MICHAEL CLIFFORD: We are all drunk with O’Driscoll hysteria

IT was a week of two icons, the treatment of one eliciting national sound and fury, the other’s plight little more than a footnote.

What of ‘BOD’? Once upon a time, Brian O’Driscoll was a rugby player; not a good rugby player, but a great one.

Then, last week, his status was raised to national martyr. He had been subjected to a great injustice, at the hands of a foreign body.

Once their passion was awoken, the Irish people rushed to keen and spit rage at the grave of his career.

O’Driscoll’s oppressor was one Warren Gatland, manager of an outfit known as The British and Irish Lions.

Gatland dropped Ireland’s greatest player from his squad to play Australia in a deciding test match this morning. (If you’re reading this after the game, don’t worry, the result won’t spoil it for you).

For that crime, Gatland has joined a rogues’ gallery in Irish folklore that includes Oliver Cromwell, General Sir John Maxwell (of 1916 infamy), Margaret Thatcher, Mick McCarthy and Thierry Henry.

These oppressors, one and all (with the possible exception of poor McCarthy), awoke in the Irish people an outrage that, once upon a time, lit revolutions, but, of late, has just brought forth righteous indignation to die for. Last Wednesday morning, as the news broke, an RTÉ reporter began his interview with Donal Lenihan with the question: “Has Brian O’Driscoll been done a great disservice?”

Sorry? Brian O’Driscoll is a professional sportsman subject to the whims and decisions of a manager, who, presumably, picked what he believed to be the best team.

Is ‘BOD’ God, bigger than the team, or the game? On the printed page, the Irish Times rugby correspondent spoke for many when he declared: “It’s hard not to be furious.” Over at the Irish Independent, clinical psychologist Maire Murray penned a piece under the headline “The entire nation is hurt, insulted and aggrieved on BOD’s behalf”.

Nursing my hurt, I turned to cyberspace, which was ablaze, with Twitter, in particular, hurling insults at Gatland as if the man had been responsible for transcontinental genocide. The tweets also flowed over with compassion for ‘BOD’, as if he had just been declared innocent after 15 years in prison, instead of the same span enjoying the fruits of being a top professional sportsman.

Only the strapline on Thursday’s Irish Examiner bore the correct tone and nailed the issue. “Gatland’s Greatest Gamble”.

That, ultimately, was the kernel.

The manager had made a call that looked to lack basic sense, and, therefore, was a gamble on his own career. All the rest of the stuff was misplaced emotion, and the national propensity to lapse into righteous indignation at the merest whiff of a perceived injustice.

People had every right to be disappointed at O’Driscoll’s omission. He is a towering figure and a great ambassador for game and country.

His playing record speaks volumes. Once he leaves the field of play, he comports himself with modesty and dignity. He is not dogged by the insecurity or obsessiveness that haunts many who conquer the peaks of sport or business.

He is relatively unique in having both greatness and character balance, and for that he is held in huge respect and affection in this country and beyond.

So disappointment at his omission is understandable. But outrage, fury, contempt for the team manager? What’s all that about?

I mean, it’s not as if he was dropped for a Munster football final? It’s not as if the British and Irish Lions matter a whit. There was a time when the Lions tour of the southern hemisphere was a major occasion in rugby. The arrivals of the ‘World’ and Heineken cups now adequately satisfy the fan’s palate.

These days, the Lions tour largely survives on hype generated by Sky TV. And now Ireland’s finest has got dropped, even though, prior to the tour, it wasn’t even certain he was worth a test place.

Get over it, people. Despite Sky’s best efforts, the sky has not fallen in. ‘BOD’ lives on. His storied career survives. He has had terrific innings. Give your righteous indignation a holiday.

The keening over O’Driscoll’s career blip last week was in sharp contrast to attitudes to another of the country’s great sporting icons. News broke that footballer Paul McGrath had been reportedly arrested, and briefly detained, on foot of a public order complaint in Tullamore.

Whatever the basis for allegations about his behaviour — in what sounds like a very minor incident — the news suggests that McGrath appears to be struggling to resolve his troubles with alcohol.

In the realm of sporting icons, his travails contrast sharply with those of O’Driscoll.

As with the rugby player, McGrath holds a unique place in the hearts of the Irish sporting public. His on-field exploits are legendary, including having a full career despite knees of jelly.

His back-story, in which he overcame an unstable childhood and a long period in an orphanage, earned huge admiration in the public square. And his performances in an Irish jersey — despite being usually played out of position — were second to none.

Hanging over everything, though, are his issues with the bottle. Perhaps it is his vulnerability, exposed by his problems, that has raised his status with the public to a higher plateau than his talent alone merits.

It’s also a vulnerability frequently exploited by callous morons, who shovel drink into him to bask in the reflected glow of his celebrity.

As with O’Driscoll last week, many of us feel for this icon when fate deals its blows. And while there is no escaping the concept of personal responsibility, McGrath has shipped more than his fair share of fate’s slings and arrows.

A while back, driving up the M8 on a bank holiday Monday, I heard him on the radio.

He was being interviewed by Tom Dunne, on Newstalk. He sounded in good form, on top of things.

And there was some comfort in that, knowing that a sporting hero was doing alright, that he was enjoying some of the happiness that he gave to the rest of us in the fullness of his career.

But, then, the realisation dawned that the piece had been recorded months earlier. This wasn’t Paul McGrath today. And in the struggle he endures, that implied he may no longer be in that safe place, but back out there, where his demons run riot. So it turned out to be with last week’s news.

These days, when he pops up in unsettling dispatches, many react by turning away.

Few want to bear witness to a great player’s struggles long after the roar from the terrace has died. Here’s hoping that the strength of character that brought him to the highest peaks of soccer sees him through the inhospitable terrain where he now finds himself.

In a week that a nation allegedly felt O’Driscoll’s pain, a little perspective would do no harm.


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