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Page last updated at 16:16 GMT, Thursday, 5 February 2009

Can Ireland still trust in BOD?

By Bryn Palmer

Brian O'Driscoll attempts to sidestep an Australian tackler
O'Driscoll's strike-rate in Test rugby has fallen in recent years

"We take our lead from Brian. We can look at him and say, 'well boys, we have the stuff to make anything possible'".

So said Denis Hickie, a former Leinster and Ireland team-mate of Brian O'Driscoll, before a winner-takes-all Grand Slam decider against England in 2003.

As it transpired, the visitors were the ones exploring their talents to the full on that particular Dublin day, despite the talismanic presence of the home captain.

But six years on, does the celebrated centre still inspire that same can-do confidence among colleagues, and fear in opponents? Or has the old aura started to fade?

It seems like sacrilege even to suggest it.

Brian Gerald O'Driscoll is, after all, not just an Ireland legend, but an icon of world rugby. His place in the pantheon of modern greats is long secure.

ONE MAN IS AN IRELAND
CAPS: 88 (third on all-time list)
TRIES: 32 (Ireland record)
CAPTAIN: 51 times (Keith Wood second on 36
WON: 34
LOST: 17 (66.67% win ratio)

Yet as he prepares for his 10th Six Nations campaign, and seventh as captain, questions circulate as to whether O'Driscoll's trademark excellence can still be taken as a given.

Is the old magic still there? Have injuries robbed him of that extra yard of pace that made him such a devastating runner? Has the burden of leading a small but expectant rugby nation taken its toll?

Turning 30, as the Leinster centre did on 21 January, is traditionally a time for reflection, but his most recent rugby memory would not have been a comforting one.

Four days earlier, his influence on a pivotal Heineken Cup game against Wasps at Twickenham was negligible, other than a missed tackle in the build-up to Wasps' try.

O'Driscoll received treatment early in the match following a heavy tackle, prompting the television analyst to remark: "He seems to be perennially hurt these days".

Brian O'Driscoll clutches his lef afater sustaining an injury playing for Leinster
O'Driscoll has frequently been in the wars but missed few games
Later, there was exasperation in the same voice as the legend trudged off clutching his leg in the second half. "How many times has he gone off injured this season?"

The answer, for the record, is three, all in high-profile Heineken Cup pool matches.

Against Wasps, in mid-October, O'Driscoll looked rejuvenated in scoring two first-half tries, before a knee injury forced him off at the interval.

He missed Leinster's next Magners League game but still played in all three of Ireland's November Tests, their first under new coach Declan Kidney.

O'Driscoll showed similar powers of recovery after suffering hamstring trouble against Castres in December, playing the full 80 minutes against the same opponents in France the following week.

After his recent Twickenham travails against Wasps, the transformation a week later against Edinburgh - his last outing - was startling, a couple of classy breaks, deft kicks and offloads providing encouraging evidence of a return to form.

At the launch of this year's Six Nations tournament in London last week, O'Driscoll described his own form as "good and reasonable".

"The big thing is trying to steer clear of injuries," he added. "I was carrying a few over Christmas but have felt better since then. I still think there is a little bit left for me to improve though".

I might not be quite the line-breaker I used to be, but I still feel I am capable of breaking the line

Brian O'Driscoll

Surprisingly perhaps, given the knocks he has suffered down the years, O'Driscoll has missed only five of Ireland's 45 Six Nations games over the past nine seasons.

Those aside, the only significant rugby he has missed since he began his Test career in 1999 were the 2005 autumn fixtures, when he was recuperating from the sickening shoulder injury he sustained on Lions duty in New Zealand.

So where does this impression of a great player struggling to reproduce his best form amid a succession of niggling injuries come from?

Statistically, at least, there is some evidence to suggest O'Driscoll is not the force of old.

The great man scored 10 tries in his first 18 Tests, 25 in his first 52, and 27 - 16 of which came in the Six Nations - in 59 Tests up until the 2005 Lions tour.

Then came the horrific moment when he was spear-tackled by All Blacks counterpart Tana Umaga and hooker Keven Mealamu in the first minute of the first Test in Christchurch.

A dislocated shoulder, the end of his tour, his chance to prove himself as a Lions captain of distinction gone in an instant, and six months out of the game.

