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Perfect finish to O'Driscoll's script

16th March 2014 14:37

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End of an era: Brian O'Driscoll

Back where he made his name in Paris, Ireland's collective effort and the addition of Joe Schmidt gave Brian O'Driscoll the ideal finish.

As careers go it has been magnificent, but for O'Driscoll to retire with only one Six Nations title to his name considering Ireland's talent over the last decade wouldn't have sat right.

Just as there is a cloud over great NFL players to never win a Super Bowl, O'Driscoll's domestic trophy cabinet couldn't be criticised but a lack of silverware with Ireland was a different matter.

That can be put to rest. O'Driscoll hasn't been a passenger either in this Six Nations, his final appearances for Ireland at 35.

The contributions have kept on coming from a player who in many ways is unrecognisable from the speedy 21-year-old who scored a hat-trick at the Stade de France in 2000. He has been one of the best at the breakdown to never play in the back-row.

There was almost another try in Paris for him yesterday, had only Brice Dulin not shadowed O'Driscoll and Andrew Trimble so well as they raced towards him.

What has made O'Driscoll so special is how his popularity has surpassed the usual tribalism we see in the Six Nations every year.

Even with England in position to win the title should France have come through on Saturday, few fans would begrudge Ireland taking the trophy if it meant a final moment of glory for one of the greatest centres of all time.

Few players after all receive that level of universal adulation, and perhaps no one ever will to the same extent as O'Driscoll.

Telling contributions from those around him though ensured victory, proof that while O'Driscoll is a figurehead only a group effort could secure a second Six Nations title for Ireland in five years.

Ireland were lucky to not lose Cian Healy for a flying headbutt, that Pascal Papé's pass floated forward and also that Maxime Machenaud's cramp was too much for him to carry on, meaning the introduction of the erroneous, floundering Jean-Marc Doussain.

The Toulouse half-back has been so off the boil in the championship that his missed kick was inevitable.

How fitting too that the game was finished with a choke tackle. It has become Ireland's trademark in recent years, a piece of skill more about execution than physicality, which nicely sums Ireland up. They are not the same size as Warren Gatland's behemoths, yet proved with their win in Dublin that skill can overcome sheer brute force.

That is Schmidt's doing. You sense that Ireland will only get smarter ahead of next year's World Cup under his tutelage, when they share a pool with France.

Jonathan Sexton's missed kicks were compensated for by two fine tries - no All Blacks agony here - while the work of Paul O'Connell and his pack cannot go unheralded. Devin Toner and Chris Henry in particular have grafted tirelessly and deserve more praise for their work under the radar.

Contributions too in this tournament from Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony, Healy and Rob Kearney have all mattered at different times.

O'Driscoll's Man of the Match award, while not wholly undeserved, should arguably have gone to Trimble, but again no one will be too upset. O'Driscoll has made more significant contributions in other matches, but his execution remains at an astonishingly high level under pressure.

An hour after the final whistle he still had that famous 13 shirt on his back in the press conference and changing room, knowing that when he took it off it would be for the final time and therefore trying to put it off for as long as possible.

Schmidt's persuasion for him to stay on for one more season had turned out to be the right move, but now O'Driscoll admitted that after playing 80 minutes he knew why he was "packing it in."

He put off retirement for one more season to defeat the All Blacks, falling just short. A second Six Nations title means his second objective has been ticked off, marking a far better conclusion to his Test career than his exclusion for the third Lions Test in Australia.

"You can't have it all but you take the bits you get," said the man who once kindly reminded everyone that wisdom was not putting a tomato in a fruit salad.

Replacing O'Driscoll now comes down to a number of candidates, with Robbie Henshaw, Fergus McFadden, Darren Cave and Jared Payne all in the running. Ireland cannot just settle for the title - this success must be a springboard and with Schmidt at the helm there is every chance it will lead to more.

It's hard already to imagine the sport without O'Driscoll - if many had their way then that green 13 jersey would have never come off his back.

A shot at a fourth Heineken Cup title with Leinster awaits, but his time with Ireland is sadly over. It has been a pleasure.

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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