Newly-elected Laureus World Sports Academy Member Brian O’Driscoll is one of the greatest ever rugby players, appearing 133 times for Ireland. In this exclusive interview for Laureus he looks back on his memorable career and reviews the current rugby scene.
Question: Were you always going to play rugby? Was there another sport that you played when you were a youngster?
Brian O'Driscoll: Professional rugby was not around when I began. So, as a teenager growing up in Ireland, I never really saw myself as being a professional rugby player. I wanted to be involved in sport in some capacity, but to get to play for a living didn't feature until I found myself out of school. There were multiple sports growing up: Gaelic football, hurling, soccer. I had a passion for all sports. I was the guy, when Wimbledon was on, knocking the ball against the wall. Only when I got to about 16 or 17 and school studies became a little bit more serious and there was the need to focus on one sport, that rugby really took over and I felt it was the game that I was best at. So it was Irish Schools, Irish Under-19s, Irish Under-21s and then into the national team at 20 years of age. Then I just had the ride of my life for 15 years.
Question: Can you pick one highlight from your amazing career?
Brian O'Driscoll: It’s always difficult to pick one highlight, but there were plenty of disappointments as well. I think, those disappointments fuel the ambition to push yourself a little bit more as an individual. There were disappointments in World Cups; never getting better than a World Cup quarter-final. If you look back, you judge yourself as a sportsperson on what you've won and the success you've had. It took a long time. In the first seven or eight years of my professional career, I think I won one medal. Then I won seven or eight in the last seven years. If I had to pick one moment it would be the Grand Slam in 2009. Ireland had not won one for 61 years. After multiple second place finishes, to finally get to win the Slam was a special feeling. We got in a place where we weren't happy with that, and pushed on from there.
Question: You were an inspirational captain for Ireland. What qualities did you bring to the captaincy role?
Brian O'Driscoll: I don't think I'm the best person to answer that. I was chosen as a captain as a 23-year-old, having never captained a team before in my life. Thrown in the deep end. Coach Eddie O'Sullivan obviously felt as though there was something in me, that I could help bring other people along. I definitely did it through my actions first of all more than my words. It wasn't something that came naturally to me. You see some natural born leaders as well as being very good players. For me, it was definitely trying to be the best trainer on the park, trying to be the best player on the pitch, and trying to lead by example that way. And then growing the other side of knowing when to speak, and how to speak to team-mates, how to speak to referees. I had to say the right thing at the right time, and keeping a cool head. I think they were definite work-ons, throughout my captaincy.
Question: Can you look at the state of Irish rugby when you came into the team and where it is now. Can you quantify the difference?
Brian O'Driscoll: I feel I had a pretty big hand, along with a number of other key individuals, in changing the expectation of the public and the players from a team back in 2000, when you weren't expected to win a whole lot, to a team that can nowadays go down to South Africa and win a Test match. It definitely does give you a good feeling knowing that you were part of that progression. You know you are just one cog in it, but there were some key players over the course of the 2000s where the mentality shifted, and it changed because people were fed up of losing. They had not lost at under-age level and just because they were in the national senior team, didn't mean they reverted to being a team that was beaten more often than they won. I think a huge amount of that was changing the mentality of the younger people coming through in schools and in academies and then knowing that they have to bring that on when they put on the [Ireland] jersey. I can see that in the current crop we've got a fantastic team, a great coaching team at the moment and there's huge hope for this Irish side.
Question: What does a team like Ireland have to do to become No.1 in the world? Can they aspire to catch the All Blacks?
Brian O'Driscoll: I think it's probably unrealistic. I think you can always target that you want to be No.1 in the world. It's probably unrealistic that Ireland are ever going to be No.1. Are they ever going to be consistently better than New Zealand? It's hard to say that because we've never managed to beat the All Blacks. And you're going to have to beat them to take their mantle. Ireland have got to No. 2 in the world in the last 18 months, the highest ranking they've ever had. But it becomes a numbers game - the resources and the player pool that you're dealing with. Also, it's not the national sport in Ireland. Gaelic football, hurling and soccer precede it from a popularity point of view. So, for a fourth choice sport, I think we bat above our average and we do OK. I think we'll always need to keep our best players fit, because I don't think we have the same strength and depth of some other countries across the world. I don't think to win a World Cup we could really afford to go down to a fifth choice No 10, like the All Blacks in 2011.
