Championship win only way for Brian O'Driscoll to end, says Johns
Former Ireland captain Paddy Johns has called on Brian O'Driscoll's team-mates to give him the winning send-off he deserves by landing the Six Nations title in Paris on Saturday night.
"I have no hesitation in saying they owe that to him given what he has done for Irish rugby," said Johns who was a replacement 14 years ago when O'Driscoll bagged his never-to-be-forgotten hat-trick against Les Bleus at Stade de France.
"You go back over the 15 years since he made his debut – and I remember it because I was playing, too, against Australia that day – and I don't think Ireland would have won the silverware they did but for him," said the 46-year-old dentist.
"If you take O'Driscoll out of those teams, I doubt they would have won what they did – those Triple Crowns, that Grand Slam.
"Analyse those games and count how many times he scored vital tries, made crucial tackles, forced turn-overs and I don't know how many of those games Ireland would have won but for him. That's how much of an impact he has had over those years.
"Ask any Irish player who has won silverware while Brian has been playing how much they think they would have won without him? I'd love to hear the answer they'd give.
"He has been unique. He has been at the core of everything good Ireland have done in the past 15 years. He is superb; he can do everything well, both in attack and defence.
"Okay, maybe kicking has been a bit of an Achilles heel, but he has been as good a player in that position as any anywhere, I have no doubt about that. "
Certainly in Irish rugby, in my experience, I've never seen anybody like him," Johns enthused.
Speaking with undisguised regard for O'Driscoll, Johns continued: "If I was there, I'd be making sure that I was putting my body on the line on Saturday. I think the other Irish players will be wanting to do that, too, and that's why I think Ireland will be a good bet."
Despite it having been such an important date in the story of Irish rugby, March 19, 2000 is not an occasion of which Johns has fond memories.
It was the second-last of his 59 international appearances, 57 of them as a starter. This was one of only two occasions he was named as a replacement and when he took over from Mick Galwey after 54 minutes, O'Driscoll had already bagged two tries.
But no sooner had Johns joined the fray than he was sin-binned.
He said: "I didn't know the referee had told Keith Wood that the next infringement there would be a yellow card. I hadn't heard that team warning so I came through in a ruck when somebody put their hands on the ball and was pinged.
"It was so traumatic that my memory of the match itself really isn't very good at all. What I do remember is sitting on the bench for those 10 minutes unable to believe what had happened and thinking that I'd just let the whole team down.
"Just sitting there while the guys were left to hold out – that's what I recall more than anything because that's where my emotions were that day. Sitting there, unable to do anything, my only thought was 'Hold them out," he recalled.
As has been the case so often in the years since, it was O'Driscoll to the rescue. Shortly after Johns re-joined the battle, the centre wearing the way-too-big number 13 green jersey completed his hat-trick to give Ireland their first win in Paris in 28 years.
"I remember that it was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and all of that. The team started started well and the crowd began to get a wee bit edgy," Johns said.
A similar approach by Ireland could pay dividends this Saturday evening, too, he reckons.
"Because of our good start we were in the game and when you're in the game against the French then you're in with a chance because the crowd can start to turn against them," he pointed out.
That day 14 years ago, it was O'Driscoll who made all the difference. And in Paddy Johns' opinion, that has been the story time and again in the interim.
"Nobody has made a greater impact on Irish rugby," he said. "Brian has done more than anybody for the game here. We owe him a huge debt for what he has given; that's why I'd love to see him finish in Paris as a championship winner.
"That would be the perfect send-off."