British & Irish Lions
The Lions are a rugby union test team comprising players from the home nations - England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Lions tours are conducted once every four years and in modern times have focused on Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The 2013 tour included a game against the Barbarians in Hong Kong and the Lions went on to win the series 2-1 over Australia. In 2017, almost 130 years since they played Otago in their first tour match, the British & Irish Lions return to New Zealand.
O’Driscoll determined to end career on a high
Talismanic Irishman says this summer’s tour could be his international swansong
Asked if it was okay to call him the "elder statesman" of the side, Brian O'Driscoll laughed and said it was fine by him - his wife, Amy, had already pointed out he would be the oldest player among the 37-strong squad of British & Irish Lions.
At 34, the wheel has turned full circle for the Ireland international. It was 12 years ago that O'Driscoll made his debut with the Lions on the 2001 tour of Australia. Now he is back for one last throw of the dice and hoping to experience for the first time what it would be like to win a series.
"This is my fourth tour with the Lions which in this modern era of professionalism is rare. There were players in the amateur days who had gone on four tours, but I'm the first one to do it since the game went professional and it is a real honour to be selected again," O'Driscoll told the Sunday Morning Post.
O'Driscoll is proud of his unique position. Four outings with the Lions have resulted in the 125-cap Ireland centre getting the opportunity to relive his most memorable moment with the Lions, his debut in Brisbane.
"I have got the chance to play twice against Australia as a Lion, which is something not many would have done. Even if you look at it from the opposite side, most players get the chance to play against the Lions only once in a lifetime. I'm blessed to be where I am now and I guess my longevity is because I have been able to look after myself."
In 2001, as a 22-year-old, O'Driscoll walked out for the first time at the Gabba in Brisbane and was momentarily stunned by the reception the Lions received from a sea of red shirts. "I was shocked at how many red shirts there were in the stadium. It was like a home game and what was memorable was that we won that day, the only time I won a Lions test in six outings."
It has been a poor return for O'Driscoll and the Lions since then. A lot of water has passed by since the Lions won a series, in 1997. O'Driscoll's time with the Lions has coincided with a drought. The 2001 tour ended in a series loss, as did 2005 (New Zealand) and 2009 (South Africa). O'Driscoll believes a win this time is crucial for the future of the combined team.
"We badly need to win this series to justify the franchise in this modern day," says O'Driscoll.
As elder statesman, O'Driscoll must carry a lot of painful memories and baggage from his three previous tours. None is more vivid than when as captain in 2005, he was tip-tackled in the opening minutes of the first test in Christchurch by All Blacks pair Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu to end with a dislocated shoulder that ruled him out of the match and the rest of the series.
There is already talk in the Australian media that O'Driscoll will be target number one as the Wallabies try to make an early statement. Even former Wallaby World Cup-winning skipper John Eales has suggested the talismanic outside centre should receive special attention.
"I will take it as a compliment that they think I'm a danger," O'Driscoll said. "But such tactics will surely backfire if they concentrate on just one person. We have lots of talented players in the squad and there is any number of potential threats."
Yet, the experience which O'Driscoll will bring to the squad cannot be undervalued. Although crushed at not being given the captaincy by coach Warren Gatland, O'Driscoll vowed to put his full efforts behind Sam Warburton and his first piece of advice is that the players should try to enjoy themselves and get right into the spirit of the huge occasion.
"Of course, a small part of me was disappointed that I didn't get the captaincy, especially when your name had been in the hat. But now I will try and help my captain as much as I can and I hope I can have some advice, which will help the team along. What I can say now is that we have to gel together fast. It is a different group of players coming together and we can only play our best rugby if we are a happy squad. We have got to leave our nationality at the door and become a Lion. We have to bond together as proper teammates and in this regard I feel it is important how the rooming is done," O'Driscoll said.
In 2005 in New Zealand, each player had his own room which is something not to the liking of O'Driscoll. He prefers the system used in 2001 and 2009 when two players had to share a room.
"It helps brings out a sense of unity faster. You have got to share a room with a player from another country. You have to get out of the comfort zone of rooming with your mates. We have got to get to know each other quickly so that we can fight for one another on the park."
As an ambassador for HSBC, the principal partner of the Lions, O'Driscoll is looking forward to coming to Hong Kong, the home of the Hong Kong Sevens, a tournament which he has never been to.
"I got involved in 15-a-side internationals for Ireland at a young age and never quite got the chance to play at the Hong Kong Sevens. But I'm looking forward to being there for the Barbarians game and, who knows, one day I might even be able to come along to watch the Sevens after hanging up my boots."
And retirement is very much on his mind. This tour will be his last as a Lion and it could also bring the curtain down on his international career.
"There is a very good chance this tour will be my last international appearance. I haven't decided yet, but the odds are high. One thing I know is that it would be great to go out on a high and what better way to do than to win the series. It is going to be tough, because Australia play smart rugby. But we have a great chance," O'Driscoll added.