Question: It’s the norm these days for players to play outside their home countries. Did you ever have any offers to go and play in other countries?
Brian O'Driscoll: I took huge satisfaction in being a one club player. Of course, at times, there were some attractive offers to go and play, in France in particular. There was a very important point in my career back in 2006 where I was a bit disillusioned with the club situation in Ireland. We had four coaches in four years in my club Leinster, and I just needed to feel I had the chance of winning silverware. Then Michael Cheika, now Australian coach, came in and eventually we went on and won a European Cup. And eventually winning three European Cups with my home club meant so much more than if I had gone away to another country. It still would have been great, but it's special knowing that you know people you see in the street and the bond that you have with the supporters, because you built it from nothing to being European champions. That's pretty special.
Question: How real was it in 2006? Might you have gone?
Brian O'Driscoll: It was actually quite real. Before 2006, I'd gone down and seen a couple of clubs in the south of France. That helped with bargaining power when I came back to Ireland to renegotiate my contract. That was in 2004. But in 2006, on a far more quiet level, I went down and had some conversations. I really thought long and hard about going. I think the timing of where I was as a player and how well I was looked after by the Irish Union, plus the opportunity that I felt Leinster had in achieving that ultimate goal of winning in Europe, was the deciding factor in staying put and, boy, am I glad I did.
Question: You now work as a TV analyst, do you ever have thoughts that you might get involved in coaching or become involved with a club?
Brian O’Driscoll: I left the team environment because I wanted my weekends back initially and I'm liking that at the moment. I get to do some great games, I get to do some European games and some Six Nations games. From a TV point of view, I still get to go home and not have my mood affected by whether my team won or lost. I'm still a passionate Leinster fan, a passionate Ireland fan, but it doesn't affect my form when I walk in my door and I know that my wife and two kids are very happy about that too.
Question: Rugby is now an Olympic sport. Did you play Sevens?
Brian O'Driscoll: I was never really given the opportunity to play Sevens. There wasn't a Sevens circuit like there is now. In Ireland it was about younger players breaking into the Sevens team, getting the experience before they managed to make it into the Fifteens team and I suppose the fact that I found myself in the national Fifteen at quite a young age meant I never really had that opportunity to go down and play in the Hong Kong Sevens or any Sevens events. I'm a keen fan of it, I think it's a very attractive game. You know the fact it's an Olympic sport now even heightens it all the more. It has the potential to get into countries that aren't really synonymous with rugby, particularly in countries like China and the United States. If it’s big in the Olympics, you know it's going to be big in those countries and I think there is huge scope for how big the Sevens game can get, come August in Rio.
Question: Could we end up with a situation where Sevens will ever take away from the Fifteen man game?
Brian O'Driscoll: I'm a believer that the Fifteens and Sevens game can live in conjunction with one another. I think they can feed each other. I think you've seen in years gone by that Sevens players essentially wanted to become Fifteens. But now you're seeing it going the other way knowing that there's an Olympic medal on offer. Big players like Sonny Bill Williams are trying to have a go at Sevens even though some of them have limited experience in it. The issue in countries like Ireland is about player numbers and we can't afford to dilute the Fifteen man game to allow them to go and be successful at Sevens. We've got to really focus our pool of players in one or the other. And I think that's what's happening now with the re-emergence of the Sevens game in Ireland. Younger guys are getting the opportunity to play on the global scale, get to build their engines, build their ability to play in front of big crowds in pressurised situations. So, I think that all goes well for them getting into the Fifteens game. Whereas some countries, like in New Zealand, like in the UK, Argentina will be a threat in the Olympics. They have a big enough player base to be able to have Fifteens and Sevens running side by side.
Question: Would you have enjoyed playing in the Olympics?
Brian O'Driscoll: I would have absolutely loved the opportunity to take part for Ireland in an Olympics. Sevens is a young man's game and that's why I look at some of the older Sevens players and I have so much respect for them. Guys like Mikkelson, DJ Forbes down in New Zealand that are in their 30s and have been at the Sevens game for over a decade. I think it's phenomenal knowing the difficulty of the workload that's involved and the punishment their bodies must have taken in that time and the fitness levels that they need. So it would have needed to be a very, very young Brian O'Driscoll to have been involved in an Olympics. But that opportunity didn't arise then and unfortunately Ireland have missed out on the last opportunity, the repechage in Monaco. Spain managed to get through, beating Samoa in the final, so it will be great that a country like Spain is going to get into the Olympics and straight away more people in Spain will get to know rugby.
