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O'Driscoll era ends with a new Irish dawn

champions by right... AND MORE TO COME

Niall Crozier


It was the ending for which the many thousands of Irish supporters in Stade de France had hoped – and some cases actually believed – would be the case.

A Six Nations Championship-sealing Ireland victory in coach Joe Schmidt's first season in charge and the last of the mercurial Brian O'Driscoll's world record 141 appearances as a Test-level footballer. The stuff of dreams.

To their enormous credit, the partisan Parisians had greeted Drico like he was one of their own. As the players left the pitch at the end of the pre-match warm-up, the public announcer reminded the 80,000-strong audience of the Dubliner's pedigree as a world-class performer.

The French were generous in their applause of what he had done in the course of 15 seasons on the big stage, one of his most memorable afternoons having been 14 years earlier when in the same stadium he scored all three tries in Ireland's first win in Paris in 28 seasons.

On the massive screens behind the posts, images of some of the game's most iconic players and personalities appeared. Each paid his tribute, with the accolades revealing the regard, the respect, the awe – damn it, the love – in which they held and still hold him.

"The Lions' favourite son," "No-one will ever fill your boots, no-one will ever take your place," "He played with a fearless heart," and "Never the biggest, always the bravest." Huge accolades.

At the words 'Thank you Brian', there was spontaneous applause with even the Gallic writers and broadcasters in the press box joining in. Hardened cynics? No.

Conditions for the tea-time kick-off were perfect for rugby and the events which unfolded proved that with Ireland overhauling a 6-0 deficit to lead 12-11, only then to turn round 13-7 in arrears.

Ten minutes into the second half they were 22-13 up, but that nine-point lead was cut to two at the start of the final quarter. Tension? Emotion? Drama? All of that and more.

A week earlier in Dublin, O'Driscoll had become rugby's most capped player in what was his final home-town international appearance. While it was hard to top that, the possibility of him bowing out a championship winner for only the second time certainly offered possibilities.

It emerged that there had been a few pre-match dressing room tears and long after the match the man himself admitted there might well be a few more before the night was over.

Schmidt's post-match words perfectly summed up the entire experience, not least because above all else it had been a captivating game of rugby served up by bottom two finishers 12 months earlier.

Back then you would have got good odds on Paul O'Connell (below) lifting the crown in a season that saw the Irish travel to London as well as Paris without Lions trio Sean O'Brien, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris.

"I'm just incredibly relieved," Schmidt said.

"I'm incredibly relieved because there was a growing expectation through probably that last game in November that maybe we could do something a little bit special and it was a massive relief to get to do it.

"Losing in Twickenham was a bit like winning here. We lost by the skin of our teeth and we won by the skin of our teeth here and that's the nature of playing big teams away.

"But to come to France having won once in the last 42 years, to win a championship, it seems a bit of a dream come true really.

"I know the players and from speaking to the players, they'll go back to their provinces and they'll roll their sleeves up.

"We're very open selection-wise and we have an expectation that they'll continue the form that they've shown the last eight weeks for their provinces."

Fittingly, Ulster's Paddy Jackson – controversially omitted from the title-clinching 23 after inclusion against Scotland, Wales, England and Italy – was part of the on-field party after jetting in from Friday night's Belfast heroics.

"It was great to see Paddy – he was out there on the field post game, but he was out there at Ravenhill last night scoring a couple of tries and playing a great game," Schmidt said.

Hopefully he will be on the plane when Ireland head for Argentina at the end of the season, along with Ulster colleagues Ferris and Bowe.

On Saturday night in Paris – so often the burial ground for Irish dreams – the talk among the celebrating green-clad hordes was of Joe, Drico and Sexton, who got two tries, with Andrew Trimble bagging the other.

Sexton's (far left) eclipsed an uncharacteristically lax kicking display that saw him miss a penalty and a conversion well within his comfort zone. Ireland got away with that – just.

O'Driscoll spent 15 years sprinkling stardust. On Saturday night, though, with silver ribbons cascading around him and his fellow-freshly-crowned Kings of Europe, finally we knew an era had come to an end.

But with Schmidt at the helm, the mood was that another may just be dawning.

Thanks for the memories, Drico. But the capital of République Française has replaced a monarch before. Time to move on to the next chapter.

Belfast Telegraph


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