Irish legends primed for French clash


PARIS, February 10 – John Hayes, Brian O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara are names writ large in the pantheon of Irish rugby greats and here on Saturday they will attempt to repeat the experience where the seeds of their greatness was sown – by beating the French at the Stade de France.
The venerable trio first made their mark on Irish rugby when they were in the side in 2000 that ended several humiliating trips to Paris, as thanks largely to a hat-trick of tries by O’Driscoll, they beat France 27-25 for their first win there since 1972.

They remain the sole survivors from the 22 that day and have not tasted victory in Paris since that memorable St Patricks Day.

But having at last fulfilled their tag of being part of the ‘golden generation’ by landing the Grand Slam last year they will not want to surrender it just two games into this renewal.

Whilst all three of them have accrued trophies and winners medals along the way – O’Gara and Hayes two European Cups with Munster and O’Driscoll one European title with Leinster last year – they are also all of them nearing a quite remarkable feat of winning 100 caps.

Hayes, the six foot four inches prop will win his 99th cap on Saturday, O’Driscoll the crown prince of centres his 98th and O’Gara the most resilient and courageous of fly-halves his 95th.

For all three, though, it has not been a tale of endless smooth sailing and at different times their very presence in the side has been called into question, even O’Driscoll’s or ‘BOD’ as he is reverentially if also humorously referred to in Ireland.

Hayes has more than the other two had to prove his many doubters wrong time and time again but the 36-year-old has done it in style ever since he made his debut along with O’Gara against Scotland in 2000.

A man of few words, or at least to the press, it is best left to former Ireland captain Keith Wood – who played with all three of them – to sum up why ‘The Bull’ as he is fondly known has lasted for so long at the very top.

"Brian O’Driscoll’s brilliance is something that they (the supporters) can admire but that skill is a world away from every would-be player or supporter on the terraces," wrote Wood last year.

"Hayes is industry and hard work, a triumph of substance over talent. He is a carrot to future players of what determination and application can achieve."

O’Driscoll is a public relations minder’s dream, smooth as silk in interviews, good looking and intelligent to boot but even he was scrabbling for words at the sad end of the previous coach Eddie O’Sullivan’s reign.

However, a mixture of injuries – the most serious when he was spear tackled in the first minute of the first British and Irish Lions test against the All Blacks in 2005 which he said made it look as if ‘a shark had tried to tear my right arm off’ – and signs of a lowering of his high playing standards had some even daring to whisper that he was no longer indispensable.

Instead, ever the competitor, he has raised his standards and insists he is far from done yet.

"I still have more to give. I have seen players leave before their time, and I would hate to do that," said the 31-year-old.

"So why bother with an end date? I want to set records. I want to do everything on the rugby field within my means."

O’Gara, or as in these days where everyone seemingly has to be labelled with a nickname ‘ROG’, looked last November to have become the number two choice behind the new kid on the block Jonathan Sexton, especially when the 24-year-old Leinster star kicked all the points in the victory over world champions South Africa.

However, thanks to Sexton’s dead leg the 32-year-old American-born Munster legend – who had a nightmare 2007 World Cup where his form was affected by allegations about his gambling and extra-marital affairs – played a blinder against Italy last Saturday and got the nod for the starting role against France.

"It hurts when you are dropped. Its very disappointing especially when you care about the team so much," admitted O’Gara, who is the Six Nations record points scorer with 515.

"You look at yourself harder but usually you try and blame other people and not yourself.

"When you’re dropped there’s no need to panic. I had to go away and sort things out and come back.

"It hurts but you move on. A lot happens in a week, never mind a month. But it’s fresh enough to keep me highly motivated."