Johannesburg: When it comes to the World Cup, Brian O’Driscoll can only shrug. From four attempts, the closest the greatest rugby player of his generation got to lifting the Webb Ellis trophy was the quarter-final. For a man used to mainlining success, his memories of the game’s pinnacle are deflating.
“I won the Heineken Cup and the Six Nations and the Grand Slam but, of course, I’d prefer to be talking to you about winning a World Cup,” he says. “Instead, I’ve played in four World Cups and they all ended in disappointment.”
Not least in 2011, when Ireland headed to New Zealand optimistic only to be well beaten by Wales in the last eight. “That’s the one I look back at most often and think what might have been,” he reflects.
This time O’Driscoll will be addressing the competition from the ITV television studio, first in Maidstone, then, from the quarter-finals, in Japan.
“Turning 40 was a seminal moment,” he says of his landmark birthday last January.
“As much as you were never going to be selected in those years after you retired, you need that time to pass before you are able to close the door and look on it with a fan’s eyes. And I can enjoy it now, just cheer and be happy, though admittedly with a touch of envy. That’s a relatively new sense of freedom. It’s quite comforting.”
Mind you, O’Driscoll looks as if he could still answer Ireland’s call. Still in shape, he is speaking while leading a 100-kilometre trek through the Drakensburg Mountains in South Africa. Called Challenge Africa, as they walk, its 100 participants have raised more than £350,000 for the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation.
“I love this,” he says. “I remember when I was at Leinster, we did this Army thing. We were told it was a golf weekend. Instead, we were taken to the Wicklow Mountains, horrible weather, woken up in the middle of the night and told to get walking over the hills. I couldn’t see because I didn’t have my glasses, I rocked up only with golf shoes, it should have been a disaster. But you know what? I had the best time.”
Now happily retired and running his own marketing operation, O’Driscoll will be watching Ireland with a keen eye. This despite the fact that the draw — with a potential meeting with either New Zealand or South Africa in the first game of the knockouts — offers horrible potential for another quarter-final departure.
“Can we get to a semi-final? Absolutely. But the reality is you are going to have to win your pool and then have one of the biggest games of your life against either New Zealand or South Africa. When the pools were announced, you felt it was a great one to be involved in, but it’s also the worst quarter-final. It’s very exciting.”
“I think to win the competition you need a huge slice of luck, a deep squad and a belief in yourself. With a small country like Ireland, the squad part of the equation isn’t always going to be available. But the depth and strength of the Irish team currently is like no other before it. It is a great opportunity for them, irrespective of what has happened recently results wise.
“Sure there’s a lot of pressure, but I know Joe [Schmidt, the Ireland coach] wants to reach a semi-final at least. And they’re capable of it. It’s as wide open as it’s been, though you’d probably narrow it down to England and New Zealand. As an Irishman, I’d like to think we could get to the final. It would be great to branch out to a new winner, France, Wales or Ireland. It’s about time. We’ve only had four winners.”
And if Ireland make the final, and he is obliged to provide television analysis, what will be his reaction should they win?
“I don’t know what the emotions will be if that were to happen,” he smiles. “I’d hope it was communicating a huge sense of pride rather than going berserk. I’d be really thrilled for the guys if they could do what I was never able to do. What a thought that is.”
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
O’Driscoll holds the Six Nations record for most tries scored with 26. He has scored the most Heineken Cup tries (30) by an Irishman. The Irishman was chosen as Player of the Tournament in the 2006, 2007 and 2009 Six Nations Championships.
— Staff Report