The difference between a good player and a great player is a combination of talent and motivation. Some players are good because they possess talent, they are born with that ability it makes them a cut above the rest. Others players are good because they are so motivated they work and work to maximise their potential.
But the great players possess that rare combination of talent and extraordinary motivation.
Undoubtedly, Brian O’Driscoll was born with a phenomenal talent for playing rugby. But it took extraordinary motivation to continue performing at the top of the game for fifteen years.
There are a number of factors that make O’Driscoll unique and by definition the greatest rugby player of the professional era.
Firstly, his skill set was extraordinary and at a very early stage he displayed a combination of speed and evasion that allowed him to beat defenders in an area the size of a phone booth. As he got older he adapted his game to become more of a direct strike runner and playmaker, putting people into space with exquisite passing.
That adaption of his skills set was an evolution and not a revolution. It occurred gradually with hard work and dedication over the duration of his career.
He was always physically tough. Maybe being small in stature, when he was young, forced him to punch above his weight from an early stage. That toughness, requiring him to punch above his weight when he was young, probably stood him in good stead as an adult.
Even though he was never regarded as a physically big player, he did develop into an excellent athlete through hours of hard work in the gym. His physique and physical toughness allowed him to successfully go toe to toe on many occasions with other world-class players who were bigger and heavier than he was.
As a result of his physical toughness he shipped many heavy knocks and injuries throughout his career. A dislocated shoulder from the infamous spear tackle ended his Lions Tour of 2005. Numerous other joint injuries, hamstring and calf tears and concussions meant he shipped more than his fair share of injuries. He always returned to the fray at the first opportunity to play even harder.
His mental toughness meant he embraced the constant pressure to play at the top of the game for as long as possible. The bigger the event and the greater the pressure the more he embraced the event. It is this ability to perform under pressure means he was the “go to guy” when all the chips are on the table.
The 2009 Grand Slam would never have happened without Brian O’Driscoll. Match winning tries against France, England and Wales and a try saving tackle against Scotland were crucial moments in the team’s success. Had he missed out on one of those interventions the Grand Slam would never have materialised.
He emerged as a leader in the team from a very young age. He was an excellent captain even during his apprenticeship in 2002 and 2003 while Keith Wood was injured. Taking on the role on a long-term basis was as natural as night following day after Keith Wood’s retirement following RWC 2003.
Most people confuse leadership with making team speeches. But the best leaders lead through example. O’Driscoll also spoke to the team sparingly, but when he did speak everybody listened, as it was worth listening to. The respect he garnered from his peers gave him immense gravitas as a leader. That respect was evident even before he became captain.
When you combine his skills set, with his physical and mental toughness and align that with his leadership qualities it is no surprise Brian Gerard O’Driscoll is the greatest rugby player of the professional era.
He is irreplaceable and for that reason Ireland should not consider trying to replace him. Whoever becomes the next player to pull on the Irish #13 shirt should be allowed get on with the job. Any comparisons to Brian O’Driscoll would be just downright unfair.
We will be talking about Brian for many years to come and maybe, just maybe we will unearth another gem who can be compared to him in the future.
But probably not in our lifetime.