Brian O’Driscoll, the greatest Ireland scrum half we never had
Saturday, February 2nd, 2013. Ireland, leading 30 points to 15 in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, had just received a yellow card. As the clock ticked past the seventy-third minute rugby-watchers rubbed their eyes as resident Irish sporting deity Brian O’Driscoll lined up at scrum-half.
It seemed strangely jolting, the man forever associated with the number thirteen standing between the Irish and Welsh packs, ready to feed the ball to the scrum in place of the sin-binned Conor Murray.
O’Driscoll leaned in beside referee Romain Poite, ready to give the feed. When the two front rows went down and Poite called for a reset the man in the thirteen jersey and the bandaged head had a wry grin – perhaps he was enjoying the novelty of it all, and perhaps in some small way he was thinking back to a Leinster Junior Cup quarter final in 1994.
Ciarán Scally was the scrum half for that Blackrock College Junior Cup team who would finish runner-up to Belvedere College in the final. Scally started the quarter-final match against Newbridge College but had to be substituted in the second half after breaking his nose in a tackle.
The replacement was the Austin Healey of that Blackrock panel, able to play almost any position in the backline including halfback.
It was Brian O’Driscoll.
The future Ireland captain, whippet-like compared to the strapping Scally, trotted on with the game already well won. Blackrock had a scrum in the middle of the field. The Blackrock backline split; one centre and wing lined up to the right with the rest of the backs lined up to the left as the two forward packs prepared to engage. Blackrock coach Alan McGinty, now headmaster at the school, had called an “A-9” move.
The young O’Driscoll fed the ball, took the ball himself from the number 8’s feet and ran laterally towards the right touchline. He dummied a switch to the centre, dummied a second time to the winger and then straightened and accelerated to the corner flag to score what Scally described as “a phenomenal try”.
“I was on the sideline watching this with a broken nose, wondering if I’d get my place back” said Scally, still widely regarded as one of the best scrum-halves to ever come out of Irish schoolboy rugby.
Scally, who would go on to be capped by Ireland at just twenty before an injury-enforced retirement, took his place in the semi-final against Castleknock College and would remain first choice at the position for the rest of his time in the school. Brian O’Driscoll was moved to the out-half position in sixth year, but not before he’d had time to play a full Senior Cup match at the halfback position against St. Michael’s College in 1996.
On Saturday afternoon in Wales, deep in the Irish 22, there would be no A-9 move. From the reset scrum Jamie Heaslip took the ball infield with O’Driscoll slicing an attempted box kick into touch about ten yards out from his own line.
And there the cameo ended. The Great One, mortal after all.
Against Newbridge College nineteen years before, as Brian O’Driscoll grounded that ball by the corner flag under the wary eye of the sore-nosed Ciarán Scally, life as a halfback must have seemed an awful lot simpler.
Leinster Junior Cup Quarter Final, 1994
Blackrock 31 Newbridge 7
Blackrock: M Price; P McKeever, S Kelly, J Phelan, D Kavanagh; N O’Donovan, C Scally; T O’Rourke, P Glynn, S McCloskey; S Sweeney, R Casey; R Gough, A Browne, C Condon.
Replacements: B O’Driscoll for Scally, G Burns for McKeever.
Newbridge: A Wilson; J Kennedy, P Byrne, N Welsh, B Guckian; K Coughlan, J Fitzgerald, H Byrne; S Curry, M Keavney; E Whelehan, G Price; M Domican, M Silke, J Downey.
Note: thanks to the archive-sleuthing wizard Denis Hurley for his help in pulling the necessary teamsheets