The suspicion for a long time had been that this was to be Brian O’Driscoll’s swansong yet there he was on Saturday night waxing lyrical about those others set to depart while he himself looks ahead to a fourth Lions tour and one more year of battle.
The great survivor.
It was almost four years to the day since he stood on the Murrayfield pitch in Edinburgh and spoke about what it meant to him to finally win a Heineken Cup medal with a Leinster team that was always more than just a club to him.
He had talked then about his buddies on the field beside him and those like Denis Hickie, Reggie Corrigan and Victor Costello for whom the breakthrough had arrived just a tad too late.
Now, here he stands with three such medals, an Amlin Challenge Cup equivalent and another Celtic League souvenir to add to the two claimed back in the early to mid-’00s when his career still stretched ahead of him like an endless prairie.
Joe Schmidt has been head man for most of that. A lifetime’s success has been shoehorned into the last three seasons under the genial Kiwi and O’Driscoll was happy to reminisce about the era just ended before turning his attention to matters in Hong Kong and Australia.
“My impressions of Joe were good from the early days. The knives were sharpened pretty early for him after we lost five successive games. You could tell by his ideas, the way he was trying to get his message across, his thought processes on the game, you knew he was a big thinker and that if we stuck with him, he would come good.
“It’s one thing having the knowledge and the know-how but to have that work ethic and the desire to constantly improve is what sets him apart from everyone else. He’s a bit of a workaholic and that’s probably what you need in this business to be a success. If you’re coupling that with a great knowledge, I think you have a good winning formula.”
Similar terms were used to describe Isa Nacewa who now retired from the game at the tender age of 30 to return home to New Zealand with his young family. Irreplaceable, O’Driscoll said.
Yet, it was Fergus McFadden who summed Nacewa up best. Keyser Soze was his description: an enigma who was always there at training first and disappeared before anyone could ask where he had gone. And his loss is all the more acute given it comes at the same time as Jonathan Sexton’s switch to Racing Metro.
“Jonny has been instrumental in terms of [Schmidt’s] success,” said O‘Driscoll. “It’s his mentality as well as his ability. He demands very, very high standards. Sometimes, he wants people to expect as much as he expects himself which is not an easy ask.
“He’s going to be a big loss to us but the show goes on. This year has been a great opportunity for Ian Madigan to come on. He’s learned a massive amount. We’ll move on to next season with him as our number one ten.”
Replacing the influence of such men on and off the field will be an unenviable task and Matt O’Connor, the Australian head coach persuaded across the Irish Sea from Leicester Tigers, is the man to be entrusted with the task.
“It’s a standards thing,” said the Ireland centre. “We demand an awful lot from ourselves. We’ve Matt O’Connor coming in and he’ll demand a huge amount. I’ve spoken to him at length.
“He’s passionate about how he wants teams to play and what he wants to achieve here. We’re in a good place but we must continue to drive on from here. We cannot remain stagnant. We have to look forward. We have to continue winning."
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved