Brian O’Driscoll is feeling his age. Back in 2001 he was little more than a daring cub, a 22-year-old on his first British & Irish Lions tour, who stabbed one foot in the Gabba turf, cut through the Wallaby line and darted under the posts for a try.
“They call him God,” commentator Stuart Barnes exclaimed. “Well, I reckon he’s a better player than that.” And now, 12 years on, O’Driscoll is back in Australia for a fourth Lions tour. Still a key part of coach Warren Gatland’s plans for the forthcoming Tests against Australia, O’Driscoll is nonetheless aware that this time he must play the elder statesman.
“I have 12 years and more on some of these guys,” O’Driscoll laughs. “Stuart Hogg is the youngest guy in the squad at 20. I’m 34, so I’ve got 14 years on him. That’s a frightening thought – 12 years ago he was in short pants!
“It keeps me young, though,” he adds. “I go into training every day and the level of conversation definitely keeps me young. There are guys on a completely different level to you, in their early 20s and on a massive learning curve. I’m far from knowing it all, but I’ve seen a lot of things now in my professional career. And I have a wife, a little girl and a family now.”
Sadie, O’Driscoll’s first daughter with his wife, actress Amy Huberman, was born in February. You get a hint from the way the Ireland international talks that he’s enjoying this new role of fatherhood, both in his new family and in the teams he plays for. It began with the announcement of the Lions squad on 30 April.
“I was actually feeding my daughter as it was being announced on the telly, so it was just myself, my wife and my daughter,” he says. “I didn’t fancy meeting up with anyone, but your hands are a bit tied when you have an 11-week- old as to what you can do anyway. She didn’t look favourably on the fact that the announcement was at 11 o’clock. She still wanted her feed.”
Fast-forward to two weeks ago when, as stand-in captain, he prepared to guide his centre partner, the bulging English wrecking ball Manu Tuilagi, through his Lions debut against Western Force. “Where he runs, I’ll be following,” O’Driscoll promised, once again the attentive father figure.
It’s a mark of success that traditional national hostilities have melted away so quickly. Four months ago – the very day Sadie was born – Tuilagi and O’Driscoll were opposite numbers in a bad-tempered Six Nations mud bath in Dublin. Now they’re splashing together in the sea off Queensland.
“The Lions is so unique; you kick lumps out of all these guys year on year, and they’re massive adversaries. Then all of a sudden they become your team-mates. You’re forced to bond in a six- or seven-week period, and play for one another against one of the three best teams in the world.
“You have preconceived notions about what sort of guys particular individuals are. You see the way they carry on on the pitch, and you might think they’re not your type of people. But then they can completely surprise you; you can room with someone for two or three days and they become your best friend.
“They’re looking out for you, making sure you’re at meetings, taking the right gear. You go for dinner or a drink with them. All of a sudden, you’re out with four or five other guys and you realise you’re the only Irish guy there.”
No other professional sport can match this halcyon sense of amateur camaraderie, but it doesn’t come easily. The man who coached O’Driscoll on the 2009 Lions tour, Sir Ian McGeechan, employed a Scottish prescription of a game of gold and alcohol (in careful measure of course).
You structure training days that build in time for the players to get to know each other,” he explains. “Sometimes that is just playing gold or going out for a drink in the evening. If you get that right, there’s no doubt you see the benefits off the pitch.”
O’Driscoll points to 2009 as his favourite tour, and McGeechan believes the Dubliner will be the main driving force behind re-creating that team spirit. “Brian understands the Lions ethos and the environment that’s needed to have a good and happy tour,” he says.
“Every Lions group evolves its own personality, but it develops best if there’s a little thread of history and character carried forward. That’s where people like Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell are important, because they have very strong ties with what the Lions represent.” “That connection with those amateur days only adds to the mystique of it all,” O’Driscoll agrees, before giving the real reason he believes Lions rugby should continue: “When else would you have an English guy cheering for me?
And likewise, when would you have an Irish guy cheering an English player?” When first asked at the beginning of May whether he was planning to retire after this summer, O’Driscoll was noncommittal. “I said I’d see in July whether I had any more in the tank, and nothing’s changed there. You have to wait for a cooling-off period, and I’m sure I’ll do that on my sun lounger on my holidays.”
Two weeks later, his tune had changed. O’Driscoll was ready for one more year. Whatever happens in the battle Down Under, there’s fight in the old Lion yet.
Brian O’Driscoll is an HSBC ambassador, principal partner to the 2013 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia
See Australia v British & Irish Lions: First Test from 10:30am on Saturday 22 June on Sky Sports 1