BRIAN O’DRISCOLL was back training with his Ireland team-mates in Wellington yesterday after a week he described as the most “brutal in my life”.
It has been a harrowing seven days for the Ireland captain who lost a close friend unexpectedly last week. But in front of a sizeable New Zealand media contingent, O’Driscoll looked a man doing extremely well to park his grief and focus on leading Ireland into Saturday’s test against the All Blacks.
He denied suggestions that he was close to quitting the tour having pulled out of the Ireland squad to face the Barbarians last Tuesday and return home to be with the family and friends of his departed friend, Barry Twomey.
“I didn’t come that close at all,” he said. “All I really want to say about last week was that it was a brutal week in my life and in the lives of a lot of my friends. It came as a shock. Rugby was secondary for that period of time but my friend’s Dad said that he (Barry) would have expected me to go on tour. That was all the convincing I needed.”
Something that is bringing a smile to his face is the new centre partnership he will form with Luke Fitzgerald. The Leinster pair were picked to start against the Baa-Baas, but O’Driscoll’s late withdrawal meant that didn’t materialise. Smiling from the top table when he asked whether he sees his younger self in Ireland’s most talented 20-year-old, O’Driscoll said: “Maybe a little bit. I probably didn’t have as much ability as Luke and maybe not as much confidence. Not ignorant to the pressures that are on you at that age, but as a youngster you have a little bit of naivete and I think that can really work to your advantage. I think it certainly did for me when I was younger.
“He’s such an exciting talent for such a young guy. He has confidence in abundance. I think that will alleviate any nervousness a lot of people in that position might feel.”
He said that on match day they will swap between 12 and 13 and “play a bit of old school left and right”. O’Driscoll explained: “I’ve made sure that I’ve only ever worn the 13 jersey playing for Ireland. That’s just a number thing, but there will be certain plays where we’ll be mixing and matching and keeping the All Blacks guessing. Luke will be really looking forward to the challenge. If you knew his character, he would want to pit himself against the best in the world, and what better opportunity than against the All Blacks.”
O’Driscoll also cast Ireland in the role of underdogs believing the pressure is on the All Blacks to preserve their unbeaten record over Ireland. Having arrived in New Zealand 24 hours after his team-mates, he says he left a country where there isn’t a huge level of expectation that Ireland can win. However, he wasn’t getting down about that observation.
“I don’t really think there is much pressure on us at all. You can look at it two ways: we haven’t really produced anything and there is always pressure from that end, but I don’t think there will be a huge level of expectation back home. We’ve never beaten the All Blacks, so people are probably wondering, ‘why should this be the time?’ They’re the ones who have the record, they’re the ones who always have a greater level of expectation, so I think that the pressure is back on them.”
A plus for Ireland, he says, is having 14 medal holders on the team, drawn from the title-winners Munster, Leinster and Wasps, which can only be good for the Ireland team.
“Winning does become a bit of habit, and the more games you find yourself in that are very close and come out on the right side of the result, you know what buttons to push when you find yourself in that situation again. The more guys on the pitch that have that mentality, the better. Particularly Munster coming off the back of the Heineken Cup victory — the guts of our team is from Munster, certainly the guts of our pack.
“Hopefully they’ll be able to transfer that mentality that they’ve had which has been outstanding for them and has been the hallmark of the provincial scene down there. Now it’s just a case of bringing it to the international scene.”
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