Question: What do you think about England. They had a poor World Cup, changed their coach and now they seem to be world-beaters, winning a Test series in Australia? Could England become a very good side under Eddie Jones?
Brian O'Driscoll: I think England are already a good side under Eddie Jones. I think he's brought back a lot of the steel that was missing in the World Cup. I think he's worked on their basics extremely well, come back to set piece, made them very efficient at scrum and line out. It just shows what good coaching does do. We see it in Ireland at the moment, I think Joe Schmidt is a phenomenal coach, Andy Farrell's obviously done a great job in the short period of time that he's come in. You know good coaches do count for a huge amount in empowering players, but also getting the most out of the players and knowing what buttons to press; whether they need a carrot or whether they need a stick? Eddie obviously has a great track record, He did well with Australia, obviously with Japan in the World Cup just gone. He was involved in the 2007 South Africa success. He has a track record of knowing how to get the most out of his players and I think you're seeing that some guys are really playing out of their skin at the moment, guys that maybe people thought were beyond their best.
Question: Where do you think the balance is at the moment between Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby?
Brian O'Driscoll: I was never one that worried massively at the World Cup that there were four Southern Hemisphere semi-finalists. I thought the margins were absolutely tiny, Scotland probably should have been in the semi-final. On another day Wales could have been. Ireland were decimated by injuries and lost to Argentina. France were absolutely smashed by the All Blacks, hard to argue with that one. But I think there isn't as big a disparity between the hemispheres as maybe is the perception. You’ve seen in the summer tours, at the end of a long Northern Hemisphere season, that Ireland beat South Africa, England beat Australia and Wales pushed the All Blacks hard. So I think the Northern Hemisphere is not in a bad place. There are some really good coaches in the Northern Hemisphere at the moment and I think they'll get the most out of their teams. What will be really interesting will be the Lions tour in New Zealand next year. I think that will be a real litmus test to see how good the best of Britain and Ireland is against the current world champions.
Question: Could they win?
Brian O'Driscoll: I think for the first time, looking at New Zealand, post Richie McCaw, Nonu, Carter, Conrad Smith, it is going to take time for their new breed of players coming in to bed down and become the force that those great players were for the All Blacks over the past decade. Is a year enough time for them to get fully comfortable? But remember too, New Zealand are still the best team in the world, they've still got the biggest pool of players and the highest level of quality. But I think a good British and Irish Lions team that is fortunate with injuries will be very, very competitive provided they're well coached, well drilled and I expect them to be. New Zealand is the toughest place to tour for a Lions team. But is it impossible to win the series? No.
Question: Could you pick three of the greatest players that you either played with or against in your career?
Brian O'Driscoll: I think getting my first cap against Tim Horan, who was a kind of a childhood hero of mine. Before this recent World Cup, being a two-time World Cup winner he used to be a pretty big thing. Then the All Blacks blew that out of the water and there’s about five of them out there now. But he was incredible. I always enjoyed watching his full complement of skills. He could play 10, 12, 13, with seamless ease. He would definitely be the one that I would always mention when I talk about most difficult opponent. Then you've got Richie McCaw, double World Cup winning captain and the man who achieved most Test caps in probably the most coveted position in world rugby at No.7 for the All Blacks. To have that phenomenal longevity to his career is a testament to his fitness, both mental and physical. Then you know with the greats, one that passed very recently that I was lucky and unlucky to have played against was Jonah Lomu, without a shadow of a doubt one of the most brutal opponents. If he got you one on one, there was a good chance he was going to run over you. And he did. There are three, but I could probably name another 33.
Question: You are now a Laureus Academy Member. What does that mean to you?
