How Brian O'Driscoll announced his true genius to inspire Ireland to famous Paris victory

 

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Under control: Brian O'Driscoll touches down during his unforgettable hat-trick display in Ireland's 2000 win in France

Under control: Brian O'Driscoll touches down during his unforgettable hat-trick display in Ireland's 2000 win in France

Defining moment: Brian O'Driscoll celebrates with the crowd after his hat-trick in Ireland's victory over the French in 2000

Defining moment: Brian O'Driscoll celebrates with the crowd after his hat-trick in Ireland's victory over the French in 2000

David Humphreys had missed an easy penalty in Dublin the previous year. Now he had a 45-metre effort to win against the French for the first time in 28 years. It wasn't a kick, it was a test of character, and Humphreys nailed it

David Humphreys had missed an easy penalty in Dublin the previous year. Now he had a 45-metre effort to win against the French for the first time in 28 years. It wasn't a kick, it was a test of character, and Humphreys nailed it

Under control: Brian O'Driscoll touches down during his unforgettable hat-trick display in Ireland's 2000 win in France

It is Sunday, March 19, 2000 and the new millennium has just handed Ireland un cadeau d'or - something that providence and a fervent hope for the future just might, we dreamed, see delivered some day: Ireland have won in Paris for the first time in 28 years.

 

The final score was 27-25. It was a phenomenal game of rugby and the two-point margin made it even sweeter. Imagine skipping out of Saint Denis knowing you had three minutes to blow it and didn't.

* * * * *

The touchpaper on that magnificent day was unquestionably Brian O'Driscoll's magnus opus. So much happened in that 80 minutes that we are still unsure whether the paradigm shift happened as a result of O'Driscoll's hat-trick or whether he was the beneficiary of an extraordinary performance.

One of the things about Paris and playing the French there is the singular lack of respect they have for us. After a brutally physical game in which I played years ago, the French No.8, Laurent Rodriguez, walked by me on the way to a lineout and uttered something in French. When it was translated for me after the game, he had asked the question: "Does your husband know you play rugby?"

The French can win many different ways in Paris. They can batter you into submission or they can throw the ball around and cut you to pieces.

I had my back to the pitch, I cleaned the ball with a towel and turned around to see that there were only Irish players in the lineout.

That day, Bernard Laporte issued instructions to his charges - deal with les pommes de terres quickly from the start. Show them no respect. From the first whistle, France played with such verve and audacity that it looked like it would be at least a 50-point thrashing.

David Bory, the dashing French wing, got over in the first few minutes. Even though such a short space of time had elapsed, everyone in green was barking for oxygen.

Denis Hickie had played rugby all the way up from schools with Kieron Dawson and they caught each other's gaze in the in-goal area. The look needed no translation: it was going to be a long afternoon.

But Paul Honiss, the Kiwi referee, courageously ruled a forward pass and Ireland held on… until the scrum on their line. Ireland's scrum looked like it had just met one of those heavy duty motorway rolling machines that didn't have a brake. Peter Stringer got the ball away deep in his in-goal area. There were 77 minutes of this to go.

One of the things that Keith Wood reflected on was that the essential tenet of the game plan was "the only thing that mattered was being in the game after 20 minutes". That is a fairly rudimentary game plan. Wood could not quite remember a Test with such intensity. It was a blistering pace.

France led 6-0 after 20 minutes but Wood remembers getting to a lineout.

"I had my back to the pitch, I cleaned the ball with a towel and turned around to see that there were only Irish players in the lineout at that stage," he said.

France had injected so much venom and ferocity into their opening 20 minutes that the pace had got to them as well. Ireland were fitter and more defensively adept than some of the Irish teams that had turned up previously. It could have been 26-0, instead it was 6-0. The conventional view was that this Irish team would not be able to tackle so definitively for the whole match.

Fitness was only one part of the story. A lot of the team had not been tainted by failure and Wood reckoned that the belief sown by Warren Gatland was the key ingredient.

Gatland had got close in 1998 when France won by two, 18-16. At that stage Gatland was 35 and, as Wood recalls, "was almost still one of the lads". Gatland prepped his team to believe in themselves and this was key. Any time I played in Paris, nobody really believed we would win.

So, after 20 minutes, Ireland looked like they had just woken up to the possibilities of the game - like playing some decent rugby.

* * * * *

The 21-year-old O'Driscoll was playing with a hunger and edge that belied his age. He skinned Cedric Desbrosses when he cut inside him. Ireland, rather than stand back and admire the line break, kept the attack alive down the left-hand side. The fluency and deftness of their continuity was a revelation and should have been a wake-up call for the French.

