De Barra: O' what a champion Irish centre

PURE CLASS: Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll holds his young daughter as he says goodbye to Irish fans on his last home appearance.
PURE CLASS: Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll holds his young daughter as he says goodbye to Irish fans on his last home appearance.

Fear, love, respect; the traits most professional sportspeople strive for. To possess one is an achievement. Two? You're something of a local hero. Three? Well, that means something else entirely. Greatness.

Paris may be the city of lights but this morning saw the switch flicked on one of the finest international careers of the modern era - that of Brian O'Driscoll.

Skill, grit, determination, doggedness and leadership, the talismanic Irishman had them all in spades. When he first stunned the southern hemisphere with his skill-set for the British and Irish Lions against the Wallabies in 2001, the Tri-nations took notice. The kid was good. Very good.

Sports stars can be fickle beasts at the best of times. A few good years here, a few standout performances there and that's that.

O'Driscoll, however, was cut from a different cloth. When his line was under siege the slightly-built centre marshalled troops and went over the top first. When the lightning speed went he adapted his play to become an auxiliary forward. Richie McCaw would've admired how he did it. It's what the great ones do, they adapt.

That's certainly the view of former Blues utility back Isa Nacewa who played alongside O'Driscoll for five years at Leinster to form part of what's regarded as the greatest team in European club history with a record three Heineken Cups in four years.

"You see great players that are maybe on the world circuit for three or four years and then maybe fall off the radar but what has really impressed people down here is that Drico [O'Driscoll] has been performing for over 140 tests at a consistently good level," Nacewa told Fairfax Media.

"Why I admire him most is that he never let his standards slip, even if he was playing away in Wales or on the Sportsground in Connacht. He always pulled out the performances on the big stage and always did the same in Rabo or Celtic games in the worst weather possible. That's the type of player that makes him the legend that he is."

Nacewa was also keen to point out what separated good players from great ones such as O'Driscoll and McCaw - who the Irishman believes will one day break his record for international caps. It ain't rocket science, but it's damn effective.

"The best players in the world learn faster than their opponents," Nacewa says.

"If people say [O'Driscoll] lost his speed after 2005, then he was just smart enough to adapt his game to the changing environment.

"He was one of the best midfielders in the world to be over the ball, and make steals consistently. Whether that was there in his game before 2005 or not he just picked up that skill faster than everyone else."

So, a candidate for the greatest centre of the modern era? For sure. But how will O'Driscoll be remembered in world and New Zealand rugby?

"There was always the talk about that Lions tour [which ended after Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu speared O'Driscoll into the Christchurch turf in 2005, ending his tour] but that's well and truly gone in his eyes and he'll just want to be remembered as having high standards and consistently performing to those. He's a real down-to-earth guy and the way he brings on the young talent is a mark of the man he is."

A mark of the man indeed, and what a mark he made.

Sunday News