As he prepares for his final home Test next weekend, Ireland’s greatest reflects on his career, family and what the future holds
He answers the phone to give directions to his house and explains that he’s in the middle of changing Sadie’s nappy. How he’s changed over the years. An hour later he talks about how his character and his life have indeed morphed, how he used to look at married men with kids in their mid-30s with sympathy, but now looks at what he used to be in his mid-20s and, save for wanting the body he had then, wouldn’t swap places. Retirement beckons, but Brian O’Driscoll is in a good place.
He’s all domesticated now and contented. Sadie has helped make a Welcome Home banner which hangs on the kitchen window for Amy, who is still feeling a bit zonked after returning from the States on Thursday night. They had the builders in yesterday morning as they’re giving the house a revamp, and the garden has been dug up and paved.
The barista in O’Driscoll makes a good cup of coffee too, and after Sadie takes Amy for a visit to the grandparents, he laughs as he reprises Quentin Tarantino’s cameo in Pulp Fiction when Jules and Vincent compliment him on his coffee: “I don’t need you to tell me how good my coffee is, okay? I’m the one who buys it. I know how good it is.”
He sits into a brown leather armchair and fixes a pad around his calf which is attached to a “Game Ready”, which he describes as “a serious piece of kit”, explaining: “It’s an icer and a compressor in one.” The IRFU supply the Irish team with several of them and after most matches and some training sessions he borrows one. It can work on the calves, ankles, knees and shoulders. If he was starting out again he’d buy himself one, even though they’re about €3,500-€4,000.
Fret not, his calf is fine, but although he feels good, O’Driscoll freely admits his training regime is based increasingly more on quality than quantity these days. “Would I like to have the body of a 21-year-old? Yeah, absolutely. But I’ll deal with this body that I do have.
“It’s funny, I didn’t know whether the head would go first or the body, by the head I mean not having as much passion for it. And that’s absolutely still there. The body doesn’t respond exactly like it used to, but well enough to still manage at international level and provincial level. But I know it’s a smart play, on a lot of fronts, to call it quits at the end of this season.
“I don’t want to undo any of the good work, because I think I would be pushing my capabilities and asking too much of the body to be able to do things that I just can’t anymore. And I’ve one eye on the future making sure that you do remain intact, to be able to play golf, to play with your kids, to play five-a-sides or play squash.”
As O’Driscoll mulled over retirement last year, he wasn’t sure whether to continue but has no doubts this time. “I just couldn’t do another pre-season, another seven or eight weeks of weights and really intense fitness work. That part of me has switched off. I haven’t got one foot in retirement because I’m excited about still being in three competitions, but it’s nice, too, knowing that this is it.”
Having the captaincy taken off him last season after leading his country 83 times, equal to John Smit, and surpassed only by Richie McCaw, hurt him badly. “It did. It would have been nice to have been able to do it on my terms but that’s sport.” It assuredly soured his relationship with Declan Kidney and Ireland’s results didn’t help either.
After the draw at home to France last year, he thought that might have been his farewell home Test, when going to a tearful Amy and Sadie in the crowd. “I kinda thought in my head that that was going to be it, and then a few weeks playing with Leinster I just felt I had too much left in me to cut it there.”
The appointment of Joe Schmidt, under whom he says he learns every day, was key. “He’s just been a real breath of fresh air in the last few years and injected a real enthusiasm into some of the older guys and I think he set really good standards for a lot of the younger guys, and you’d feel very positive about his team going forward to the next World Cup provided we can keep our players fit. That’s a very important factor.”
The body, as he calls it, has broken down a little more this season, notably that calf strain which was slow to heal and recurred twice. “That’s not me at all. I had thoughts like: ‘is this the older me? That’s not meant to happen. I’m meant to get better way before anyone expected’,” he says, a little self-mockingly.
He panicked about his lack of game time, and the realisation that he couldn’t have as much time on the pitch or do as much, but took solace in his experience. “You have to rely on being in that situation lots. You’ve gotta use that, and part of it is convincing yourself that that’s good enough.”
Schmidt exercises the brain muscles more than any other part of his players’ anatomies anyway. “Joe’s got a term, ‘being in the mind gym’. It’s just about thinking the game over a little bit, about scenarios and situations, rather than being on the park for five hours a day. Joe and detail are the two words that go together. Yeah, he’s a thinking player’s coach.”
There’s a poignancy in the air these days around Irish rugby because, a week out from his penultimate Test, truly we can say that we will never see his like again. Not in the Irish green anyway. Yet next Saturday, his farewell home Test for his country, ought to be a celebration too, and not just because there have been so many memorable days.
There have been bad days too along the way, but more than anyone else, O’Driscoll helped to drag Irish rugby kicking and screaming out of the amateurish, slightly cowed role they’d long since assumed, to consistently compete with the world’s best. As much as captaining, and leading the charge, to the 2009 Grand Slam, and winning three Heineken Cups, that is arguably his greatest legacy, he instilled belief. He earned himself and Irish rugby global respect like no one before him.