Ireland ready to salute record-breaker O’Driscoll
The latest stop on Brian O’Driscoll’s long goodbye to rugby is at Lansdowne Road on Saturday against Italy in the Six Nations, with the centre marking his final home match for Ireland with a record 140th test cap.
It is bound to be an emotional occasion in Dublin as the Irish public bid farewell to one of the country’s greatest ever players, although O’Driscoll has tried his best not to join in the reminiscing.
“He’s a quiet guy, an understated guy, he’s a bit embarrassed and he just wants to focus on finishing as well as he can, without any distractions,” Ireland captain Paul O’Connell said.
“It’s hard to think what life will be like without him, but at the moment there’s been very little mention of it from staff, players or Brian himself, and I’m sure that’s the way he’d like it.”
O’Driscoll’s last international will come next weekend, when Ireland travels to France for what could be a Six Nations title decider. Both teams are level on points with England and Wales after three games.
For the Irish to stay in contention for the championship, they will need to beat Italy — something that surprisingly was beyond them last season when they lost 22-15 in Rome. That was Ireland’s first Six Nations defeat to the Azzurri in 14 meetings and proved to be the last match for head coach Declan Kidney.
“We can use it as a bit of a spur on,” Ireland lock Devin Toner said. “No one wants to feel like that again.”
O’Driscoll will beat the test appearance record he held jointly with former Australia scrumhalf George Gregan. Eight matches for the British and Irish Lions are included in O’Driscoll’s total.
“The head is still willing, but the body not as much,” O’Driscoll said this week. “I want to get out of the game relatively unscathed. Now is the time to do it. I’m not bored of answering questions or signing autographs or doing pictures; I could go on another dozen years doing all that.
“It’s simply that age does catch up on you and physically you can’t do what younger guys can do.”
Jonathan Sexton has recovered from a thumb ligament injury to keep his place at flyhalf. The only change from the team that lost 13-10 to England at Twickenham in Round 3 sees Iain Henderson starting as blindside flanker, replacing the injured Peter O’Mahony.
With three straight losses, the most recent to Scotland, the Italians are heading for another wooden spoon. And their chances of getting anything from their trip to Dublin haven’t been helped by coach Jacques Brunel’s decision to rest his one world-class player, captain and No. 8 Sergio Parisse, who is nursing a calf injury.
Appearing to be saving some players for the finale at home against England, Brunel has made some makeshift choices: A lock (Joshua Furno) will make only his second start as a flanker, a flanker (Robert Barbieri) will make his first start at No. 8 in the championship, and Wales-based scrumhalf Tito Tebaldi has been summoned for his first test in almost two years.
“Ireland is certainly a better squad than last year,” Brunel said. “But we have to remember that we beat them barely a year ago in Rome and in a rather convincing fashion. We have the chance to do so again.”
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Jamie Heaslip, Chris Henry, Iain Henderson, Paul O’Connell (captain), Devin Toner, Mike Ross, Rory Best, Cian Healy. Reserves: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy, Eoin Reddan, Paddy Jackson, Fergus McFadden.
Italy: Luke McLean, Angelo Esposito, Michele Campagnaro, Gonzalo Garcia, Leonardo Sarto, Luciano Orquera, Tito Tebaldi; Robert Barbieri, Paul Derbyshire, Joshua Furno, Marco Bortolami (captain), Quintin Geldenhuys, Martin Castrogiovani, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Alberto de Marchi. Reserves: Davide Giazzon, Michele Rizzo, Lorenzo Cittadini, Antonio Pavanello, Manoa Vosawai, Edoardo Gori, Tommaso Allan, Andrea Masi.