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Brendan Gallagher: Brian O’Driscoll was never a victim again after this act of brutality

Brian O’DriscollThe thud and thunder of battles won and lost will never recede entirely, nor will those lightning forks of brilliance that lit up dark afternoons at Lansdowne Road and all points west but it is Brian O’Driscoll the man, in good times and bad, that I recall most vividly now as he finally makes his exit from the Test arena.

Legendary status is assured but at 35 he still has a long life to live and sometimes you worry about instinctive once-in-a-lifetime sportsmen suddenly finding themselves in Civvie Street and confronting reality. Not O’Driscoll.

Early in 2005 I was hurriedly contacted by eminent publishers Penguin who sensed that O’Driscoll was about to enjoy the year of all years and a ghosted diary seemed like a good idea.

Ireland were flying high after a victory over South Africa in the autumn and were clearly strong Six Nations contenders, Leinster had marched through their pool unbeaten were surely about to finally deliver in the Heineken Cup and off the back of all that O’Driscoll was the obvious choice of captain for Sir Clive Woodward’s all singing, all dancing Lions tour of New Zealand. It was difficult to disagree substantially with anything they said and I signed on the dotted line.

What transpired was comfortably the worst year of his life. An absolute stinker. Hamstring tears and groin strains started to bother him, Ireland blew their Championship hopes with a sloppy home defeat to France, Leinster were totally outplayed at home by Leicester in their Heineken Cup quarter-final and then the Lions tour proved a disaster, both for the team and their captain.

O’Driscoll was stretchered off after just 41 seconds of the first Test after the infamous double spear tackle by Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu. I use the expression “spear tackle” very loosely as that implies that O’Driscoll might have actually been in possession at the time –  the ball was in fact 20 yards away when the foul deed was completed.

Keven Mealamu and Tana Umaga spear tackling Brian O'Driscoll

Keven Mealamu and Tana Umaga spear tackling Brian O’Driscoll

A Year In The Centre we optimistically entitled it but in reality it was a year of bloody heartache and disillusionment. Yet despite his rugby world falling to pieces around him O’Driscoll remained polite and totally professional at all times. I used to shuttle across to Dublin to interview him before and after matches and in New Zealand we instigated a regular Sunday night sit-down at whatever hotel the Lions had just reached.

Always there was a pot of tea, a short burst of good humoured banter and then to work over a club sandwich. In outward demeanour there was little or no difference from O’Driscoll going through the stormiest waters of his career and O’Driscoll the Grand Slam champion and Heineken Cup maestro with Leinster.

It’s a rare and enviable quality because the fires have always raged like an open furnace within O’Driscoll, you only have to watch him play to know that. It’s just that he controls the extremes of his emotions better than almost any sportsman I have encountered. He knows how and when to slam that furnace door shut. Just occasionally though, and always away from the public eye and the TV cameras, I definitely felt the searing heat, most notably in the hours and days immediately after the Umaga-Mealamu incident which were both fraught and fascinating.

I was listening to an excellent RTE Radio tribute programme the other day with Eddie O’Sullivan and Shane Horgan and both were remarking on how O’Driscoll took the incident in his stride and moved forward without a backward glance. With respect to two of O’Driscoll’s greatest friends and supporters, I’d beg to differ slightly on that one. Christchurch 2005, in my opinion, changed O’Driscoll the rugby player forever.

With the book imminent and the last three or four chapters still unpenned I was in the lucky-unlucky position of being required to conduct a two-hour interview with O’Driscoll just over 36 hours after the incident, when officially he was still off-limits, in a dark quiet corner of the coffee lounge at the Inter-continental Hotel in Wellington. I arrived ten minutes ahead of time and there he was waiting with the pot of tea already half cold. He had stuff to say.

In Wellington he was very raw, angry and bewildered although impressively he resorted to neither foul language nor mindless abuse as many of us would have done. A warrior himself, he knew better than anybody that ‘stuff’ happens but equally he knew that there must always be a line that you never crossed, indeed one of his great talents for 15 years has been to somehow operate within the laws where the battle was fiercest. There was also a tangible feeling of humiliation and failure surrounding him as we picked away at events in Christchurch.

In Test terms his Lions captaincy had been virtually still-born, just 41 seconds of action, and he took it very personally and illogically felt he had let everybody down as well as being cheated of his dream. The 2005 Lions were slipping away to oblivion, a footnote in rugby history, and it was happening on his watch even though he was now helpless to intervene. O’Driscoll was proud beyond words to lead the Lions. He even enthused over – and learned the words of – that bloody awful Power Of Four Lions anthem that was foisted on the squad by some PR numpty and frankly there is no greater love than that.

We met again a couple of days later and that week, licking his wounds in Wellington, was O’Driscoll’s lowest low and couldn’t have been made easier by an extraordinary spin doctoring campaign launched by the All Blacks that left the lavishly rewarded Alastair Campbell in the Lions corner looking a callow beginner.

