1. Captain’s contribution Slammed home with four-try masterclass
Brian O'Driscoll's outstanding career has featured many truly great moments in the colours of Leinster, Ireland and the Lions. But none betters his contribution as captain of Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam team.
It was Declan Kidney's first season at the helm and Ireland's opening fixture of the series against France set the tone.
Ireland led 13-10 at half-time and three minutes into the second period a typical piece of O'Driscoll brilliance saw him dart through the Lionel Beauxis and Yannick Jauzion 10-12 channel before throwing a glorious step to beat left-wing Julien Malzieu on the inside to score just left of the posts.
It finished 30-21 and Ireland were off to the perfect start.
Next up were Italy in Rome where Ireland won 38-9. There, too, O'Driscoll scored, his try an 80-metres run for home after he intercepted a loose pass.
Everybody knew the third game – England at Croke Park – was crucial and with Ronan O'Gara having a rare off day from the tee, a match with nothing between the sides required something special. Enter O'Driscoll with a drop-goal and then, despite being out on his feet, the try to give Ireland a 14-13 win.
He didn't score in the 22-25 victory over Scotland at Murrayfield, but the Irish skipper touched down again in his side's Slam-clinching 17-15 victory over Wales in Cardiff.
This was the day Brian O’Driscoll introduced himself properly to an unsuspecting world audience.
Bearing in mind that Ireland had not won in Paris for 28 years, their 2000 victory was a major upset.
But, even more surprising, was the fact that their victory was down to a 21-year-old who became the eighth Irishman to score an international hat-trick of tries.
There was nothing in the opening quarter to suggest what might follow. Ireland had been battered on to the ropes by their aggressive hosts for whom Gerald Merceron kicked two penalties. But on 23 minutes the underdogs stunned the French when Malcolm O'Kelly put O'Driscoll in under the posts leaving Ronan O'Gara with an easy conversion.
By 53 minutes, France led 19-7, only for O'Driscoll to net his second try following great work by midfield partner Rob Henderson, with O'Gara's conversion cutting the deficit to five points.
With seven minutes remaining the French had an eight-points cushion when Denis Hickie broke from half-way to the French 22. Under pressure Peter Stringer allowed the ball to go loose, but O'Driscoll pounced to scoop it up in one hand and then hurtle through a gap to complete a stunning treble. David Humphreys added the extras and then a penalty to wrap up a 27-25 triumph.
Hooker Keith Wood — O'Driscoll's captain that afternoon — would later reflect: “I remember thinking 'anything is possible now', thanks to this young kid who had come on and suddenly had a bit of magic about him.”
Ireland headed to Paris for their final game of the championship on course for the title in what was O'Driscoll's last-ever international appearance.
Only once in his career had Ireland been champions — 2009, the Grand Slam year. Only once in his career had Ireland won in France — 2000, his Paris hat-trick year.
Surely it was too fanciful to believe he could end as a champion here, of all places, in his final match?
Certainly it looked like that when France took a 6-0 lead. And even when Ireland replied with tries by Sexton and Trimble, the hosts scored again to turn round leading 13-12.
But a second try for Sexton, who added the extras plus a penalty, put Ireland 22-13 up and although France managed a second seven-pointer, that was their lot, a last-gasp TMO call having denied them a match-pinching score that would have broken O'Driscoll's heart.
At full-time the great man reflected: “There is where it all began and to finish with a medal around my neck 15 years later is incredible.”
Less than two years after making his debut for Ireland against Australia at Ballymore Stadium where the hosts won 46-10, O'Driscoll returned to Brisbane, only this time to The Gabba. And unlike June 12, 1999, on this occasion he left not only as a winner but as an undisputed rugby superstar on both sides of the equator — at the age of 22.
His try at the start of the second half is acknowledged as one of the best ever scored by the Lions, with Stuart Barnes hailing it as ‘genius'.
Having taken a pass from Jonny Wilkinson, O'Driscoll first beat Nathan Grey's tackle and then went past Jeremy Paul as if he wasn't there before sidestepping full-back Matt Burke and then sprinting for home, diving in under the posts despite the efforts of Joe Roff and Andrew Walker to deny him. Thus was born the Lions supporters' song ‘Waltzing O’Driscoll'.
