Brian O'Driscoll fuels Irish desire for glory
Published 13/03/2014 | 01:30
It was, by every stretch of the imagination, the perfect way for him to have bade Dublin farewell.
Brian O'Driscoll's man of the match performance against Italy on Saturday has left Ireland in the driving seat going into this weekend's all-important showdown with France in Paris, the city in which, 14 years ago, the world became fully aware of him.
Saturday past had everything – glorious conditions, full house, total belief that there could be no outcome other than a home win, a result which confirmed the validity of that conviction and all of that topped off with another master-class from the man they had all come to see create history by becoming rugby union's most capped Test player of all time.
This weekend, those of us who will be in Stade de France get to see the curtain come down on what has been 15 years of sheer quality underwritten by raw courage. So how apt, how gloriously fitting and richly deserved, if O'Driscoll's final performance on the international stage were to end with Ireland clinching the RBS 6 Nations Championship.
The statistics and the record books suggest otherwise, of course. Since 1972, when an Ireland team which included five new caps in lock Con Feighery, flanker Sewart McKinney, scrum-half John Moloney and fellow-wings Tom Grace and Wallace McMaster beat France 14-9 at Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir, Colombes, there has been just one victory in the French capital.
The year was 2000, the date was March 19 and you know the rest of the story; a 21-year-old called O'Driscoll helped himself to a hat-trick and his team to a 27-25 win at Stade de France. Fairytale stuff.
For the record, the victorious team that Sabbath afternoon was: Girvan Dempsey; Kevin Maggs, O'Driscoll, Rob Henderson, Denis Hickie; Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer; Peter Clohessy, Keith Wood (captain), John Hayes; Mick Galwey, Malcolm O'Kelly; Simon Easterby, Kieron Dawson and Anthony Foley.
The seven replacements included four Ulstermen – David Humphreys, who landed a conversion and two penalties, Paddy Johns, who deputised for Galwey for the final 26 minutes and then spent 10 of those in the sin-bin, Dawson's replacement Andy Ward and Justin Fitzpatrick, who was not deployed. Nor were Guy Easterby, Mike Mullins or Frank Sheahan.
Of the 22 Irish players who togged out on that occasion, O'Driscoll will be the only one on the Stade de France pitch this weekend. In the visitors' dressing room, he will be the sole link with the heroics of 14 years ago and the only one to have savoured success in the city on the Seine.
Now those stark statistics – two wins in 42 years – are hardly the sort to foster faith. So why is it that there is genuine belief that, this time, Ireland will buck convention?
There are a couple of good reasons. Firstly, by French standards, this is no great side. Consider: they picked England's pocket to pinch a 26-24 tea-time victory on the opening day.
They produced 10 minutes of good rugby to win 30-10 against Italian guests who, but for that spell in the second-half, more than matched them.
They lost 27-6 to Wales, who blew them away in Cardiff.
And at the weekend, once again they failed to impress in beating Scotland at Murrayfield where they were outscored two tries to one. Even then, their touch-down came from an interception by Yoann Huget.
The flair and fluency which were hallmarks of previous French sides are missing from the Class of 2014. Coach Philippe Saint-André has remained unbowed in the face of questions over his selections and tactics.
The sight of cockerel feathers flying from within an unhappy Bleus camp does Ireland's cause no harm at all, of course, for that is an improbable environment in which to foster bonhomie.
In stark contrast, Ireland's players are united, confident in themselves and one another and fuelled by a burning desire to make their esteemed colleague bow out triumphant.
It hardly seems fair that since setting the world alight on March 19, 2000, O'Driscoll has been in only one Six Nations Championship-winning side – 2009. Saturday is the day to add a little long overdue justice.