Brian O’Driscoll on life after rugby

John Craven

Brian O'Driscoll at Portmarnock Links (now Jameson Links)

John Craven

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World rugby legend on his exciting new venture with Zerofit, his shortcomings in golf, a letter from Shane Lowry, life after rugby and playing with Tiger Woods

133 caps for Ireland. 46 tries. 26 in the Six Nations – a record that still stands today. Player of the tournament in 2006, ’07 and ’09. Ireland Captain. Lions Captain. Arguably the sport’s greatest ever centre, and World Rugby Hall of Famer to boot. I knew all of those things about Brian O’Driscoll’s career before, somehow, getting invited to play a few holes with the man they call BOD at Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links in June.

As it turns out, O’Driscoll is an equity partner with performance sportswear experts, Zerofit, a company making a splash in the golf space and beyond with their innovative baselayers designed in Japan that are proven to be five times warmer than the competition.

I had to laugh pulling into the carpark in Portmarnock shortly before 8am, the mercury already cranked above 20 degrees Celsius, and rising. I was glad it was O’Driscoll and not me tasked with modelling the revolutionary kit until it emerged that the rugby legend would be wearing a Zerofit ‘Cold Skin’, a product that delivers efficient cooling in temperatures up to 40 Celsius.

Who was laughing now?

“It feels great,” O’Driscoll smiles from his glistening white full-sleeved skin. “This is my first time wearing this one and it’s really nice and cool. It’s light, you can move in it, and it’s no harm not getting sunburnt either.”

The tropical Dublin temperatures were a far cry from the arctic conditions O’Driscoll and his co-analysts had been subjected to pitch-side during the Six Nations, and without the comfort of a hip flask live on air, Zerofit had proven a worthy substitute.

“I remember going to the Ireland-England Grand Slam game in 2018 at Twickenham and it was the coldest match I was ever at. People were trying to enjoy the celebrations but you couldn’t feel your toes or fingers,” O’Driscoll recalls.

“Zerofit was a game-changer. I knew how good the Heatrub baselayer was right away. I do think it’s an exceptional product that will grow organically but I’m just trying to give it an extra nudge.”

O’Driscoll was first introduced to the brand when the team at Zerofit sent him some samples simply to see what he thought.

“There was no ask,” O’Driscoll remembers. “A really important thing that lots of brands could learn from is never ask to have stuff posted on social media.

“You’re far more likely for people to post if you don’t ask. So when I saw there was no request, just tell us what you think of it, for me it just said a lot about the people behind the product. There’s an emotional intelligence involved in that!”

O’Driscoll loved the product right away, so much so that when an ambassadorial position was proposed, O’Driscoll wanted more skin in the game – literally!

“I think its potential is huge and its scope to get into multi-sports is massive,” he says. “It’s big in sports like fishing, sailing and motorcycling already but it honestly transcends sports. It’s even great for the general public. The products are in tune with different times of the year.

“I’m fortunate now that the things I’m involved in, I can stand over. Zerofit is something I was wearing anyway but to now be part of the brand and helping it develop from relative infancy is a really exciting prospect.”

What wasn’t such an exciting prospect was the first tee-shot at Portmarnock Links where I was about to make a holy show of myself in front of a boyhood hero. It would be myself and fellow Irish Golfer hack/hacker Mark McGowan, taking on Brian and his soon to be fellow officially Irish capped dad, Frank.

I was nervous, had hardly slept the night before, had the duck hooks in play and no semblance of a warm-up to correct them. Mercifully, Mark stepped up first… and hit the ball into his shoes.

Crisis averted.

Now, boasting a seven-handicap, we all knew O’Driscoll could play but not to the point that when standing on the elevated tee-box on the opening hole at the links, he was contemplating taking on the hazard and driving the green. He opted for a lay-up, but after watching him launch a driver to Pluto at the second, if I was his caddie, I’d never allow the big-stick to leave his hands again.

If only he could chip with it!

