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O’Driscoll will leave lasting legacy for Ireland

March 14, 2014

Dublin farewelled Brian O’Driscoll in style last weekend. The great man sweetened the occasion with a magic effort against Italy, tarnished later only by his rendition of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” in the changing room.

While it was a fitting celebration of O’Driscoll, there’s symmetry in him bowing out of international rugby on Saturday in a likely Six Nations title decider in Paris. That’s where he launched himself on the rugby world’s consciousness in 2000 with a hat trick of tries in Ireland’s first win there over France in 28 years.

To that point, he was an Irish star with 10 tests. Marked for great things as a teen with humility masking a ferocious competitiveness, he made his Ireland debut on the 1999 summer tour of Australia at age 20.

Man-of-the-match awards in Ireland’s first two tour games made him a must-pick opposite Wallabies Dan Herbert and Tim Horan. O’Driscoll held his own, and again in that year’s World Cup, where Ireland exited the group stage, embarrassed by Argentina.

That was Ireland rugby then, a graveyard of dreams for more than a decade. But O’Driscoll gave the side a world-class talent beside hooker Keith Wood, and a back who could create and score tries and return hope and thrills to Lansdowne Road. It took a 50-point hiding from England in the 2000 Six Nations opener for then-coach Warren Gatland to introduce the likes of John Hayes, Simon Easterby, Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara, who became stars of the new millennium as Ireland’s fortunes prospered.

When France was overcome 27-25, Ireland had three wins in the championship for the first time in 15 years. O’Driscoll’s was the first hat trick by an Irish player in the championship in 47 years.

“It was lucky that I was in the right place at the right time,” he said with a modesty that remains.

O’Driscoll has gone on to rack up a world record 140 tests, 139 of them starts, a record 132 for Ireland, the most Six Nations matches (64) and tries (26). He captained Ireland for 10 years to 2012 a record 83 times, and has 47 test tries, a record 46 for Ireland.

He played in four World Cups without success, and only one win from four British and Irish Lions tours. Ireland also has won the Six Nations only once, when he scored tries in four of their wins in the 2009 Grand Slam. A second title beckons on Saturday.

The statistics reward lasting class. But his legacy interests him more. O’Driscoll woke up to the requirements of being professional during his first Lions tour in 2001, a tour de force for him. He’s responsible for revolutionizing Ireland, said captain Paul O’Connell, in the team since 2002.

“He’s spread confidence across the whole setup,” O’Connell said. “I grew up watching Ireland in the 90s and maybe that confidence wasn’t there when an Irish team took the field. Any team that takes the field with Brian in it always feels they have a chance of winning.

“When Brian finishes, that confidence will remain in the Irish setup, because a few players have molded themselves on him a little bit and realized this is what you need to be to be the all-round rugby player.”

The 35-year-old O’Driscoll has also remodeled himself. He has only one try since the 2011 World Cup, and no longer accelerates through gaps. But where his leg speed has declined, his mind has only sharpened. Ask Italy, victims last weekend. O’Driscoll’s sleight of hand and awareness set up three of Ireland’s first four tries.

He believes his caps records will be broken, and has been grooming potential successors Robbie Henshaw and Darren Cave. Ireland has an abundance of midfield talent, he said.

In giving advice, “He’s been generous to a fault,” Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said.

Where O’Driscoll ranks among the great centers is another debate. Some in Ireland still consider him second to Mike Gibson, who retired in 1979, also after 15 years, as the world caps record-holder.

No matter. O’Driscoll’s greatness is set. He’ll close a circle on Saturday at Stade de France. There, after that hat trick in the stunning victory in 2000, France coach Bernard Laporte said, “We could not stop him.”

Only time has.

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