Six Nations: England set to bring out O'Driscoll's class
Irish captain Brian O’Driscoll does not expect anything other than a battle royal when he faces England.
Not just this weekend, but every time.
He does not become absorbed in any ‘old enemy’ portrayal of the fixture; we are moving on from the despots and slaves mentality which consumed previous generations.
Those who will wear the white shirt on Saturday are not responsible or accountable for deeds dating back centuries. Like their Irish counterparts, they are professional sportsmen.
So Saturday afternoon at Twickenham will be a contest between men who earn their living from playing rugby and their bonuses from doing that better than their opposite numbers.
O’Driscoll, by dint of the respect and regard in which he is held — not only by his own side's supporters but by those of the opposition too — is a born leader. And clever — very, very clever — with it, for what he achieves is no small feat.
Somehow Ireland’s talismanic skipper manages to balance the likely-to-shift-at-any-moment weights of personal status, national expectation, on-field skill, off-field diplomacy and either-side-of-the-white-line pragmatism
with remarkable adroitness.
Once again this week his observations made no reference to historic wrongs, real or perceived. As he talked about England, he did so in much the same way as he had discussed France a fortnight earlier.
Just as English coach Martin Johnson is no John Bull or Oliver Cromwell, neither is O’Driscoll any Kevin Barry or Roddy McCorley. They are rugby men, not political figures.
So expect to see a match played by two sides determined to outsmart one another and win by virtue of better football rather than because of having won some crude hotchpotch of politics, religion and cultural differences in the guise of sport.
Irish coach Declan Kidney reckons that with both sides having had a fortnight in which to recover from their last exploits, they will be fresher than usual and space will be at a premium as a result.
It’s going to be pretty congested.
Asked what sort of challenge he expects from England, O’Driscoll replied: “Pretty much the same one as you get every time you take them on. Irrespective of how well they have been playing they have a huge pool of players to choose from.
“England are never a bad side. Any time I’ve played against them and beaten them it’s usually been by one score or less, whether it be one or two points or five on a couple of occasions.
“That just shows you really have to be on your game if you’re to beat them. They showed two years ago over there what they can do. They were 10 points down and they came back with 33 unanswered to win the game comfortably.
“Now they’re starting to build some confidence. They’ve got two wins from two now, so it’ll be a tough game.” Enormous respect, but not fear, note, and there is a significant difference in those two attitudes. More specifically, when highlighting England’s centre pairing — Sale Sharks’ Matthew Tait and Brive’s Riki Flutey — rather than the overall game he said: “They’re both very good players and two very different types of players.
“Riki’s like a second distributor and Matthew is very much a strike runner who has played a bit on the wing as well. Now they’ve decided that he’s an outside centre and he’s a very quick guy. Good feet and just a good, mature player.
“They’ve started to strike up a bit of a partnership and the more they play together the better they’ll get.” Reflecting on the fact that England have only beaten Ireland once in recent seasons he said it was simply down to “very close margins”.
“There’s nothing ever in the game,” O’Driscoll stressed. “The only time there was ever anything in the game was that one time when they did beat us two years ago. Looking back on all the games we’ve had and we’ve won, we realise that we’ve played pretty well in them and tried to cancel out any attacking options England may have had. It’s been hugely down to the backbone of our team and our defence as well.”
Reflecting on John Hayes’ achievement in becoming the first Irishman to win 100 international rugby caps — the 20st 7lbs prop has just pipped his skipper, who makes his 99th appearance this weekend — O’Driscoll said: “His contribution to Irish rugby has been huge and he has been a vital component in Irish teams over the last 10 years.
“The cornerstone of our scrum, he has managed to pick up four Triple Crowns and do a Grand Slam along the way. It’s pretty impressive for any guy to get to play for his country 100 times, so he’ll have all the guys behind him on Saturday.”
There speaks a captain.