The best centre I have seen play in the last decade is Brian O’Driscoll. That’s not forgetting my favourites, Philippe Sella, Frank Bunce or Tim Horan, but those guys haven’t played in the last 10 years. O’Driscoll will be starting his 128th international match today against England, and that’s coming up to twice as many as I played. The figure sounds improbable and extraordinary, but that sums him up. O’Driscoll is more often than not a genius at outside centre.
BOD showed us last Saturday that the magic still remains, because against Wales he endorsed the adage that form is temporary, class is permanent. For Ireland’s first try in Cardiff, O’Driscoll floated a pass into the future, and it was simply sublime in its execution. It was like watching a scene from The Matrix trilogy of films, where you have to slow it down to see how quickly they move.
During a match you would have to slow O’Driscoll’s brain down to see how fast it works, because what he saw after Rob Kearney came on a dummy run to hold Jonathan Davies for a split second was Matrix-like.
The pass from Jonathan Sexton behind Kearney to O’Driscoll was millimetre perfect, and BOD was already on an outward arc. Davies had been held, but still might have been able to tackle, however poor Alex Cuthbert, for some unfathomable reason, is trapped in the Matrix and doesn’t know where he is. Leigh Halfpenny is the last line of defence and has O’Driscoll locked and loaded in his sights. Amongst this rugby Piccadilly Circus, BOD has the serenity to release a pass in front of Halfpenny and Cuthbert (he’s done a half pirouette and is facing the goal line), and the ball is on its way in much the same way as a leap of faith. Would there be a player on the end of it? Simon Zebo didn’t have to break stride, receiving the ball and running in unopposed from six yards. That’s what you call BOD magic.
In the few seconds that O’Driscoll received the ball until he passed to Zebo you were watching a master. He is almost unplayable in that form.
It was just like watching the Tiger of old sinking those 10 foot putts like they were 10 inches. BOD scored a try as well, just a little drop over the line from less than a yard out. I think he prefers those these days, rather than the scorching 30-70 yard jinking runs we’ve seen him make in the past. The jet-burners have subsided but the engine still purrs.
I would like to say Brian O’Driscoll has adapted his game perfectly over the last several years, but looking at the battering he’s taken physically I’m not sure. The reality is that what he’s done is remarkable considering that he’s a relatively small man in a increasingly supersized game – but he’s a Celtic warrior when it comes to putting his body on the line. How many times have we seen him tackle a player, and then he’s over the man and the whistle goes. Penalty to Ireland.
I have only ever seen O’Driscoll slightly uncomfortable, and that was in 2010 in Paris when he was up against Mathieu Bastareaud, all seventeen and a half stone of him. Around the 60th minute of that game Bastareaud went on a run and O’Driscoll went in for the big hit but got bumped off, as if there was no room on the bus. He was sent packing – and Bastareaud off-loaded to Poitreneaud to score.
Manu Tuilagi presents a similar problem as Bastareaud did in size and speed, but he’s probably a bit stronger and more explosive than the Frenchman. It will be intriguing to see if the maestro has come up with a plan to subdue or quash Tuilagi. I would blitz Manu, aiming to be on him at the same time he receives the ball, when he hasn’t had space to get moving. This approach has to be timed well, with your defence support on either side. One little dog-leg in defence and you’re defensive line becomes brittle.
Even when you get the timing right, the battle has only just began. You have to decide whether to go high or low, and neither is easy given Tuilagi’s proportions. The England No.13’s thighs are XL with power. Go low and you risk him driving out of your arms, go high and he could hand you off.
Hitting him man-and-ball is the most effective option. Tuilagi must concentrate on catching the ball before clocking you coming in for the tackle. He can’t do both. However, no matter how big someone is, they don’t want to be blindsided by a hit in a soft area, and self-protection generally comes first.
O’Driscoll will also have to be careful of the modern day roll out of the tackle. That’s why his timing, technique and commitment have to be spot on – otherwise Tuilagi will be on his way, in much the same way he was against the All Blacks.
Tuilagi is likely to get half an hour to impress from the bench and this is a head-to-head nobody wants to miss.