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16 for 16: The most important Irish athletes of the last 100 years - Brian O'Driscoll

The Leinster and Ireland star was the catalyst for a new generation of rugby success.

Brian O'Driscoll celebrates at the final whistle O'Driscoll celebrates at the final whistle in Paris. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

BRIAN O’DRISCOLL IS the subject of the 12th in a series of articles focusing on the most important Irish sportspeople of the last 100 years. The list will include GAA players, Olympians, boxers, golfers and more who dared to dream.

“I’m eight years old and I’m sitting in the back of my father’s Renault Louisiane as he pulls out of our drive in Park Lawn, Clontarf, and turns onto Mount Prospect Avenue. It’s July 1987 and we’re off on our summer holidays to France.

“My sister Julie is one side of me. She’s 13, the eldest. She gets to sit beside a window because she threw up in the car once and nobody wants to see that again. Sue is 10 but nearly 11. She always gets a window too.

So that leaves me. Forever in the centre.”

- Brian O’Driscoll, The Test

Though born in Clontarf on 21 January 1979 to Frank and Geraldine, it was in school in Willow Park, Blackrock that Brian O’Driscoll first handled a rugby ball with intent.

His aptitude for the game should have come as no surprise, however, with his father and uncles Barry and John winning more than 30 Ireland caps between them.

He didn’t have the best of starts in Willow Park though, with his first coach putting him in the second row for the fourth-string side. The coach didn’t say it was the D-team but, as O’Driscoll himself says, why else would someone as small as he be playing there?

In his first game, however, O’Driscoll picked up the ball and ran in the first of hundred of tries, even kicking his own conversion. When the U12 squads went up before the start of the season, he was listed with the As and Bs and would be starting on the wing.

The 11-year-old excelled in his new role, with the fear of being smashed by the forwards causing him to run as fast as he can. Inevitably, this leads to scores. As he progresses, his father becomes involved in coaching and refereeing and suggests another positional switch, this time to out-half.

It does not go so well and though there is some improvement by the time he moves to Blackrock College and the 1996 Senior Cup comes around, O’Driscoll is back on the wing playing in a side containing a host of Irish schools internationals including Leo Cullen.

Little wonder it was known as ‘The Dream Team.’

However, the dream turns into a nightmare for O’Driscoll as he was dropped after just two games as Blackrock marched to Senior Cup success.

The following year was better personally for O’Driscoll as he was made captain but the school went out in the semi-final to a Clongowes side featuring Gordon D’Arcy, a player he would become very familiar with.

Brian ODriscoll 2/10/1999 O'Driscoll scores his first-ever try for Ireland against the USA. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

O’Driscoll attended UCD after school and was moved to centre by John McClean the director of rugby at the university, a move that saw him included in the Irish U19 Rugby World Championship squad.

With New Zealand and England absent from the tournament, the Irish won and O’Driscoll and a number of his team-mates were asked to attend an open training session with Leinster.

But two months before he had the chance to don the blue of Leinster for the first time, O’Driscoll made his Test debut for Ireland in a 46-10 loss to Australia in Brisbane.

Still just 20, the centre was an ever-present throughout that autumn’s Rugby World Cup campaign, scoring his first international try in 53-8 hammering of the USA.

However, he really came to world prominence on 19 March 2000, when he ran in a hat-trick of tries in Ireland’s first Six Nations victory over France in Paris in 28 years.

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By 2003, O’Driscoll was appointed Irish captain and his leadership qualities were further acknowledged when he was named captain for the 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand.

Famously though, the Irishman’s tour was over before it even began following a highly contentious tackle by All Blacks skipper Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu.

Over the course of what would turn out to be a 14-year career with Leinster and Ireland, O’Driscoll would win a seemingly endless list of honours.

For the Blues he would win four Pro12s, three European Cups and a Challenge Cup in 2013.

With Ireland, there would be four Triple Crowns, two Six Nation Championships and, of course, the 2009 Grand Slam.

Individually he was named on the International Rugby Player of the Year shortlist three times –2001, 2002, 2009 – he scored 46 tries in 133 appearances for Ireland and 61 in 186 for his province.

Not a bad return for a kid picked to play second row for the fourth string team when he first pulled on a pair of rugby boots.

Over the next two months, in association with Allianz Insurance, we’ll be profiling the 16 most important Irish athletes of the last 100 years. 

Allianz Insurance — The world belongs to those who dare.

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