Brian O'Driscoll facing the haka

Brian O’Driscoll facing the haka

What incident? What injury? What citing commissioner? Can’t you see it was all O’Driscoll’s fault by moving the wrong way and, wait for it, smiling during the haka and throwing the straw proffered to the wind? Surely you must also be aware, gentlemen of the world’s press, that a New Zealand captain would never, ever, commit such a heinous act of foul play? At one ludicrous press conference Umaga was paraded and seated on what looked like a stage throne borrowed from the nearby Wellington Opera House while all his young squad filed in dutifully to gather admiringly at the Lion tamer’s feet for one of the more cynical and sickening photocalls in sporting infamy.

You had to rub your eyes in disbelief on occasions but the very totem pole of not just New Zealand rugby but New Zealand society was under suspicion and his career could clearly have been on the line if dealt with correctly. By midweek the Lions captain, unbelievably, was being presented as the villain of the piece. It was not, in all honesty, New Zealand rugby’s finest moment – as countless New Zealanders, some of them household names, have admitted to me privately in the intervening years – nor indeed did it reflect well on the Lions as they let the NZRFU walk all over them.

It was there and then that O’Driscoll’s attitude hardened forever. Never again was he going to be brazenly cheated in such a manner, never again was he going to be a “victim”. If 41 seconds was all he was permitted as Lions captain he would bloody well make up for it elsewhere by sucking every last second out of his remaining Test career. His world record 141 Test caps is testament to that. The longest, and one of the greatest, Test careers in history has been his considered reply. It’s there in black and white and will feature prominently in the record books for ever and a day. Even those monkeys who heard no evil, saw no evil and spoke no evil of that hateful sleety night in Christchurch, can never turn a blind eye to his Test career as a body of work.

The dodgy haircuts and beach boy persona were quickly discarded along with most of those beery late nights in Dublin he was so fond of and even a succession of serious injuries that would have felled others were not allowed to derail a man on a mission. The laid back try-scoring, miracle-working outside back bulked up and worked on his all-round game, especially his defence and off-loading. He sacrificed a yard of pace for a stone of muscle but then again he always knew he would lose his speed off the mark sooner rather than later.

Brian o'Driscoll after the tackle

Brian o’Driscoll after the tackle

He adroitly side-stepped discussion of the incident and that is where O’Sullivan and Horgan are absolutely correct – publicly it was done and dusted and he never harked back – but ‘wronging a right’ remained a huge motivation. Going forward O’Driscoll would train himself to become the complete master of the tackle area which was rapidly taking over as rugby’s most lethal combat zone with all kinds of illegal clear-outs being tolerated in what amounted to a Wild West bar-room brawl. From now on, having studied the laws and how George Smith was king of all he surveyed at the breakdown, he determined to ruthlessly “boss” those volatile situations. Nobody was ever going to tip him on his head and slam dunk him to earth again – and in so-doing he has redefined what a back could and should do in such situations.

O’Driscoll’s strength in adversity and perseverance are his most enduring qualities. It took ten years to land an Ireland Grand Slam but he got there eventually in 2009. Three times he toured unsuccessfully with the Lions but on his fourth and final trip he was part of a series victory. For years Leinster were chronic underperformers in Europe but finally he even fixed that as well and they stormed to three Heineken Cup victories in four years. In his first four seasons of international rugby for Ireland he took three fearful hammerings at the hands of England but he didn’t lose for a decade after.

Only some sort of tangible success for Ireland at the World Cup eluded him although it wasn’t for the lack of trying. In 2011 he should have been at home under the surgeon’s knife having a nerve in his neck freed but again he put his team and country first, to no avail as it happened.

The circumstances of his retirement also speak eloquently. The rugby world en masse was busy telling him last March that it was time to go and for a while I believe he considered it seriously.

A successful Lions tour of Australia would have been a very obvious point of departure. But increasingly it just didn’t feel right, his work wasn’t quite done and there was fuel left in the tank which was an odd sensation in itself. O’Driscoll invariably leaves the field totally drained, indeed the Grand Slam-winning match against Wales in Cardiff in 2009, when he almost dragged Ireland over the line singlehandedly, he was in bed with a migraine and the sheer physical exhaustion of it all by 9pm.

Ireland’s Six Nations campaign had fizzled out disappointingly in 2013 and ended on a personal low with a rare yellow card and ban for stamping against Italy in Rome, just about the only time I can ever recall him temporarily losing the plot in any shape or form. Then Joe Schmidt was appointed Ireland’s new coach in succession to Declan Kidney and he felt honour-bound to make himself available for another season if required.

He was. A final pop against New Zealand was another enticing carrot and how ironic that Ireland were winning handily when he was led reluctantly – but as he later tweeted correctly – from the field by the Irish medics after a concussion. He was so close to that elusive first victory over the old enemy he could feel and smell it and the agony of watching Ireland slip to defeat in added time will, I fancy, be the one major regret of his career.

So, we’ll never see O’Driscoll as a Test player again and for a while it could all seem a bit empty. Who are we going to talk about and use as the yardstick to measure others by? Never has a player in my experience been more scrutinised and found less wanting but the greatest compliment of all is that although the Brian O’Driscoll who made his debut in Australia 15 years ago might be a different rugby player to the one who trooped off at the Stade De France last night he remains exactly the same individual.

The twin imposters have failed miserably to land a blow.

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