THE LIFE OF BRIAN
1979: Born 21 Jan, Dublin
1999: Ireland debut v Australia
2000: Six Nations hat-trick v France in Paris
2001: Stunning try on Lions Test debut v Australia
2002: Second Six Nations hat-trick, against Scotland
2002: Leads Ireland for first time, beating Australia
2003: Plays in his second Rugby World Cup
2004: Leads Ireland to first Triple Crown since 1985
2005: Lions captain. Injured in first minute of first Test
2006: Second Triple Crown; Player of Six Nations
2007: Third Triple Crown, third World Cup
2008: Leads Leinster to Magners League title
The physical and mental scars may have long healed (he recalls in his tour diary how he "officially moved on" just days later after speaking to Umaga), but the old exuberance has been less in evidence.

Over the last three-and-a-half years O'Driscoll has managed just five tries in 29 Tests, only one in 13 Six Nations matches over that period (in the opening game of the 2007 tournament in Wales), and none in his last eight Six Nations games.

"I might not be quite the line-breaker I used to be, but I still feel I am capable of breaking the line," he said last week.

He could have added, quite rightly, that there is far more to his game than just scoring tries. As opponents' defensive strategies have developed around him, he has become far more of a 'provider' in an attacking sense, creating space for others.

Defensively, he has the skills of a flanker, with his outstanding strength over the ball at the tackle area and ability to force turnovers.

Like all great players, he is able to rise highest on the biggest occasions. Remember his thrilling intervention in the final moments at Twickenham in 2006, creating the winning try for Shane Horgan that sealed the second of Ireland's three Triple Crowns in four years.

He was voted Player of the Six Nations in both 2006 and 2007, though the second award was something of a mystery even to the man himself.

606: DEBATE
patrickomcc

After the enormous letdown of the 2007 World Cup, when Ireland crashed out dismally in the group stages, O'Driscoll gained some solace from leading Leinster to the Magners League title last season.

But last year, Ireland's worst finish (fourth) since the Five Nations became Six spelled the end of Eddie O'Sullivan's tenure as coach, and speculation over O'Driscoll's captaincy.

But Kidney, after a period of consideration, opted to retain him in the role, and it is to be hoped his continued faith stirs O'Driscoll anew.

The two go back a long way. Kidney was the coach of the Ireland Under-19 team O'Driscoll starred in that won the World Championship in 1998, beating France in Toulouse in the final.

Years later O'Driscoll recalled how Kidney had instilled the Irish youngsters with such fervent self-belief they were "convinced we were better than France and would beat them".

DID YOU KNOW?
O'Driscoll has a rare defect - a stigmatism where the shape of the eyeball is not truly spherical - which means he struggles to see the detail of players he is tackling
He is a single-handicap golfer
O'Driscoll's father, Frank, played one non-capped game for Ireland in 1970. His uncle John won 26 caps. He was a Lion in 1980 & 83
"That experience changed things for me," O'Driscoll said. "As a player I had never felt that confident before."

It proved the catalyst for a remarkable rise to stardom over the next three years.

The following summer Warren Gatland handed him his Ireland debut, aged 20, before he had even played for Leinster. He then lit up the inaugural Six Nations with a stunning hat-trick against France in Ireland's first win in Paris for 27 years.

O'Driscoll's reputation went global with what many regard as the Lions' greatest ever try in the first Test in Australia in 2001, and he followed it with another Six Nations hat-trick, against Scotland, in 2002.

When he led Ireland to their first win over Australia in 12 attempts that autumn in his first match as captain, aged 23, O'Driscoll's talismanic reputation was cemented.

It is a burden he has carried for the best part of seven years now, sometimes perhaps to the detriment of his own game. (In 51 Tests as captain, he has scored 13 tries, compared to 19 in 37 as a mere player).

But the next few weeks and months certainly offer plenty of incentives to rediscover the best of his wondrous talent, if indeed he has ever lost it.

A flag supporting O'Driscoll is displayed at Croke Park in 2007
O'Driscoll has been a massive favourite with Ireland's fans
Ireland have still to win a Six Nations title, Leinster are in another Heineken Cup quarter-final, and a Lions tour of South Africa is only five months away.

Most pundits, despite reservations over his form, already have him pencilled in for that red number 13 shirt, and who knows, maybe even a second shot at the captaincy.

"Brian O'Driscoll is a brilliant rugby player, and can continue to be for a while yet," believes former England and Lions centre Jeremy Guscott. "Once you are a world-class player you always have the quality, and if you think of the Lions tour, he has got to play."

For one who scaled such peaks so early in his career, the expectations on O'Driscoll are probably higher than any other player in British and Irish rugby.

But those who have thrilled to his dazzling talent for the last decade will hope that, come the end of the 10th Six Nations, they can still put their trust in the hands of BOD.



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