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Irish rugby legend Brian O'Dricoll will finish his career with the 2014 Grand Slam. Photo by: Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland

As Grand Slam challenge looms, all eyes are on Brian O'Driscoll

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Irish rugby legend Brian O'Dricoll will finish his career with the 2014 Grand Slam. Photo by: Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland

Joe Schmidt will walk out at the Aviva Stadium as Ireland’s Six Nations coach for the first time on Sunday when Paul O’Connell will captain the team against Scotland in the championship opener … and yet all that really counts for nothing right now.

The reality, whether Schmidt and O’Connell realize it or not, is that one man has dominated the build-up to the 2014 Grand Slam assault in the minds of every Irish rugby fan worth his or her salt. And the media have been more than happy to follow suit whenever the chance has arisen.

Just one Irish player has featured in the RTE sports advertisements for the Scotland game this weekend and the televised start of a new title bid by a team that flattered to deceive last term.

One Irishman even dominated the conversation for more than a few minutes when the Welsh coach Warren Gatland, a former Ireland boss himself, addressed the renowned rugby media at the Six Nations launch in London last week.

Brian O’Driscoll is the man in question, and he wasn’t even in England on Wednesday of last week, never mind at that launch when Gatland’s decision to drop Dricco for the final Lions test in Australia last summer became the hot topic.

The 35-year-old O’Driscoll wasn’t there because he gave up such responsibilities over a year ago when Declan Kidney axed him as captain as his own ship started to list towards the icebergs of international management.

Dricco wasn’t on the "Late Late Show" on Friday night when the increasingly tedious Ryan Tubridy interviewed the Kearney brothers, Rob and Dave, about the Scotland match and the Triple Crown tests to come against Wales and England in the coming weeks.

Nor was the great Bod anywhere to be seen on Monday when Guinness turned to his Leinster teammate Luke Fitzgerald to launch their latest initiative in support of their sponsorship of the IRFU and the Irish team.

But he was a topic of conversation when the microphones were placed in front of Schmidt, O’Connell, Kearney and Fitzgerald this past week, and rightly so.

O’Driscoll himself may well appear before the media between now and the weekend at one of the scheduled press conferences at the team’s Carton House training base. I would be amazed if he didn’t because Brian O’Driscoll, quite simply, is THE story ahead of the 2014 international season, his last.

And that farewell is the reason why he is the only story in town between now and Sunday – no matter how many column inches we devote in the meantime to Jamie Heaslip’s decision to stay with Leinster or Simon Zebo’s absence from the squad or the duel between Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan to start at number 10 against the Scots.

The last hurrah for Brian O’Driscoll deserves to hog the headlines for this and many weeks to come simply because of the service he has afforded his country over the last 15 years and 128 caps.

And those with a far better knowledge of rugby than me – I only ever played one game and that was at scrum-half so many years ago that color television was a novelty – have said so as well.

The other day, driving into work and switching from one station to another, I was lucky enough to come across a discussion between the former Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan and disc jockey Ray D’Arcy on the Today FM station that broadcasts from Dublin.

Now Eddie was in no doubt whatsoever as to where O’Driscoll stands in the rankings of great rugby players of any generation, and not just those of an Irish persuasion.

Without quoting him verbatim, I can tell you that O’Sullivan rates O’Driscoll as the greatest player of the professional era and one of the greatest of all time.

His logic was simple. When you consider the demands that are now made of professional rugby players, physically and mentally, only the very best can survive for 15 years at the top of the trade as our hero has done.

When you consider the blows that he has taken to his body and his mind, it is incredible that Brian O’Driscoll has lasted this long.

And when you realize that he wasn’t born in New Zealand and qualified as an All-Black, it is unbelievable the impact O’Driscoll has made for club and country since he first played for both Leinster and Ireland in 1999.

He has won every honor available to him as a player with the exception of the World Cup, and that is beyond him now.  He won’t be around the next time the world competes to take the trophy off New Zealand, and he is adamant that this forthcoming Six Nations will definitely be his last no matter who leads the calls for one more year.

Thus O’Driscoll will start to bow out of international rugby this Sunday, and he deserves to go out with a bang. Another Grand Slam, another championship, another Triple Crown would be a fitting tribute to a great career.

The order, particularly the Grand Slam request, may be a lofty one, but it’s the least he deserves and the least his teammates can do for him after everything he’s done for them – the very least.  

(Cathal Dervan is sports editor of the Irish Sun newspaper in Dublin)

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