Brian O'Driscoll: I'm delighted. I was looking at being able to give something back. I understand the power of what sport has to offer, particularly to young people. I think it breaks down the divide between the wealthy, the poor, the disadvantaged. It’s a real equaliser. It’s a way of forming bonds and friendships with people you don't know, having a great bit of fun and building self-confidence in people that are in need of being pushed in the right direction. I think the quality and the power of sport is very, very powerful. If my help in promoting rugby, or maybe another sport, in a disadvantaged area of the world, helps younger people to develop into more confident people that keeps them out of trouble and allow them to enjoy their lives a little bit more, even changing one person's mindset, would be a huge bonus to me. Being in Berlin at my first Laureus Awards was an incredible occasion and being part of the Academy and mixing with some pretty impressive names, especially rugby people like Morné du Plessis and Sean Fitzpatrick, who's now Chairman, was great. They feel very fortunate to have had the success they have. I think when you’re involved in some projects that help kids you can take huge pleasure from that. It obviously means a huge amount to be an Academy Member. I was introduced in Berlin, up on stage with the likes of Alexander Del Piero, Carles Puyol, Luis Figo, Raul, Cafu, and I was some rugby guy at the end. It feels strange being in that sort of company. But I think it shows the power of Laureus in being able to attract that calibre of athlete and their willingness to show the qualities of what sport has to offer and how it can better young people's lives.
Question: Is rugby a good sport for getting messages over to kids?
Brian O'Driscoll: I think rugby is the ultimate team sport. You look at football which is obviously the most popular sport in the world, but essentially you can have Lionel Messi pick the ball up from his goalkeeper and dribble past ten players, and put it past the goalkeeper. In rugby you can't do that. I can't do my role as an outside centre unless the hooker throws the ball in straight, the lifters get the line-out jumper up higher than the opposition, the scrum-half gets the ball to my outside half, and then he throws the ball out in front of me in some space. That's a lot of things that have to happen before I get to do my thing. The same goes in the scrum. If my tight head is going backwards, I'm not seeing the ball. So, the reliance on everyone else to do their role is a massive factor in rugby being an incredible team sport. Over the course of time in rugby, you’ve seen every shape and size: from the guy that's 5ft 6ins, to the guy that’s 6ft 10ins, from the guy that’s 11 stone to the guy that’s 22 stone. So there’s a position for everyone. It offers a huge amount from a respect point of view, they're respecting the referee; and from a camaraderie and friendship point of view. I’ve learned as much from the losses as I've had from the gains. You know, winning and losing as a team, even losing as a team is almost nice because you get to share that disappointment with team-mates and make it not as unbearable if you lost individually. Sharing in victory with team-mates is so much sweeter because only you guys really know the effort that has gone in to achieving the success that you've had.
Question: Are you looking forward to being involved in working for Laureus?
Brian O'Driscoll: I'm really looking forward to getting out to a project somewhere. It will be a great opportunity to see the work that Laureus does. To do an awful lot of listening and hopefully to inspire some of the children involved in the projects and to really enjoy what they're doing. One thing I've always taken from my rugby is that I always wanted to play with a smile on my face, have fun, because I think you bring the most out of yourself when you're having fun. I am looking forward to going to rugby projects in Hong Kong or in South Africa and better understanding the work that Laureus does via sport, to help people in a disadvantaged situation.
Question: You came in to the Irish team reasonably young and you were a captain reasonably young. What advice would you give to younger sportsmen and women who have aspirations to make a success of sport at the highest level?
Brian O'Driscoll: Nothing worthwhile comes easily. There's no satisfaction taking in something that gets handed to you on a plate. I think staying the course and enjoying the hardship fuels that. You look at the greatest sports people in history and a lot [of the success] has been fuelled from adversity. A lot of it is about enjoying the really difficult workload and getting yourself to a point of pushing the limits and [enjoying] the satisfaction, in team sport in particular, of looking at the guy next to you in the dressing room after you've been successful and not needing to say anything. That comfort of knowing you've left everything on the pitch, that's a very, very special place to be. The thing probably that I miss most about not playing anymore is rolling the sleeves up and getting down and dirty and knowing that you couldn't have given another inch. That's quite a special feeling and that winning sensation after achieving what was perceived to be the unachievable. That's a really good place to get a smile on your face.
Question: Do you miss it?
Brian O'Driscoll: It's funny. I don't really miss rugby much. I do miss that sense of achievement. And it's hard to replicate that in your post-playing career. I don't envy the hardship that they're having to put their bodies through now. Some part of my brain, the ability to push myself, has absolutely switched off. However I do envy that feeling of leaving everything out there on the pitch, even in the losses. It makes you feel alive. You need the highs and the low. Middle ground isn't a fun place to be the whole time, you need the peaks and troughs to actually give you a jolt of life.