Friday, February 6, 2009

Brian O'Driscoll - talent fulfilled?

Asking whether something or someone fulfilled potential is always a subjective thing. Was the Sopranos ending a giant damb squib that ruined the series? Could The Dark Knight possibly live up to expectations after Heath Ledger’s death? Is Wayne Rooney a more mature, team player now or has he lost the playground instinct that made him so breathtaking? See, hours of arguments right there. With the Six Nations starting tomorrow, we wondered if it was blasphemy to question if the Irish captain, Brian O’Driscoll, had lived up to his world-class billing or has he been something of a disappointment?

Come on, we all remember. The young buck with the dancing feet of Michael Flatley and the speed of a tearaway cheetah, all fancy sidesteps, line breaks and more changes of direction than your average episode of Lost. That hat-trick of tries in Paris that announced himself to the rugby world as a force. The slaloming wonder try for the Lions in Australia. Hell, Jumpthefence never even knew Irish rugby players could run with a ball – with the honourable exception of Simon Geohegan of course – and here was one of our own showing skills and off-the-cuff genius more associated with the French game. We marvelled and called him one of the best young players in the world; everyone else joined in for once.

It’s not that it all went horribly wrong - it wasn’t a Gazza-like car crash of a career that went off the rails or even a Lee Sharpeish waste of talent. Just that the excitement rather fizzled out after a time, that the wild buzz of the early relationship was replaced by a more solid, reliable sort. The stats back up a frittering away of plain effectiveness on the scoreboard. Early era O’Driscoll was a try machine – 18 in his first 34 games, 25 in the first 52 – as he attacked from all angles, scored tries of all shapes and sizes, finishing moves on the line, being the last man on the shoulder, breaking lines and tackles from 40 metres out to touch down. There were big winning touchdowns of the cometh the hour persuasion – France (01), England (05) to mention a couple.

Since 2004 or so, his record doesn’t stand up to that. One try in the last three Six Nations championships (that’s thirteen games) and five tries in 29 tests. A handful of assists and meaningful breaks with the odd flash of genius - the wonderful set-up for Andrew Trimble’s try in Paris in 06 leaps out, as does the break in the dying seconds at Twickenham later that season. A pretty mediocre World Cup. And all this with the most talented Irish side for a long time, there were games in the early days where opposition could afford to doubleteam O’Driscoll, given he was the only genuine threat to their line.

So where’d the edge go? Well, a decent-sized list of injuries have surely played a part, more for disrupting his rhythm than a great amount of games missed. He’s sacrificed a yard or two of pace and elusiveness for pure bulk; putting the team and his ability to tackle and recycle ball ahead of individual flair. He's been a marked-man in plenty outings and struggled to impose himself. There's simply no argument against the fact he's lost some of the dashing, what'll-he-do-next excellence he showed in 00-03 especially.

And still he’s hugely effective in other areas. There’s no better centre in rugby for winning turnovers. He’s outlasted all the wonderboys (Traille, Jauzion, Baby) of French rugby and seen off plenty English centres over the years. He’ll put a shift in every time he steps on the field. Contrary to opinion, he is a proper leader – and for anyone who’d question his bravery or ruthlessness, have a look at his hit on Paul O’Connell here (at 2.56) and tell me it wasn’t a statement. There’d be a fair argument that O’Driscoll has been too honest over the years, putting his body on the line rather than keeping himself tuned for the marquee highlights-reel moments. It may even be the most accurate asssessment in the end.

A superstar of the world game then? Probably. Did he fulfil potential? Probably not, in this observer’s mind – he needed to dominate a few games at the top level to become a true great; not enough rollicking runs or tries as time went on. There must be kudos for adapting and evolving to always have a role to play for Ireland, Ryan Giggs-like if you will. There’ll always be murmerings of what might have been as well though.

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