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No one can steal Brian O'Driscoll's spotlight

By Niall Crozier

Brian O'Driscoll has sought to play down the personal significance of this Saturday afternoon's Ireland versus Italy RBS 6 Nations Championship at the Aviva Stadium (2.30pm).

In case you have been living as a hermit with no access to what is going on beyond the confines of your isolated retreat, let me bring you up to speed.

Saturday will see O'Driscoll become the world's most capped international rugby player of all time. Now that's quite an achievement.

Fittingly, the hand of fate has intervened to ensure it is in Dublin, his native city, that he will surpass the 139-cap record he currently shares with former Australian scrum-half George Gregan. And the fact that he will do so in what is his last-ever home game for Ireland before retiring makes it an almost-perfect package.

Right now he wants the focus and people's attention to be on the game rather than on him. He may as well sit in a deck chair on the beach at Dollymount Strand in the hope that his presence will somehow stop the Irish Sea tide coming in.

He is wasting his time on that one, because it's just not going to happen. How could it? He has been Irish rugby's pin-up boy for the past 15 years. This is encore time.

In 2010, Rugby World magazine named him as the Player of the Decade, a richly deserved accolade for the man who, in 2009 – after a wait of 61 years – led Ireland to their second-ever Grand Slam having steered them to three Triple Crowns in 2004, 2006 and 2007.

One cannot but admire his determination to put the team first, though that ought not to have come as a surprise to anyone; he has always done that. Time without number we have seen him quite literally put his body on the line.

His physical courage is matched by his modesty, his insistence always having been that rugby is a team game.

That was never better illustrated than at Ireland's Carton House training camp on Monday when a journalist asked him if he would find it difficult to separate his feelings as an individual from the collective team effort.

There was near-incredulity in O'Driscoll's voice as he stopped the questioner dead in his tracks with the words: "There is no individual feeling, there really isn't.

"I've never been one for great sentiment while living in the moment. There's always time to reflect afterwards and that's the time to do it.

"The team has absolute priority and always has done, so there will be no extra emphasis made from anyone about this weekend other than (it being) an opportunity to get ourselves a final-day showdown with France."

That questioner was not the only person O'Driscoll felt the need to put right. Paul O'Connell – albeit in his absence – was corrected, too, for having said: "Brian, almost single-handedly, has changed the face of Irish rugby."

The man on the verge of history was having none of that, either. When asked if he felt that had been an OTT remark by the big Munster man, he replied: "Yeah, of course it's over the top.

"I was very lucky I was there at a time when there was great young talent coming through – someone like Gordon D'Arcy, the ROGs, the Strings, Simon Easterby, Hayes, all came in within six months of my first cap.

"I think we all had a big say in guiding expectations levels first of all and then performance to where they should be. Now all the guys coming in know that's the benchmark."

That benchmark for any intent on taking the number 13 he has worn with such distinction could not be higher or more deeply carved. Listing the candidates O'Driscoll highlighted Darren Cave, Robbie Henshaw, Luke Fitzgerald and Jared Payne, Ulster's Kiwi who will be Irish-qualified as of November.

The task in taking over from a great is onerous – just ask David Moyes, who has the unenviable task of trying to perform the role previously undertaken by Sir Alex Ferguson. The bigger the shoes, the harder they are to fill.

In O'Driscoll's case it's boots rather than shoes, but they are enormous. He has been a quite brilliant player and a truly outstanding ambassador.

Captain of Ireland on a record 83 occasions, he also led the 2005 Lions. All told, he toured on four occasions as a Lion.

With 46 tries and five drop-goals to his credit, no player has touched down more times for Ireland. His record includes a hat-trick against France – in Paris, too – in 2000 when he had just turned 21, followed by another treble against Scotland in 2002.

At the outset of this article I wrote that Saturday's setting makes it an almost-perfect package. Perfection? For me, that would see O'Driscoll scoring at the end of a passage of the sort of scintillating rugby he has espoused.

Can you even begin to imagine how the Aviva Stadium's capacity crowd would react were that to happen? I'm getting goosebumps even thinking about it.

Belfast Telegraph

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