Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Ulster Rugby: Ravenhill's chance to show Brian O'Driscoll our thanks

Brian O'Driscoll says he has mostly good memories from playing in Belfast

Tonight at Ravenhill will be historic in more than one way. While it will go down as the occasion on which the magnificent new stadium was officially opened with government ministers and Irish rugby doyens and dignitaries there to witness it, it will also be remembered as having been the last on-field appearance at the south Belfast venue of some of the game's finest players and ambassadors.

Ulster captain Johann Muller is retiring and Tom Court is moving on to join London Irish having given eight years of unstinting service. John Afoa is on his way, too – in his case to Gloucester – but a back problem means he is not playing tonight.

But it is a Leinster player who is likely to be given an ovation as rousing and as heartfelt as for any of those Ulster favourites.

This will be the last time Brian O'Driscoll graces the Ravenhill turf and such has been his contribution to Irish – indeed, world – rugby that he is guaranteed a tumultuous thank you from Ulster supporters, rightly famed for their sportsmanship.

They will not be found wanting when it comes to expressing their admiration and appreciation of a player whose individual brilliance long ago put paid to what, in comparison, was the pettiness of inter-provincial rivalry.

Genius transcends boundaries and borders, excellence eclipses small-mindedness. Sometimes there are artists so gifted that we cannot fail to warm to them simply by virtue of their skill.

Ulster men do not come any bigger, better or more proud than Willie John McBride, another of Irish rugby's all-time greats and, like O'Driscoll, a former Ireland and Lions captain. He had no problem hailing the Leinster favourite this week.

"I've said so often over the last two or three years that he has been the greatest player Ireland have ever produced and mind you we've produced quite a few when you think of Jack Kyle, Mike Gibson and well, there are others.

"His durability has been tremendous. He has been a great captain, he has been a great role model – he's just been great for Irish rugby," was McBride's assessment.

And ahead of tonight's final hurrah in Belfast for the world's most capped Test player of all time, the big lock forward added: "It will be sad, but everybody comes to the end. And I'm sure it's not the last we'll see of Brian; I'm sure he'll have other contributions to make to the game."

Tonight's game will be his 85th for Leinster in the PRO12, 80 of them in the starting XV. Remarkably, he has played more Heineken Cup games than league matches, his total in the former being 87.

In a previous interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the 35-year-old spoke of his experience of playing in Belfast.

"I've mixed memories from playing at Ravenhill – probably more good than bad," he said.

"I've managed to win a few times and in my memory never lost by a big scoreline in Belfast. It's always a hard place to come and play and invariably the conditions are always horrible so I've been involved in a few not so beautiful games at Ravenhill!

"In terms of the atmosphere, the impression I get is that it is a bit more intimidating in the crowd than it is necessarily on the pitch. I like to think though that I don't let atmosphere at a match impact on my game.

"The diameter and length of the pitch is the same in pretty much all stadia across the world.

"You are playing against the same number of players and you shouldn't really let the crowd affect your performance."

It was my privilege to have been at the Aviva Stadium on March 8 past when O'Driscoll made his 140th Test appearance, thereby breaking Australian George Gregan's world record.

The intensity and sincerity of the reception he received that afternoon against Italy – who were trounced 46-7 in a match in which his creativity yielded three tries – was truly remarkable, though fully deserved.

A week later it was my privilege to have been in Stade de France where, in what was his final international match, Ireland beat France 22-20, thereby clinching the 2014 RBS 6 Nations title for only the second time since O'Driscoll made his Irish debut against Australia in Brisbane on June 12, 1999 – less than five months after Ulster won the Heineken Cup.

That's how long this exceptional rugby player and ambassador has been thrilling audiences.

That mid-March 2014 evening in Paris, the famously partisan French in the 80,000-strong capacity crowd rose as one in salutation of the Irish number 13 who, 14 years earlier in the same stadium, had scored a hat-trick to give Ireland a 27-25 victory, their first in France since 1972.

Whatever the outcome tonight, Ulster's supporters will be no less generous in their acknowledgement of the best rugby player to have come from this island.

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