‘A fourth tour is all about going and winning’

Jonathan Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll and Sean O'Brien are Adidas ambassadors and have been selected for the &Lions squad. Picture: Inpho

Brian O’Driscoll spoke to The Age newspaper in Australia yesterday about the Lions captaincy, bonding as a team and three Test series losses on tour

Georgina Robinson [GR]: Congratulations on being selected for your fourth British and Irish Lions tour.

Brian O’Driscoll [BOD]: Thank you, it is so nice to be able to actually say that you’re part of it.

GR: Is it true you didn’t think you’d be picked?

BOD: I suppose I was very hopeful but there’s always an element of doubt because you don’t know what a coach is thinking. In ’05 I was captain so I knew I was in, and in ’09 I was told by [coach] Ian McGeechan that I wasn’t going to be captain so I knew he wasn’t going to drop me from ‘You’re not captain’ to ‘By the way, you’re not in the squad’ in separate conversations. But this time around there’d been radio silence from Warren Gatland so when you don’t hear there’s always an element of doubt.

GR: You’re only the third player to play in four.

BOD: Yes, but I suppose I look at it and I’ve been on three tours but I’ve been on three losing tours, and it’s hard to get away from that — so a fourth tour is all about going and winning.

I’m delighted to be part of it and to have the opportunity to fight for my place in the Test team and help towards a series win, because the Lions need to go back to their winning ways.

I think it’s important for the franchise.

GR: Some were surprised you weren’t named as captain.

BOD: The thing about the captaincy is it’s such a huge, huge honour that it’s impossible you could ever turn it down. But there are huge pressures that come with being Lions captain. There’s a big onus on you to try to get everyone to gel, to try to get certain people on side immediately, and the captain always needs the experienced players to buy into his way of thinking.

And my wife [actress Amy Huberman] told me I was the oldest person on tour, which I was absolutely disgusted to be, so there’s definitely a responsibility on me being a previous captain, to try to help Sam [Warburton] out, and likewise [2009 series captain] Paul O’Connell. It’s not a one-man job, there’s a focal point of one person but in any successful team there’s always three, four, five leaders littered throughout the side.

GR: Have you had much to do with [Welsh captain] Warburton?

BOD: Very little. I’ve played against him a few times and chatted to him afterwards, we had an Adidas shoot recently and had a quick chat, but it’s been limited. But from what I’ve heard he commands great respect amongst his peers within Wales.

GR: How do you go about bonding as a squad, creating a team culture in a short space of time?

BOD: Over the years we’ve done a variety of things, team-building exercises, going out to dinner, having a few drinks and the old-school aspect of that, because there’s nothing like sharing a few laughs out on the town. It can be difficult … You have to make an extra effort and leave your nationality at the door and become a Lion.

GR: Over your three tours have you uncovered any universal truths about the Lions experience?

BOD: If I’m brutally honest the aura of what the Lions was perceived to be probably didn’t really register with me until the tour in 2009, which I enjoyed the most. The first one [to Australia] was a learning experience and I was just a young kid and I kept myself to myself and listened and answered when spoken to, whereas as captain I had a very different experience in ’05. In ’09 I didn’t have the pressure of the captaincy on me and I was able to be a bit freer and we had a really tight squad and I really understood what being a Lion was about. I’ve definitely seen things that have gone wrong and been corrected in subsequent tours. Small things like you really need to be rooming together to get to know guys from other countries… because you can have preconceived notions as to who people are.

GR: Can you remember a player you had sized up incorrectly?

BOD: Mike Phillips, you see him playing with the narkiness and the edge he has, he’s very confrontational, he’s the sort of guy you’d really like to dislike, but then you realise he’s good fun and quite different.

GR: After experiencing three series losses, is there anything you think could make the difference this time around?

BOD: You just have to have a very clear understanding of the way you want to play the game. We all need to be singing off the same hymn sheet. And because it’s such a short time you’re together, not having too complex a game plan, but at the same time, building in scope for guys to be able to read what they see in front of them. These are the cream of players in the home nations and they have to be given a little bit of scope to play what they see. But with regards to plans, keeping it fairly simple because you don’t have that much time to bed it down. I think that’s key. And especially this time because you know you’re playing — well I have always thought this — the smartest rugby team, more often than not, in world rugby. They’re good thinkers, they’re not like the South Africans with the same level of physicality that they bring, and then with New Zealand it’s just a slight different brand, but from a smarts point of view on a rugby pitch I always thought Australia make a lot of really good calls.

GR: You’ve made an incredible contribution to all of those Lions sides.

BOD: Yeah, but you judge yourself not on being selected but on winning things, and it took me a long time in my career to win anything of great substance. I won a couple of triple crowns with Ireland throughout the ’00s then finally won a [Six Nations] grand slam and managed to win a couple of Heineken Cups, but it’s come later in my career. And I’m only too happy that if I have to wait for a fourth tour to be part of a winning Test series team then so be it. It will have been worth the wait.

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