Peter Bills: Ireland now reaping reward for nurturing genius of O’Driscoll
It wasn’t the perfect performance, far from it. Business-like and effective, another working day at the office perhaps, but the true sparks were comparatively few and far between.
Yet by the end of a cold, dry afternoon in Dublin, it had been close to the perfect day for Brian O’Driscoll. On the occasion of his 100th cap — ‘a massive, massive honour’ he called it — you could pick some holes in Ireland’s collective performance, especially going forward, but not in O’Driscoll’s contribution.
As has so often been the case, even if one element of his game was perhaps less than glorious on the day, others compensated magnificently. This time, while Ireland were less than convincing at times going forward despite their three tries, a quite superb defensive display underpinned this win, like steel bars in a concrete structure.
At the heart of that outstanding defensive effort was O’Driscoll; marshalling, organising, cajoling, urging all around him and offering vivid examples of his own talismanic qualities. No better example of that could be seen than the 69th minute tackle in which he personally dumped the strong, physical Welsh centre Jamie Roberts, who had been his centre partner for the Lions in South Africa last year.
The big, strapping Welsh lad was put down emphatically by O’Driscoll single-handed.
Yet on so many other occasions with Roberts in possession, it took two and sometimes three Irish defenders to haul him down.
Like all the greatest players whatever their sport, it is the little things they do, often unseen from the sidelines, that hallmark them as special. Very often, with the eye drawn inexorably to follow the flight of the ball, some can miss the subtler qualities which are at the heart of O’Driscoll’s game.
The way he organises the Irish defence has been pivotal to their success of recent years. When he was missing, as for the match against France at Croke Park in 2007, a discernible vacuum was exposed. It was like a favourite piece of furniture had been moved from the room and somehow, the place just didn’t look or feel the same.
Saturday at Croke Park might have seemed to some a quiet way for O’Driscoll to celebrate his 100th cap, and his 63rd as Irish leader.
But there was nothing quiet about a hectic defensive operation which restricted Wales to just a single line break from the 187 passes they completed. That statistic alone was a triumph for Ireland’s defensive rearguard in which O’Driscoll is key.
Of course, his has been a glorious career, his genius identified early and carefully nurtured by some exceedingly wise souls in Irish rugby at all levels. He has not been over-played, not been forced to go out there when less than fully fit as is the way in some countries. And we are now seeing the benefits of that shrewd approach. Injuries permitting, he will go to another Rugby World Cup next year not clutching a ticket of sentimentality but as Ireland’s captain and their inspiration.
For sure, that searing speed of youth is no longer apparent. But in its place has come a maturity, a vision and an ability to sense the most propitious position for him and his team at any given moment upon the field. His power, too, is formidable and enthuses others, whilst helping demoralise the opposition.
In short, Brian O’Driscoll has morphed into the complete player. His quiet, yet firm hand on the tiller is always there; manifestly, he is in control. Days like Saturday at Croke Park and performances such as the one with which Ireland despatched Wales, do not come about by chance. Solid, sheer professionalism, the ability to get a job done, is an essential ingredient and on Saturday, O’Driscoll once again epitomised such a quality time and again.
There was no brilliant break and individual try from 60 metres from him. But there was a convincing Irish win and that would have made O’Driscoll’s day for him, far more than the former.