A golf nut, O’Driscoll’s general ball-striking game was enviably pure but if there was an Achilles heel, it was his short game, something I promised not to highlight in this article until O’Driscoll joked that nobody would believe we played together if I dressed it up any different.

“I was actually going through an old golf bag the other day and I found an old note from Shane Lowry – he was playing the day before me at Augusta and I forgot it was there,” O’Driscoll smiles.

“And it just said, ‘BOD, I don’t know what advice to give you. I suppose for a guy with a short game like yours, you won’t have any issues around here! Welcome to paradise!’

“I don’t have much memorabilia at home but of the images you’re allowed use for a private collection from Augusta, I’m going to make a collage and have that note as the centrepiece.”

When I was a kid in awe of O’Driscoll bursting on the scene with a hat-trick of tries against France before waltzing through the Australians and nearly snapping Matt Burke’s ankles as a fleet-footed Lion, I thought he could do no wrong.

In fact, I thought he was superhuman, capable of things us mere mortals could scarcely dream. But when I watched him play golf, I couldn’t help but smile at how this most frustrating game brings us all crashing down to earth. It’s the ultimate leveller, and O’Driscoll has no qualms admitting how the short-game has humbled him.

That said, it’s never discouraged him from an opportunity to play with the world’s best either, not least at his annual pilgrimage to the Alfred Dunhill Links Pro-Am where the firm and fast conditions gleefully mask his shortcomings.

“The beauty of the Dunhill is I can have the Texas wedge out. I’ve putted out of second cut rough,” he laughs.

“I remember on a par-5, I was pin high in two just off the green and I got the putter out and four-stabbed and Graeme McDowell’s caddie Ken Comboy turned around and goes to me, ‘some six in fairness!’

“It was still a two pointer but Christ it was demoralising. Six yards away and four to get down. Humiliating stuff!”

Still, O’Driscoll relishes the chance to be blasted from his comfort zone at every opportunity, even if it’s led to some close calls along the way.

“God the first Dunhill I went to,” he laughs, hesitant to tell the tale.

“I was on the range and really nervous at St Andrews, rubbing shoulders with all the pros. It was my first shot of the day and next to me was one of the South African guys who ripped a driver and walked out a couple of steps to grab his tee.

“I had my first swing with a wedge and I had a full Davy Crockett, and it whizzes by his head. I’m surprised he didn’t feel it fly past but he’s oblivious to it, but his caddy’s behind him looking at me and I just put my finger to my lips, shush!

“I picked up my bag, walked off and hit a few putts!

“The range was never my friend there. I could lose it on the range. And for me, that’s the terrible thing. You’d hope to think you’re a mentally strong athlete but I find the first two or three holes massively important to the overall outcome. If it goes badly early on, it can unravel and be hard to get back.

“My expectations can be high and you wonder if they should be. But I can rely on my tee to green game, but giving myself chance after chance it can be so frustrating when you don’t capitalise.

“I think if I could get any sort of short game I could get down to four or five and that would suit me. I’m not trying to be a scratch golfer.”

O’Driscoll’s long-game would rival many a scratch player and while his competitive drive from his rugby playing days lives on through his golf, nothing will ever fill the void of the seismic career he left behind on the pitch.

“It’s not easy, I don’t think they’re easy for anyone,” O’Driscoll says when asked how it felt to watch those first few internationals after he’d officially hung up his boots.

“I left the best possible way I could have. We’d won the Six Nations…”

The kid inside me, the one that never wanted his hero’s playing days to end can’t help but interject:

‘You could’ve kept playing!’

“I was struggling in my head,” O’Driscoll says. “On the outside it looked OK but internally I was battling with not being able to do what I wanted.

“I was very frustrated by physically not being able to react as quickly as I could see it. I thought I could see it ahead of others but when the message took a while to get down there and the reaction time wasn’t good, I just thought, ‘I can’t’.

“If the World Cup was later that year I would’ve tried to get to that but another two or three seasons was too much.”