Peter Clohessy took four tacklers on in a devastatingly direct line and Malcolm O'Kelly's intelligence to know that there was a sharper blade outside him got a dexterous left-handed pass away to O'Driscoll with the line only seven metres away. Not many second-rows could resist the temptation of going for the line themselves, or have the skill-set to deliver a pass of such exquisite quality. O'Driscoll got in under the sticks.

Two things occurred to me in the stadium at that time. One was that suddenly there were a lot of noisy Irish people in the ground that day. The second was that if Ronan O'Gara would just give this guy the ball, the French would simply not be able to deal with him.

Minutes later, O'Driscoll put in a mesmerising cover tackle on Bory. O'Driscoll's force of personality was taking shape right before our eyes. This wasn't a performance, it was an announcement.

Outside of the O'Driscoll hat-trick, there were two moments which would determine this game. Two tackles which, if there had been no tries in the game, would have been talked about forever.

In an article I read on Robin Williams, the actor said: "You are only given a little spark of madness - you mustn't ever lose it". Woody has never lost it and four minutes from half-time on his own 10-metre line, he tapped a penalty to himself and was probably deciding which foot to step off when he was met with a tackle of such destructive force that he was knocked back five metres.

Wood is such a compelling and forceful runner that this event was a rarity. France's captain, Fabien Pelous, decided that Ireland were getting too much of the game and he needed to put a large imprint on events.

The whole stadium felt the tackle. The bald lunatic somehow managed to get up while Pelous lay on the ground. "He was sparko, out cold," said Wood. Although he played out the game, the French captain wasn't the same influence and Les Bleus, with novice halves, were rudderless for large parts of the Test.

The second tackle was the pivotal moment in the game. France had awoken at the start of the second half and came in waves. Abdel Benazzi put Marc Dal Maso away, seemingly to coast in under the posts to glory, which would have made it an uncatchable 26-7. But Hickie, after giving him a 10-metre head start, got back at the death and denied the French hooker the try.

The quality of the tackle was breathtaking because, at speed and in the chase, it is very hard to work out how to make the tackle really count.

Hickie went low and under Dal Maso and snuffed the danger out half a metre from the line. O'Driscoll had covered back too and he grabbed the ball. The point of no return had not yet been breached.

Ireland's belief became just a little bit more resolute. Hickie got his face split wide open for his trouble, but it would ultimately be worth it.

* * * * *

O'Driscoll's second try was the product of patience and spatial awareness way above the norm for anyone of his age. The move itself off the scrum was a product of simplicity but it drew all the cover to the outside when Rob Henderson received the ball. O'Driscoll was like a jockey on the take, holding his horse back.

He had to check, but instinctively knew exactly where the ball would be coming back inside and, more importantly, when. Timing is everything and rather than over-running the line like all rookies would, the burst when it came was clean and decisive. Nobody would catch him. It was a play designed with him specifically in mind.

The thought occurred then that he could win this match on his own.

Jason Hehir's highly impressive documentary The Last Dance - a 10-part series produced by ESPN and showing on Netflix - has many fantastic moments about the life and career of basketball's greatest player, Michael Jordan.

As the years went by and Jordan's influence became more pronounced, the Chicago Bulls went further and further in the play-offs, but only so far. The reason being that when the heat came on in the vital part of the game, Jordan, like all great champions, felt compelled to go and win it himself.

Teams figured this out and drowned him in coverage.

Phil Jackson, the Bulls' coach, orchestrated a few choice trades and then asked for Jordan to trust his team-mates in the vital moments. It worked and Chicago won six NBA titles in seven years - an astonishing achievement. Asked about the change in emphasis, Jordan was reluctant to concede. Hit with the old cliché of 'there is no 'I' in team' Jordan countered with, "Yes, but there is an 'I' in win".

Could O'Driscoll trust this team to give him licence to win the game for them? Four minutes after O'Driscoll's razzle-dazzle, Paddy Johns was binned for trying to pick a ball that wasn't out of the French ruck.

Clohessy knew it could be fatal. "We were almost out of diesel, even though the yellow was harsh," he said. Ireland would have to tread water and O'Driscoll would have to suspend belief and trust in his team-mates.

France picked up two penalties in the time Johns was off the field to make the score 25-14, normally enough to see off what should have been a tiring Irish side.

Gatland's substitutions were spot on. Andy Ward and Johns, when he was on the park, were huge additions, but taking off O'Gara (who had been playing well) and getting David Humphreys to close out the game was - as usual with Gatland - pure instinct.