“Give me the ball and I’ll score,” Wilkinson later recalled O’Driscoll telling the Lions while the match was going on
Having been hammered 30-6 by Munster in the 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final at Lansdowne Road, an O'Driscoll-inspired Leinster exacted revenge three years later by beating their old adversaries 25-6 at Croke Park.
Munster were the holders and this result earned Leinster a place in the final for the first time.O'Driscoll was the man of the match with his 61st minute try — Leinster's third — the decisive blow in killing off any thoughts of a Munster comeback.
Instinctively he anticipated that his Ireland team-mate Ronan O'Gara might attempt a looping pass.
The mercurial centre nipped in ahead of another international colleague, Paul O'Connell, and having intercepted the pass meant for the big lock, he ran 70 metres to touch down under the posts.
Another milestone in the course of O'Driscoll's unrivalled rugby journey — touchdown number 25 for Ireland and the one that broke Scotland wing Ian Smith’s championship tries record which had stood since 1933.
The Irish captain picked up a loose ball 15 metres short of the English line and having done so was clever — and brave — enough to dive shin-height through the visitors' defenders. At that, a 78-year tournament record finally had been bettered by the Dubliner.
However when asked recently which of his many tries had given him most satisfaction, he picked out one from 10 years earlier.
“I love the try that I scored against the Australians,” he said, recalling his Brisbane touchdown in the first Test of the Lions' 2001 tour.
Although Ireland were beaten, this defeat must be viewed in context. Less than six months earlier, Ireland — minus O'Driscoll — had lost 45-16 to the Wallabies at the Subiaco Oval.
When they met again, however, O'Driscoll was in the Irish team which ran Australia to within a point in their World Cup clash in Melbourne — a remarkable improvement given what had happened on June 7.
Ireland's captain gave his all, scoring a drop goal and a try against the tournament hosts who were rattled by the intensity and passion they encountered.
His finish in the left corner was classic BOD.
Although it will forever be remembered as Jonathan Sexton's day after the out-half scored 28 of his side's points, as well as delivering a telling pep-talk at half-time when Leinster trailed 22-6, others have pointed to O'Driscoll's role during the break.
As per the Leinster players, while scrum guru Greg Feek and tight-head Mike Ross turned to the iPad to see what exactly Saints loose-head Brian Mujati was doing, Drico was calmly reminding his back-line colleagues of their duties. Remember too that his vital break led to Sexton's first try, thereby starting the recovery.
It hasn't all been sunshine and champagne for O'Driscoll, of course — there have been injuries and moments of huge disappointment, too.
The satisfaction of having been chosen to lead the 2005 Lions in New Zealand ended when, in the first minute of the opening Test, he was spear-tackled by home captain Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu. He suffered a dislocated shoulder and, following surgery, was sidelined for seven months.
Injury also saw him miss the 2012 Guinness Series Tests and when he returned for the 2013 Six Nations, then-Irish coach Declan Kidney took the captaincy from him.
But perhaps the most bitter pill of all came that summer when Lions coach Warren Gatland became the first man ever to drop O'Driscoll when he omitted him from the side for the series-clinching final Test.
Double delight for O'Driscoll who not only created history by setting a world record for Test appearances (140) but marked the occasion with a Man of the Match performance in Ireland's seven-try destruction of Italy.
It was also O'Driscoll's final international appearance on home soil. In the countdown he sought to divert the focus away from himself, insisting: “The team has absolute priority and always has done.”
Those were not mere words. In a reminder of what we are losing he shone, making two tries for Jonathan Sexton and another for Andrew Trimble.
The ovation when he was substituted early in the final quarter will never be forgotten by any who witnessed it. And at full-time, the entire 51,000-strong crowd remained to salute him one last time.
Tonight, round the corner at the RDS where Leinster host Glasgow in the PRO12 final, he will hope for a similar winning finale. The encore he can take as a given.