O’Driscoll retired with no regrets in 2014 but the fearlessness with which he played his rugby didn’t immediately translate to his post-playing days as he worried his life might’ve already peaked.

“There was a nervousness there – ‘like, is that it? Is that the top of the apex?’” O’Driscoll says.

“I remember one of the parting comments from the Strength and Conditioning coach that worked with me and is still head of the Irish team’s S&C said, ‘You’ve got to always think that your best days are ahead of you, irrespective of what you’ve done and achieved.’

“And it’s true. You don’t know what’s coming. I do a bit of speaking with corporates and they talk about ceilings, but the biggest ceiling is the one you put on yourself.

“It’s not about drawing comparisons to playing days, they’re totally different. Much of it is about leaving yourself available to growth and potential, and opportunity. Getting involved with Zerofit is a good example of that.”

The investment arm of O’Driscoll’s post-playing career has been paying dividends, but it’s his punditry work with BT and Off The Ball that preserves the legendary centre’s close ties with rugby, and those who grew up watching his career flourish from afar.

As a journalist without an elite playing career to lean on, I wondered how O’Driscoll viewed non-playing pundits at Off The Ball and elsewhere; and whether there are certain aspects of analysis that those untinged by the searing heat of battle could sometimes overlook.

“I really believe that if you can argue your point well and make a counterargument to perception, and if it’s interesting, I think that’s where credibility comes from,” he says.

“I don’t always think that the best players are necessarily the best pundits. I think one of the best pundits around is Andy Dunne but if he was talking the way he does with a big career behind him, everybody would want a piece.

“He’s a really great pundit and it’s quite different thinking to lots of other people. Very articulate, eloquent, but he also sees things from a different angle and I’m very interested in what he has to say.”

Unsurprisingly, many former teammates of O’Driscoll tuned in with ears similarly pricked wondering how their ex-Captain’s critiques would come across from the other side of the camera. It was a balancing act that the even-keeled O’Driscoll sometimes struggled to get right, and he received the feedback to prove it.

“Yeah… silence,” he says of his harshest reviews. “I’ve got it wrong a couple of times. I offered too much once or twice.

“Once with Johnny Sexton I probably let my heart talk a little too much about what I really thought. I’m doing right by the job but as a non-journalist wanting to maintain friendships, it’s a fine line.

“I actually got a text from a journalist after it who I would’ve had a fractious relationship with, and he said ‘Jesus, that mustn’t have been easy talking about him like that!’

“Straight away I knew, ‘Oh no, I’m in trouble. If he’s saying it, then I’ve definitely overstepped the mark!’”

Thankfully O’Driscoll and Sexton’s friendship persevered, the pair stoking their competitive fires in regular matches at Milltown Golf Club ever since. Yet while O’Driscoll was a natural with oval ball in hand, analysing the game for tight TV windows came anything but easy; a hangover from his playing days, not that it ever held him back.

“I was never brilliant at half-time or full-time in seeing how the team went,” he explains. “I don’t think I’d make a particularly good coach because I don’t have this holistic view of how everything had unfolded.

“I knew how I went, and had a general idea of what had gone on with the team, but I’d come in sometimes and go, ‘what’s the score?!’

“I’d know if we were up but I wouldn’t know exactly. I was very much into my own performance and getting that right because that’s what I was in control of, whereas other people are encyclopaedic. Johnny is like that about a game, he knows the nips and tucks of it.

“I’m trying to process it and make notes in the immediate aftermath but give me a day to go through it, I think I can see things that other people can’t, and I think that’s where I do some of my best stuff.”

Separation from Ireland’s current crop of Grand Slam stars is more readily achieved with each passing year. Sexton remains the last of the old guard and as O’Driscoll puts it, “he doesn’t need protecting, and he rarely goes below a 7 out of 10 anyway”.

“I’m definitely seen as a journalist now rather than an ex Leinster and Ireland player,” he adds. “I don’t have a relationship with the vast majority of those guys. I’m not going to weddings that’s for sure. I’m going to communions now!”

