Leinster coach Michael Cheika tells Peter Bills why Ireland rugby captain Brian O’Driscoll can continue to play up to, and beyond, the 2011 World Cup
The life of Brian is set to run and run . . .
Never mind the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Ireland’s captain could play beyond even that landmark, continuing to make an immense contribution to the game at both domestic and international level well into his 30s.
These, it should be pointed out at once, are not the fantasy feelings of Brian O’Driscoll’s many fans, both in and out of the island of Ireland. They come from the man probably best qualified to make such a judgment, his provincial coach at Leinster, Michael Cheika.
The Australian says that O’Driscoll, who will be 31 when next year’s Six Nations Championship begins, can continue to play a highly valued role for several seasons to come. Age, Cheika believes, is in the mind; assess solely on the evidence in front of the eyes, is his advice.
But won’t O’Driscoll need special care even just to get him through the next two years to the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand?
“I don’t think he needs to be nurtured at all,” says Cheika.
“All he will need is to be given good individual programmes.
“In my mind, he can certainly play beyond the World Cup. Smart players, players that can think a game, inevitably get even more valuable as they get older. They might lose some of the physical attributes but they gain in experience which makes them a threat in a different way.
“In O’Driscoll’s case, there is then the fact that he is such a key influence on the rest of the squad. It is good to have him around young guys. So I would certainly not see him finishing at the next World Cup.
“Frankly, I don’t like the idea of putting full stops on those things . . . players’ careers . . . because then it is like you have to start rushing to get everything in before they finish. I think Brian should just keep going, enjoy the game. You keep pushing yourself to be better; that is what is important.”
Cheika insists O’Driscoll’s appetite for the fray, both with Leinster and Ireland, is in no sense diminished after the achievements of last season.
We might have been entitled to suspect that after leading Leinster to a first ever Heineken Cup and Ireland to their first Grand Slam win in 61 years, the fires of ambition had been somewhat dulled in the mind of Ireland’s captain, especially after already serving 11 years on the international rugby circuit.
In normal times, that is about the stage when players begin to switch off mentally, believing that perhaps it is time to do some other things in their lives. But according to his provincial coach, O’Driscoll is different.
“Without a doubt, he still has challenges he wants to fulfil. He has very much got the taste for it at the moment which is very good. For our club, we want to really establish a winning culture for ourselves and I see Brian as a fundamental part of that process.”
O’Driscoll, who made his international debut for Ireland in 1999 against Australia, has now played 11 seasons in the top flight of the game. Yet, as his performances showed for the British & Irish Lions in South Africa earlier this summer, he remains a player of consummate skills, a highly talented, creative and thinking player who is still one of the top centres in world rugby.
Irish coach Declan Kidney will already be targeting the 2011 Rugby World Cup as one of Ireland’s major objectives in the next 24 months. It would be astonishing if O’Driscoll were not regarded by the Irish management as critical to their plans.
Yet once that tournament is over, and if he plays in it, Brian will have appeared in four World Cups, and the temptation might have been for O’Driscoll, who will by then be in his 33rd year, to finish. Cheika’s words may change that possible course of action, for O’Driscoll is known to be a deep admirer of his Australian coach.