In Ireland we accept brave defeats. We tolerate constant underachievement. We never ask the difficult questions that need to be asked; why can we never take the next step?
Two men bucked this trend, one more successfully than the other. Roy Keane and Brian O’Driscoll’s public image couldn’t be further apart. Brian O’Driscoll is Blackrock, blonde locks, Adidas; Roy Keane Mayfield, psychopathic skinhead, Diadora.
Both men however shared a complete aversion toward defeat; both men possessed a forceful will, a need even, to avoid defeat, to lead the weak to the pinnacle.
The arguments over which of the two titanic personalities is Ireland’s greatest sportsperson is undoubtedly moot; the only thing more difficult than comparing athletes across eras is comparing them across sports.
Keane played the far more competitive, global game of football compared to rugby, a plantation sport. In terms of difficulty rugby is streets behind. For a start you can hold the ball in your two hands, the most human of traits. Australia’s Chris Latham, a World Cup winner and one of the finest full-backs of the last fifteen years, only took up the sport while in college at 18.
That is part of the reason for the Irish thirteen’s greatness though. Keane made a complicated game easy, but the boy from Clontarf slot into the most feral of sports and sprinkled magic every time he stood on the pitch. He was Botticelli’s Birth of Venus scribbled onto the back of a cubicle door in a seedy pub.
He regularly dropped our jaws with moments of inspiration (tragically, often in defeat). In Perth during the 2003 World Cup he fit perfectly into the corner like a postage stamp after evading the quarter man, three-quarters cyborg winger Wendell Sailor. He twinkled his way through the world champion (Qantas) Wallabies in Brisbane with the Lions in 2001. He constantly sidestepped French full-backs before touching down under the posts, released new, unimaginable offloads from his sleeve with such regularity it rendered them normal. He could find a straight line down a packed Grafton Street. The RDS never saw Maradona, but it did see O’Driscoll juggling the ball over the line against Wasps while he was turning Leinster into the most formidable dynasty of European rugby (essentially a toddler, but still). He even passed the ball to himself once.
His talent was only half the story though. When Ireland needed him he duly obliged. Shane Horgan says when Ireland toured the southern hemisphere they became “O'Driscoll and 14 other muppets”. The All Black’s (probably correctly) saw the touring Lions of 2005 as 66 muppets and O’Driscoll, so Tana Umaga and Kevin Mealamu removed him with the ruthlessness of Stalin and Beria. The Dubliner once cut short medical treatment to haul the 6’1’’, 235 pounds frame of Marcus Horan to the ground. Not only is BOD or Drico Irish rugby’s greatest ever 13, he’s the best 7 the country has produced too.
Cowardice wasn’t the motive behind clutching back the natty dreadlocks of George Smith, the pragmatism his teammates often lacked but O'Driscoll had in abundance was. “You came to the pitch as a second-class rate Newton Faulkner so this is fair game”. The captain was the catalyst of the golden generation’s sole career Grand Slam. He crossed the line in four of the five games; was the jump leads needed after half time in Cardiff, drop-goaled against England before scoring a priceless try two minutes after it looked like he would be substituted following a late Delon Armitage hit.
But frankly, for a player of his calibre, with a more than capable side cast, one championship is a negligible return. World Cups brought disappointment; you could argue the landscape of Irish rugby is exactly the same as it was before he exploded onto the international scene fourteen years ago. A second championship is required for the O’Driscoll era to stick out to a scanning eye looking through the Six Nations roll of honour. A second championship is essential to shake off the nearly-men tag the country's rugby team wear without the disdain they should.
The sporting gods have a tendency to give the legends empty, cruel endings. The final international appearances of figures like Zinedine Zidane and Don Bradman was arguably their nadir. Roy Keane didn’t even get the chance (the SPL counts only as oblivion). Looking through the statistics, the most fitting end for one of the finest rugby players ever would be a two point defeat in the Stade de France. We might be used to the pain of defeat, its regularity might soften the potential blow to us, but that’s just another Irish trait alien to the gargantuan Brian O’Driscoll.