Rugby: Series a Lion's dream

By Chris Hewett

Last night's test against the Wallabies was a watershed for several players wanting to crown their careers with a Lions win. One of them, writes Chris Hewett, was Brian O'Driscoll.

Brian O'Driscoll is on his final Lions tour. Photo / Getty Images
Brian O'Driscoll is on his final Lions tour. Photo / Getty Images

A handful of rugby players are born into Lionhood and the very best of them, the creme de la creme, grow to their fullest size in the red jersey. Brian O'Driscoll is among that number.

The thought of it may embarrass him, for he has won only once in six test appearances in the great union citadels of the Southern Hemisphere, but the ledger never tells the full story. Willie John McBride first tasted victory at the 10th time of asking, yet no one quibbles with his place in the annals.

Twelve years after scoring one of the great tries of the modern era by running through the most parsimonious defence in rugby from a distance of 50-odd metres, the celebrated Dubliner returned to the scene of the deed last night with his eyes firmly fixed on the one attainable jewel still missing from his treasure trove.

"I don't want to be someone who's known for making a lot of appearances in Lions tests but failing to win a series," he says. "You talk about the camaraderie on Lions tours, about the squad gelling together and everyone becoming great friends but if we all got on terribly, yet beat the Wallabies, I'd take that."

At 34, on his fourth and last Lions trek, O'Driscoll, the oldest Lion in the pride, has never been more open in giving expression to the ruthlessness of his competitive nature.

That try of his at The Gabba in the first test of the 2001 series burnt itself into the memory of all who witnessed it. They can picture still the slicing run between Nathan Grey and Jeremy Paul, the touch on the afterburner that left a back row defender as accomplished as George Smith in no-man's land, the shimmering step off the right foot that did for fullback Matthew Burke and the speed of the run that took him to the line ahead of Wallaby wings Andrew Walker and Joe Roff.

"You do think about the fact that so many greats have pulled on the shirt before you and that it's a huge honour to borrow it for 80 minutes, but I try not to dwell on it. I prefer to let the moment happen.

"This is my fourth tour and I've seen all sorts of things, good and bad, but you can't concern yourself with what's gone before and get lost in the enormity of it. Just go out and play your game - that's the best advice I was ever given."

Some individuals - McBride, Gareth Edwards, Barry John and maybe a dozen others - are so completely defined by their deeds in the red shirt, it is as if they had no other rugby life, either before or after. O'Driscoll may come to be seen in the same way, even though he has fought the good fight for Ireland on no fewer than 125 occasions and won three Heineken Cup titles with Leinster.

With the Lions, he strode the sunlit uplands in Australia, passed through the purgatorial fires in South Africa and descended to the darkest depths in New Zealand.

His shoulder still bears the scar of 2005, when the All Blacks brutally upended him in storm-tossed Christchurch and left the Lions to play all but a minute of the test series without their captain. Maybe his mind bears the scar, too.

"I guess I was never going to win a World Cup with Ireland, so to win a series with the Lions is the biggest thing left to me," he says. "I'd dearly love to do it, not just for my own sake but for the sake of the Lions too, because we need to win one of these series soon. Let's hope it starts here.

"This is a unique thing, to have four different rugby countries shouting for you over a seven-week period: It's bizarre in a way, but brilliant. I really hope it's never overtaken by anything else in the sport. You'll see it here with the first-time Lions: Once they've experienced it, one taste is never enough. They'll crave more.

"You never see a Lion going into the opposition changing room looking to swap a shirt. This is the power the jersey holds. To be one of the top 37 players in the home unions, knowing that so many people play our game, it's such a personal high. And then to think of the winning Lions teams: '71, '74, '89, '97. There's so much history to it."

Sam Warburton, the latest man to lead the four-nation fraternity into action, mentioned earlier this week that the presence of O'Driscoll and his countryman Paul O'Connell, who skippered the squad in Springbok country four years ago, had already been of immense value.

Under different circumstances, O'Driscoll might have found himself undertaking a second tour of captaincy duty: indeed, he was a hot tip for the job for much of last season. As it turns out, he is happy enough among the rank and file.

"When I did the job in New Zealand, I felt more as if I was in a goldfish bowl," he admits. "The honour of captaining the Lions is enormous, of course, but being able to step away from such responsibility makes your tour a little more enjoyable. I've put in my tuppence-worth on this trip when it's been asked of me and I've felt able to add something, but I think Sam is doing really well.

"He doesn't speak for the sake of it. When he does speak, he definitely has the attention of the team. Different countries do different things, don't they? In Ireland, we're talkers. That might get us going but it might not work for everyone else, so maybe there's a need for us to tone it down and strike a balance. Sam's getting it right. Talk is good when its about things that are relevant, but when people hear noise, they switch off."

Last night, the Lions were banking on his know-how. He formed one half of a freshly-minted midfield partnership with Welsh centre Jonathan Davies. Their unfamiliarity at test level is far from ideal, even though the Irishman rates Davies very highly indeed - a rounded footballer who runs the ball really hard yet has a great range of skills, he says admiringly.

The Wallabies found themselves in much the same boat, with Christian Lealiifano winning his first Australian cap alongside Adam Ashley-Cooper.

- Independent

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