He may appear, in the mind of at least one rugby analyst, to be “half cyborg” but whether he’s man, machine or a bit of both, Brian O’Driscoll is back to his best, and maybe even better, following the surgery that decimated his season.
At 33, the Ireland captain and outside centre may be in the twilight seasons of his illustrious career but he is playing at a level every bit as impressive as that which earned him the British & Irish Lions captaincy in 2005 and a magazine’s accolade of World Rugby Player of the Decade for the noughties. At least that is the view of Sky Sports analysts Stuart Barnes, Dewi Morris, Paul Wallace and Tyrone Howe as they look forward to seeing O’Driscoll take to the Twickenham stage on Saturday when Leinster defend their Heineken Cup title against Ulster.
That Leinster are there at all to try and emulate Leicester’s feat in 2001-02 of achieving back-to-back final wins is in part due to O’Driscoll’s talismanic performance against Clermont Auvergne in their thrilling semi-final win in Bordeaux last month, once again putting his body on the line to deliver a massive hit on opposite number Aurelien Rougerie and send a message that the Irish province was not going to lie down on French soil.
“He was very impressive in the semi-final,” Barnes said. “One thing I’d say about Brian is he’s improved and I think (head coach Joe) Schmidt’s going to take a lot of credit for this. I think the great man had one fault in his game and that was to zing the passes off his left and right hand over a long distance at pace. He’s always had a lovely offloading and pop-passing game — think 2009 Lions when everybody got it wrong and made Jamie Roberts man of the tour, it was O’Driscoll put him in all the bloody holes! But now he’s come back and Brian O’Driscoll’s passing game is making up for the fact that he’s not as quick as he once was.
“I felt defensively his reading of the game against Clermont was excellent, he’s come back better than I expected and added a string to his bow.
“We’re talking about Leinster being the greatest team in the history of the Heineken Cup, well we’re talking about the greatest European professional in the history of the game so it’s no surprise to me.”
O’Driscoll’s performance against Clermont also caught the eye of fellow Irish Lion Wallace, who said: “The thing with Brian is, he’s like what Stephen Ferris does for Ulster, he puts that massive big hit in. Against Clermont it was Rougerie and he went and absolutely pummelled a guy twice his size and it set the tone.
“His leadership on the pitch, his selfless nature, he’s not a captain of the side but a captain in the side in that he’s the guy first out of the trenches. As well here’s a guy just back from serious surgery on his neck and just throws his body around like that, for any of the younger players he just inspires them.”
Former England scrum-half Morris called O’Driscoll “the greatest back, I’ve seen in the northern hemisphere” and said he would not be surprised to see the Irishman embark on his fourth &Lions tour next year in Australia.
“People talk about Martin Johnson and Scott Quinnell on Lions tours and I think it would just instil a little bit extra in everyone there to see Brian O’Driscoll and I’m surprised he’s come back, it’s like something out of Hollywood isn’t it? This guy can do anything and I think he’s half cyborg, he plays rugby like a Ferris but thinks well beyond that in everything and I just think it’s going to be a tremendous game on Saturday.”