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O’Driscoll aims to cap glorious career

Twelve years ago Brian O’Driscoll pulled on a Test Lions jersey for the first time, it culminated in one of the most memorable Lions victories in recent memory, with O’Driscoll scoring one of the most memorable tries in Lions history.

Tomorrow Brian O’Driscoll will start the First Test of a Lions series for the fourth time, more than anyone in Lions history, against the country where it all started for him, Australia. Not even Willie John McBride and Mike Gibson, the only two players to tour more times than O’Driscoll’s four tours, managed to achieve that feat.

Remarkably though, since that famous night at the Gabba in 2001, Brian O’Driscoll has not won a Lions Test match – let alone an entire series. This remarkable player, the only player not to have won a Test series and be named in the ‘Lions Greatest XV’, deserves better.

He has seen everything that a Lions series has to offer, bar victory; from the great missed opportunity and split camp of 2001, the shambles that was 2005, a tour he captained but saw him out of the Tests after just a minute following that spearing from Tana Umaga and Kevin Mealamu. Finally there was 2009, the greatest Lions tour since 1997 but unfortunately an unsuccessful one. O’Driscoll knows the heartache of the Lions and he is desperate to make sure that it is the other side feeling that heartache this time.

There is a sense that this time may be different, there has been a notable and singular focus from the 2013 Lions, their mantra is simply: “We are here to win the Test series.”

The fun and games that were so memorable in 2009 have been dialled down in the name of focusing on the Tests – a ploy that if the Lions are unsuccessful may draw some criticism. That is not to say that the squad has not bonded though, they have, simply that every ounce of their being has been directed at these Test matches.

O’Driscoll’s long term Irish colleague Paul O’Connell has said that there is a “savage competition” for Test places. The rumours from the camp are that training has been more intense than the matches – including against the Waratahs and Reds. These boys are up for it.

That savage competition is obvious when looking at the number of close calls in Gatland’s Test XV. Who could honestly have complained if Mako Vunipola, Richard Hibbard, Dan Lydaite or Toby Faletau had been selected in the pack ahead of Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs, Tom Croft and Jamie Heaslip? The backs perhaps pick themselves a little more, though that is more down to injury than a lack of competition.

Brian O’Driscoll is cheered off the field after beating Australia in the 1st Test in 2001

Perhaps most significantly on the injury list is Jamie Roberts, O’Driscoll’s partner in crime in the centres in 2009, when they formed what was considered to be the best centre partnership in the world. His absence is a blow for the Lions but in his place comes Jonathan Davies, the most in form of all the centres on tour.

It is on the subject of Davies where O’Driscoll demonstrates his depth of understanding of the spirit necessary to win a Lions tour, and the selflessness that may be required.

Before it was known that Roberts would miss the First Test, if Davies were to get in the Test team it seemed that it would only be in place of O’Driscoll. Yet after the victory against the New South Wales Waratahs it was reported that the first thing the Irishman said to Warren Gatland was: “Man, how good was Jonathan Davies!”

He backed this up in his column for the Daily Telegraph, saying:

“Warren Gatland mentioned that I was full of praise for Jonathan Davies afterwards. Why would not I be? He was awesome. He was involved in everything that was good. You have to tip your hat to that. Jonathan was comfortably the best player on the night.”

“The great thing is that it makes me, Manu and others in the same position realise that that is the level we need to be at. You have to embrace that and salute him. You would be bitterly disappointed not to be in the Test side but this series is bigger than any individual. You have to be selfless. It is about the Lions. I would rather the Lions won the series without me in the team than lose with me in it.”

That is what being a Lion is all about, selflessness and an understanding that the collective is far more important and far more influential than the individual.

If the Lions can get that right over the next three weekends then Brian O’Driscoll will have that elusive Lions series victory, and he will be the first to praise those around him.

Teams:

British & Irish Lions: Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Brian O’Driscoll, Jonathan Davies, George North, Jonathan Sexton, Mike Phillips; Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell, Tom Croft, Sam Warburton (captain), Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: Richard Hibbard, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Dan Lydiate, Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, Sean Maitland.

Australia: Berrick Barnes (NSW Waratahs), Israel Folau (NSW), Adam Ashley-Cooper (NSW), Christian Leali’ifano (ACT Brumbies), Digby Ioane (Queensland Reds), James O’Connor (Melbourne Rebels), Will Genia (Reds); Benn Robinson (NSW), Stephen Moore (ACT), Ben Alexander (ACT), James Horwill (Reds, captain), Kane Douglas (NSW), Ben Mowen (ACT), Michael Hooper (NSW), Wycliff Palu (NSW).

Replacements: Saia Fainga’a (Reds), James Slipper (Reds), S Kepu (NSW), Rob Simmons (Reds), Liam Gill (Reds) Nick Phipps (Rebels), Pat McCabe (ACT), Kurtley Beale (Rebels).

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