Brian O’Driscoll was at the Dubai 7s last week acting as an HSBC Rugby Ambassador. When Yalla Rugby caught up with him during the event; he shared with us his impressions of rugby in the UAE, how he is coming to terms with retirement and why British & Irish Lions fans should give Warren Gatland more credit…
The word legend is perhaps overused in sporting terms but there can be few who would begrudge that label of Brian O’Driscoll, a man of 133 caps for Ireland, veteran of four Lions tours and winner of three Heineken Cups at Leinster. As if we’re in any doubt, as we sit down with him on the sidelines of an HSBC pre-tournament press conference, it’s not long before he’s musing about a ‘Rugby Centurions’ function he attended shortly before flying out, reserved for those with 100 or more test caps. Pretty exclusive criteria for a dinner invite.
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“The transition is very difficult, even if you do it on your own terms, that immediate nature of one day being part of a team and the next not”
Despite hanging up his boots four years ago, and seemingly establishing himself on the black tie circuit, ‘BOD’ cuts as good a figure now as he did in his playing days. He admits that keeping physically fit has been important in his transition to retirement.
“The transition is very difficult, even if you do it on your own terms, that immediate nature of one day being part of a team and the next not. One thing I would encourage any players finishing up to do, is continue exercising. I took a big break from it for a couple of years and I probably needed to rest my body but I’ve got back in to training and it’s so good for the head – I try to design my day around that where possible.”
BOD and the ‘Death Zone’
Indeed, his eagerness to keep in shape saw the 38 year old agree to join the England 7s squad for their infamous ‘death zone’ training session in the lead up to the opening round of the World 7s Series. He laughs off our jibe about donning the red rose during the session, claiming it “didn’t bother me in the slightest” despite the potential stick from his old playing mates.
Ex-pros often point to such dressing room camaraderie as the part of the game they miss the most but for O’Driscoll, it is something more precise. “It’s more the feeling of adding value to something and trying to find the next thing you are doing and adding the same level of value” he explains with the same self-assured poise that accompanied his on field leadership for so many years.
Having burst on to the world rugby scene with his wonder try for the Lions against Australia in 2001, it was in that famous red jersey that he added as much of that ‘value’ as anywhere else. Reflecting on this summer’s tour to New Zealand he is quick to distance himself from fellow Irishman Sean O’Brien’s comments that Warren Gatland’s management had cost the tourists a 3-0 win.
“I don’t really know the rationale behind it. I think if Sean had his time back he might verbalise it a little differently – there is nothing to be benefitted from saying that sort of thing. It was quite a stretch to think they should have won the series 3-0, it was a good draw from the Lions perspective, not a bad one. New Zealand should be kicking themselves that they threw it away in that third test in the first 10-15 minutes in reality. We’ve only ever won one series over there so to think it should have been 3-0…I’m not so sure about that.”
We put it to him that regardless of the results on the field, bars screening tour matches here in the UAE would have been packed out anyway, such is the popularity of the Lions concept. Yet, outside the ex-pat bubble, questions over its relevance in the professional age persist. He doesn’t think the dissenting voices are any cause for alarm.
“The enormity of it is great, we are as excited about it in the UK & Ireland as you are out here about where the tour is going to go in South Africa in four years time. It is such a unique thing from a player’s perspective to get to play with a group of players you’ll never get to go on a rugby pitch again with and yet you’ve formed these bonds. I don’t think you have bonds like you did in the old days when they went on three month tours but you do form friendships with certain players and you pick up where you left off. You’ve to remember as well that for as much as its great for the Lions because of the business that it is, its also great for the touring country, with the impact it has on their economy through the spend involved in going out and watching it.”
If O’Driscoll is any oracle, McGettigans and co can breathe easily and look forward to another bumper summer in 2021.
So would a potential move to Dubai and growing the game internationally interest him?
“I don’t think my skin could take the sun out here!” he jokes, but he does see significant potential for growing the game of rugby in the UAE and thinks others may follow in the footsteps of Denis Hurley, the former Ireland and Munster centre, who began coaching at Dubai Exiles this season.
“It’s great to see the appetite for it and having a draw like the Dubai 7s can only enhance the game’s reputation here and of course there’s a big ex-pat rugby community to tap in to. I didn’t know (Hurley) was out here! I had lots of battles against Denis back in the day and I could think of worse things to be doing than coaching in Dubai, if you’re going to coach somewhere, why not here?!”