That’s not to say the memories of great times past are fading. As part of his corporate speaking gigs, O’Driscoll plays a two-minute video montage of his greatest hits that can’t but make him smile. It includes that famous Lions try in the first test against Australia in 2001. It was O’Driscoll’s coming-of-age moment on a global stage, not that he knew it as he carved his way through the Wallabies’ defence from inside his own half.

“It’s funny, obviously it was a good try but a lot of the time when you’re in it, you’re thinking, ‘what’s the big deal?’” O’Driscoll admits.

“When we played France when we won over there in 2000, I was thinking ‘jeez there’s a lot of celebrations here’, not realising that we haven’t won there for the best part of 30 years.

“I was just a kid, young and naïve. At the time you never consider how much these occasions are blown up to be but they’re special memories to have now.”

As I made a special memory of my own, picking O’Driscoll’s brain for a round of golf – 18-holes that will feature prominently in my own career highlight reel – I couldn’t help but take stock of just how great the day was going.

The night before I’d put a message into our family WhatsApp chat to share the news of who I’d be playing golf with the next day, and if anyone had any questions in case the chance arose to ask.

Sure enough, the questions flooded in… for Brian’s wife, Amy Huberman as my sisters sought counsel as to where she got her hair done.

“Amy gets all the attention,” O’Driscoll laughs. “When we’re out and about, it’s very rare that I’m the one asked to get in the photo. I’m the photographer!”

O’Driscoll then asked how many siblings were in the family chat, and inquisitively, asked if there was a question in there that I didn’t think I could ask. And the amazing thing is, there wasn’t one. Brian was an open book, and what I thought was nine holes with O’Driscoll and his dad turned into 18, even after Frank had to bolt at halfway to get the car in for an NCT.

We even sat down for lunch after where the interview continued and a question posed by my colleague Mark had O’Driscoll all but using the salt and pepper shakers to run us through one of his most famous plays – the pass to himself that sliced open the Ulster defence in 2006; one that highlighted the genius of O’Driscoll.

“We weren’t meant to get the ball but I knew Ulster loved to hit in so I said to Dennis Hickey on the wing, if it somehow comes out to us, you run a pincer on me, I’ll run across and throw it over your head and catch it on the far side because Tommy Bowe’s going to want to hit in,” O’Driscoll says.

“We were having a laugh to ourselves but then our scrum got demolished and the ball got spat out the back to us so I thought, let’s go ahead with it.

“I threw a one handed pass at Dennis’ head and it worked a treat and actually I should’ve done miles better on it but I couldn’t stop laughing running up the touchline thinking, ‘I can’t believe this came off!’ We should’ve scored a try from it.”

Speaking of genius, we couldn’t let the day pass without mentioning the moment when two titans of their respective sports collided. In 2019, O’Driscoll played a hole with the GOAT of golf, Tiger Woods, and Rory McIlroy in the lead-up to the PGA Tour’s Zozo Championship in Japan.

“I was on the tee standing between Rory and Tiger and we’d been hitting seven irons thinking it was going to be that and we get up there and Tiger goes to Rory, ‘what did you hit?’, and he says ‘I nursed a little nine’. I was like, ‘damn, I can’t hit a seven now!’

“I tried to hit 8 easy and I flushed it over the flag and just off the green. I was standing over the putt and I thought to myself, I should probably ask him for a line now that he’s here. He has such an aura about him but I asked what he reckons and he goes, ‘four balls outside left’ which was about two and a half more than I was going!

“I hit it exactly where he said and it was never missing. Mike Tindall gives me a high five, Rory does the same, but I’m just thinking, ‘where are you Big Cat?’

“I spotted him and he gives me a high five and I’m like, ‘what’s an uncomfortable amount of time to hold onto this?!”

I felt the same way shaking O’Driscoll’s hand on the 18th green at Portmarnock Links.

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