s big leaving do against Italy last week.
“In the days of the big direct running, he might be the final bastion along with Gordon (D’Arcy) for the smaller centre who is a creator of play rather than a direct runner.”
In no fixture has that been better illustrated than when Ireland play France (or when Leinster play Toulon next month): Mathieu Bastareaud, the man mountain who has given O’Driscoll some of the roughest rides of career, did so once again today.
But as immense as the French 13 is, he could not outshine the man opposite him. Not today. It’s so rare in sport that a life’s work is given the ending it deserves, but that is precisely what O’Driscoll received today.
“I’m so delighted to go out on this high,” he told RTE before the tears came flooding out at the mention of the last Schmidt team talk he would hear.
“It’s exactly what you would have wanted, to have a second Six Nations medal around my neck.”
His second Six Nations medal in his 141st and final international cap. Athletes are supposed to deteriorate with age, but O’Driscoll has continued to set a high bar. He has changed over the years; the creativity was always there, but young O’Driscoll’s speed and ability to operate purely as a strike-runner, naturally drew the attention away.
His instant control of the oval ball was previously best illustrated by a host of tries scored by picking a ball effortlessly off the turf while barely breaking stride. These days, as he freely admits, the tries have become more rare. He has scored only one for Ireland since 2011, but the frequency with which was he is assisting or creating scores never abated.
The win in Paris showed another side of his game that makes him great – the man who revels in trench warfare. When there is no gap, O’Driscoll is the ball carrier Ireland call on to set a base, to make vital inches over the gainline and to set an attack in motion.
When the opposition run (and France run at Ireland like few others can dream of) the 35-year-old body shakes off the pain of a briefly treated injury. He shakes off the memory of early missed tackles.He goes low on Bastareaud, he forces the error. And when the rest of the team is at panic stations, he is a calm head in a patched together Ireland backline.
Whoever Joe Schmidt selects as his replacement this summer has an enormous task, because right down to the last minute of his 15 years in green, O’Driscoll has been pivotal to a nation’s hopes.
‘One more year?’ His French interviewer asked after the glorious sound of the final whistle came.
There is no need. Records have been broken, frustration washed away, 12 months have brought medals to replaced the scars. Brian O’Driscoll bows out of international rugby at the very top.
It’s how it was meant to be.