Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

O'Driscoll leads by example

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 05: Brian O'Driscoll, the Lions captain, dives over for the second try during the tour match between the Western Force and the British & Irish Lions at Patersons Stadium on June 5, 2013 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The Lions were right to be indignant about the composition of a team performing so risibly under the title Western Force. Even at their strongest, they are regarded as Australia's feeblest Super Rugby challengers and so you might have thought they would have had enough pride in both themselves and the 125-year tradition of their guests not to call in nearly half a team of makeweights.

Players, to put it another way, unfit to share the same field as such men as Brian O'Driscoll, Jonny Sexton, George North, Leigh Halfpenny and, come to think of it, more or less everyone who pulled on a red shirt yesterday.

O'Driscoll made his case most beautifully. At 34, he is the man who has seen it all and done it all and in the process of scoring two sumptuous tries, he reminded us that the more you have done, the more you have seen, the better equipped you are to produce the best of yourself.

Of course, for him, the old body does need to hang together for at least a few more weeks as he challenges, along with his young England lieutenant Manu Tuilagi, the compelling Welsh force of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.

There, if ever there was one, is a combination of strength and perception to place in the most formidable of categories, but then if O'Driscoll-Tuilagi sounds somewhat more exotic, it also brings its own force of nature and most serious disruption.

The prevailing theory about the selection that was so brusquely turned into matchwood was that it was part of a cheap conspiracy to starve the Lions of the kind of opposition against which they might sharpen themselves before the opening Test match.

However, despite the two tries mustered by the Force in a couple of perhaps understandably unguarded moments by opponents feeling their land legs after arriving from the other side of the world, the Wallabies HQ and their embattled field marshal Robbie Deans may even now be thinking again.

Allowing the Lions to play some exquisite rugby, which they did with increasingly regularity in the 69-17 victory, and in very much their own time and inclination is maybe not the masterpiece of strategic thinking it might have appeared.

As coach Warren Gatland suggested in a voice which carried the edge of a stiletto, what local opposition fails to provide will just have to be supplemented on the training field, on which, heaven knows, there will be no shortage of the most serious competition.

The most riveting, surely, is O'Driscoll's last challenge for a place at the heart of the glory. To see him yesterday as relaxed as the most accomplished of gunfighters, interacting with the excellent Tuilagi and the brilliantly sharp Sexton and scoring an opening try of withering certainty after linking up with the gargantuan Welshman George North, was surely to see a master reclaiming some the best of his past.

When North returned the ball to him, he made for the corner flag with absolute certainty. He made everything seem so effortless, so formal, and this is a man who will always be best remembered for his willingness to put his body on the line in the most ferocious circumstances.

He made time and space for himself as easily the best ones always do. Certainly, he could hardly have more put country between himself and that ugly, recent day in Rome when he was sent to the sin-bin for stamping on an opponent. For all his admirers, the fear was that it might just be the last sighting of a great man – a bad place indeed for all the great work, the relentless battling, the flashpoints of penetrative brilliance, to end.

Now, who knows, it might just have a final expression at the very highest level of the game. Certainly, it was not difficult to believe that, whatever the deficiencies of the Western Force, this was a man who had steeled himself for one last statement of both a superior talent and will.

He was hardly alone. Sexton's try was the centrepiece of a performance of consistent subtlety, of the ability to draw defenders into places from which they couldn't defend. He laid traps and then sprang them as though he was flicking the pages of a well-thumbed book.

Jamie Heaslip and Tom Croft operated with a muscular beauty of their own, the Irishman weaving extraordinary patterns and the Englishman taking one hit that might have brought a pause in a charging rhino. He went off the field for entirely precautionary reasons. When you thought of Gatland's other back-row riches, as you had to when the relentless Toby Faletau made a late appearance with the urgency of a fire engine, it was to question all over again the Australian idea that this was a team which might be inclined to fatten its ego on the fodder of poorly fashioned opposition.

And then there was Halfpenny, who brushed so close to history when his huge kick against France in a World Cup semi-final fell so close to the crossbar. There may have been greater kicking feats than his yesterday but they do not lay irresistible claims on the memory.

He was 11 for 11 but such a statistic scarcely does justice to the precision and the nerve of his work. It was just another mark of the commitment he displayed when his grandfather, a former Swansea player, would collect him from school and take him to a rugby field. He kicked beyond the dusk approaching every kick, even those from the most demanding angles, with a brusque, unchallenged certainty.

When Gatland was asked to pick out some positives, he said that while he had plenty of options, he could not fail to mention the kicking of Halfpenny. That was true, even when Brian O'Driscoll, the greatest player of his generation, caught fire at least one more time.

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