Taking on O'Driscoll was my most difficult challenge, admits Martin Corry
OF all the attributes Martin Corry admired in his many encounters with Brian O'Driscoll, it was the former Ireland captain's hardness that stands out now.
The former England international went to war with O'Driscoll four times in Lions Tests, took him on five times in Six Nations clashes and a further five when Leicester met Leinster in the Heineken Cup.
Having seen him at close quarters so often during his stellar career, the No 8, who retired in 2009, has nothing but respect for the 35-year-old centre who will join him in life after rugby at the end of this season. Corry was there for one of O'Driscoll's most memorable moments when he scythed Australia open for the Lions in 2001, while he was also alongside the tourists' captain when he dislocated his shoulder four years later.
And, ahead of the Clontarf native's final visit to Twickenham on Saturday – assuming he overcomes the bug that kept him out of training this week – the Leicester stalwart paid tribute to his former team-mate, who he also rates as a worthy adversary.
"I can't speak highly enough of the guy," Corry said. "He has got so many strings to his bow; England are trying to find a centre.
"It is why we've had to go and buy (rugby league convert) Sam Burgess, because we need to find someone who can distribute, take the ball up and have a defensive presence.
"Brian has got all of that; he's had everything in his game. He's not just a show-pony who stays out and lets his feet do the talking, his work is excellent.
"Playing against him, that's what I found the hardest thing.
"Typically, you are trying to get one over your opposite number and the back-row to take them out of the game, whereas against Brian, it was him making the tackle and then him getting over the ball and turning it over.
"I don't want to do him a disservice, because I'm not talking about the fancy stuff he does in his game, but it was the hard stuff that, for me, kept him a long way ahead of everybody else."
Corry saw the attacker at work as a 22-year-old in 2001, but it is O'Driscoll's ability to adapt his game and the steel with which he plays that stands out.
"He's a tough guy, you don't just switch that on and become that. It was always there," he said. "That's the mark of a truly great player.
"At the moment the way he is playing, because of the nature of the game and what he has to do, (the highlight) is his work at the breakdown.
"But when he gets the chance to open his legs, we saw what he could do in 2001; it was huge for him and a privilege to be on the same tour, he was sensational.
"The defences allowed him to play that role and those opportunities that he had back then probably don't manifest themselves in modern-day rugby, so how else do you stay a great player playing in those conditions?
"How he managed to adapt his game to fit in with how his team and the game has evolved speaks volumes. How many people stay at the top, right at the pinnacle, as the best player for their country for that length of time?
"There's talk, now he's coming close to the end of his career, about whether he's the best player ever, you know even to have the debate is truly worthy of somebody who has been such a good player."
As he looks at this Saturday's clash, Corry sees two evenly-matched sides with plenty on the line and he admits it is a close one.
"I was hugely impressed with Ireland against Wales and I think there's always been a strength and intensity to Ireland's game," he said. "The forward confrontation is going to be huge and you look at the maul and the drive.
"It is typical of the recent England-Ireland fixtures – one bit of magic, one passage of play, one mistake or a referee's call will make the difference and, with home advantage, we should have just the edge."