The saying goes that a sporting injury is one man’s misfortune but another’s opportunity and the situation in which Brian O’Driscoll now finds himself offers several as he prepares for his final Test as a British & Irish Lion.
The tour-ending hamstring tear suffered by Sam Warburton during the defeat to Australia last weekend has opened the door for O’Driscoll to captain the Lions in the series-deciding third Test in Sydney on Saturday.
That gives the 34-year-old the chance of finally finishing a Lions Test as skipper after his leadership of the 2005 tour came to an abrupt halt thanks to that infamous spear tackle minutes into the series opener with New Zealand in Christchurch. And, more importantly, the four-time tourist now has the possibility of bowing out in style with a first series victory of his 12-year journey in the iconic red jersey, making amends for the agony of losing the final two Tests in Australia on his first tour in 2001 and the first two in South Africa four years ago.
So much unfinished business then, although it was not those first three tours O’Driscoll was thinking of when he spoke of second chances on Sunday, with the previous day’s 16-15 second-Test loss in Melbourne still playing in his mind as he prepared to down tools with the majority of the squad for two days on a beach in Noosa, Queensland.
“It’s 1-1 now, that’s how we find ourselves. There was a really good analogy from Jonny Sexton today. Sitting on the plane, and he said it’s rare after a cup final that you get the chance to relive a cup final again and put the things you did wrong right. It is a quite rare situation you get to do that.”
This weekend at Sydney’s former Olympic Stadium, now known as ANZ Stadium, will deliver the Lions a second bite at winning the series and despite seeing that prospect dashed first time around during a nail-biting finale at Etihad Stadium last Saturday, O’Driscoll said the players remained upbeat.
“The general message is that it’s still all to play for. They have been two incredibly keenly contested games. Both of them should probably have gone the other way than they did, and it now culminates with a winner-takes-all on Saturday.
“We knew we were never going to get it easy against Australia, and it has been proven. Yes, there is disappointment and you have to have a little bit of a mourning period after any loss, but the spirts of the guys have been picked up.
“It is important to be able to feel the disappointment because if you try to banish it immediately it will come back to you, and it still does at times throughout the day. You kind of think how scenarios could be different, having a series in the bag rather than one still to go and fight for.
“But then after a couple of days you just have to have the ability to shelve it and focus on the target. One more 80 minutes this season is all that is asked of everyone in the squad, the 80 minutes of their lives.”
O’Driscoll disputes the argument that there has been a sea change in Australia’s favour after the Wallabies levelled the series, just as the 2001 players did a dozen years ago.
“People talk about the momentum going with the team that wins the that second Test, and I would have agreed with it in 2001 because it was a comfortable victory [Australia] had,” the former Ireland captain said.
“But just the way the two games have gone, with two points in the first one and one point in the second one just shows how tight it is between us. I think the team that turns up on Saturday and gets some momentum from early in the game, will get the upper hand.
“I wouldn’t go and say there is anything particularly we did 12 years ago. Just make sure you don’t do too much training that week. There is a lot in the bank already, so just try to get the detail right and then save the energy for the pitch. I don’t think there is a huge amount new we are going to learn about ourselves or about the opposition at this stage, so it is just about trying to be clinical when we do get the opportunity to take the pitch.”
The Lions failed in that department Saturday in a tense but poor game from both sides, outside centre O’Driscoll and wings George North and Tommy Bowe not getting too many opportunities to test the Australian defensive line as the team grimly defended a 15-9 lead until Adam Ashley-Cooper found a way to unlock the door.
“Yes, it was frustrating. As an outside back you want to play with ball in hand, but we were trying to play a smart game as well. We didn’t really give ourselves chances to build any momentum because we compounded errors with more errors. There were silly turnovers at times, and they managed to string phases together. That was a huge part of why we lost the game in the end. You can only soak so much pressure.
“But at the same time, we held a six-point lead up until the 74th minute, and sometimes you are just trying to see the game through without playing anything spectacularly, just play smart Test football. Sometimes that entails kicking the ball and getting good kick-chase and just playing somewhat limited, but smart, football. We kicked loosely a few times and probably got punished on counter-attack.
“You’ve got to give yourself a 50-50 chance of getting the ball back and we got some of our own kick-contest back, and I thought we did well on their kick-contest. But I think accuracy is vitally important. There were some unforced errors from both sides, and to string phases together you have to be accurate.
“We struggled to play multi-phase at times, and you have to do that against good defences.”
As O’Driscoll hopes, Saturday’s final Test will be the ideal chance to put things right and leave the Lions in a blaze of glory.
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