It was a great call.

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David Humphreys had missed an easy penalty in Dublin the previous year. Now he had a 45-metre effort to win against the French for the first time in 28 years. It wasn't a kick, it was a test of character, and Humphreys nailed it

David Humphreys had missed an easy penalty in Dublin the previous year. Now he had a 45-metre effort to win against the French for the first time in 28 years. It wasn't a kick, it was a test of character, and Humphreys nailed it

David Humphreys had missed an easy penalty in Dublin the previous year. Now he had a 45-metre effort to win against the French for the first time in 28 years. It wasn't a kick, it was a test of character, and Humphreys nailed it

 

Heading into the last 10, it had been an incredibly loose game. Ireland had come up short on nearly every performance metric but, curiously, so had the French.

The key, though, is that everyone was still doing their job, or at least attempting to do it. The smell of blood can have that effect. If the team are functioning then O'Driscoll could still surf the wave.

In the 73rd minute, Hickie - who had his finest day in a green jersey - scanned the blue wall for a donkey in the line. He spotted Franck Belot, stood him up and burned him. All the support players again did their job and as a ruck formed in the middle of the park outside the French 22, Lionel Mallier tackled Stringer as he attempted to pass the ball.

We were not certain who he was going to pass it to, but the ball went loose on the floor. Paul Honiss had his hand out for penalty advantage and 29 players stopped thinking.

When a ball goes loose on the deck, some people look and some people act. Ireland's fire-starter had already decided his line before he picked up the ball - he didn't look at the ball as he took hold of it.

Ninety-nine times out of 100 it's a knock on. O'Driscoll picked up the ball with the tips of his fingers on the upward side of the ball.

He did so with his body at a 90 degree angle and without a break in stride. His acceleration mirrored a 100-metre sprinter in the 'get set' position on the blocks and when he went… he was gone.

In these seminal moments you can identify someone with extravagant skills. Talent sometimes hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.

For O'Driscoll's two earlier tries he merely finished off on his team-mates' preparatory work. This gem, as Eddie Cochrane said, was something else.

There was the blur of the over-sized sack cloth jersey rounding behind the posts and in an instant it was clear to him: the gravity of his achievement. Unlike the first try, when the third one was scored there was no shout-out to his sister's friend back home, one Oran Malone, with the 'Big O' hand gesture. This, he realised in the moment, was far bigger than a laddish nod to an acquaintance.

Anthony Foley's clap to the back of O'Driscoll's head told you that nothing had been won yet. There were four minutes to go and in those moments fatigue can clot the antennae of the senses, but Ireland were alive to everything.

The crowd too were alive. Alive-alive-oh. Peter Clohessy, out on his feet after his best performance for his country, remembers "the two sections of Irish people at opposite ends of the stadium and strains of cockles and mussels bouncing off each other in the middle of the pitch."

The game still had to be won and quite often in these encounters the race goes to those who just won't go away.

Clohessy forged a tremendous drive into French territory just at the halfway line and seconds later Honiss gave Ireland a penalty.

Humphreys had missed an easy penalty in Dublin the previous year. Now he had a 45-metre effort to win against the French for the first time in 28 years. It wasn't a kick, it was a test of character, and Humphreys nailed it.

* * * * *

Two minutes later, the game was over and everyone in the country knew what they had witnessed. A stirring display of obduracy and resolve from the team and an invitation to an adventure to watch O'Driscoll blossom into one of the greatest players on the planet.

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Defining moment: Brian O'Driscoll celebrates with the crowd after his hat-trick in Ireland's victory over the French in 2000

Defining moment: Brian O'Driscoll celebrates with the crowd after his hat-trick in Ireland's victory over the French in 2000

Defining moment: Brian O'Driscoll celebrates with the crowd after his hat-trick in Ireland's victory over the French in 2000

 

Appropriately enough on April Fool's Day, Ireland lost their last match of the season 23-19 to Wales. All talk of crossing the Rubicon had to be mothballed. That Six Nations was, however, a giant leap forward for Irish rugby, the first time Ireland had won three in a row since 1982.

Ireland celebrated like only they could 20 years ago because on that day, as Hickie remembers, "for once we had earned the right to go on the p*** and this time basking in the glow because there was respect given, for once, by the French".

They say your life flashes before you when you die and hopefully it will be a very long time before Brian O'Driscoll's turn is due.

I am certain even the Grim Reaper will give him a few more minutes when the events of that day flash out before him.

Belfast Telegraph