“There was a public you after that,” Horgan would put it to his old teammate. “You had a different interaction with supporters than anyone else who played for Ireland. Did you have to change your life much?”
O’Driscoll would later accept Horgan’s assertion had some validity — “I had to grow up quickly as a 21-year-old” — but initially, he laughed it off.
“No! It was Brian O’Driscoll (we’re talking about), not David Beckham! Let’s be realistic here.”
In a way it was apt that O’Driscoll should bring Beckham into the frame when recalling that weekend. The then Manchester United player was at the height of his football powers, whatever about his fame at the time and that same spring Sunday he was dominating all the morning newspapers as only he could, through a mixture of style and substance.
The previous day Beckham had scored another goal from a free kick, this time against Leicester City at Filbert Street. In his celebration he had stretched out his arms, Christ-like, sporting the haircut he had unveiled that day, a skinhead look which at the time seemed more fitting for an English football hooligan than an English football star.
In the days that followed, O’Driscoll’s name and face would be similarly splashed all over the Irish papers, much to the relief of the camp of another sporting superstar. With the Olympics only six months away, Sonia O’Sullivan had competed that weekend for the first time since the birth of her daughter.
She’d finished a disappointing seventh in the world cross-country championships long-course event and 13th in the short course and members of her camp were conscious that excessive scrutiny of those results could compound her own doubts. “Luckily for us,” one of her advisors would tell this reporter who was covering that event in Vilamoura, “a young man from Dublin decided to score a hat-track in Paris.”
There was an appreciation there that something special had happened in France to deflect from Sonia’s difficulties. But no one could have known just how special a star was born that weekend that would in time come to rival Sonia’s sporting greatness.
O’Driscoll would end up being somewhat comparable to Beckham too. Like Becks, ‘Drico’ would sport the odd dodgy haircut — any look back now at the blonde highlights circa 2003/04 make us all smile and cringe, probably no one more so than himself — and he was probably Irish sport’s first metrosexual, seemingly as at home with then girlfriend Glenda Gilson on the tiles and the red carpet as on the green grass of Lansdowne with Shaggy Horgan and the lads.
Ultimately though, his career would go on to more resemble the other members of that exceptional Manchester United midfield. As with Ryan Giggs, we first marvelled at his flair and creativity, then came to wonder at his inner steel and longevity. Like Paul Scholes he seemed as grounded as he was brilliant; a teammate’s teammate, a rival player’s player. And then in many ways, he was like Roy.
He has admitted Keane’s ferocious desire to win and improve was an inspiration to him. Like Keane, for a stretch in his career he was as much begrudged as he was admired until he came back from injury to win a European Cup; then their respective reinventions and comebacks commanded almost universal love and admiration in Ireland.
If anything, O’Driscoll would trump Keane on two counts there. He did not have a Saipan that would erode or dilute that popular sentiment. And then there was his sportsmanship.
It’s a word in all the eulogies in recent weeks that has gone pretty much unmentioned, yet the sheer goodwill to the man suggests it has certainly not gone unnoticed. Unlike plenty of other Irish heroes from team sports, his competitiveness never strayed into cynicism. Even after shipping some of the punishment he did, like that despicable spear tackle on the Lions 2005 Tour to New Zealand, he never resorted to showing or telling a Tana Umaga to take that one, you c**t.
By virtue of the size of the sport he played, Keane, in these eyes, remains Ireland’s greatest-ever sports person, but it’s both right and understandable that O’Driscoll is its most loved.
And so this weekend it ends, a career in green. Either way, you could argue, would be fitting.
Lose and it would be so typical of Ireland with O’Driscoll: another championship let slip.
Since he broke onto the scene in 2000, Ireland have won 48 games in the Six Nations.
France and England have won only two more, yet between them they’ve won nine championships to Ireland’s one.
Wales have won only 39 games in that time but four championships.
Which is why the alternative ending would be so much more appropriate, O’Driscoll’s affair with Paris book-ended with another unforgettable liaison. Three tries, a second championship, one legend.