Mention Brexit to Brian O’Driscoll and his eyes roll. He just can’t quite get his head around it, this unfathomable possibility that a hard border could soon potentially be reinstated to separate the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland.
The Dubliner had nothing but the utmost pride representing a united, 32-county Irish team during a record 133-cap career that spanned 16 years.
His commendable tenure took place in a rejuvenating era that was a far cry from the tense past, the provocative border checkpoints, the frightening Troubles and all the intimidating paraphernalia that affected day to day life in the six counties and beyond.
That was before the 1998 peace agreement brokered between the British and Irish governments and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland on how Northern Ireland should be harmoniously governed.
Only last year O’Driscoll delved into the wonder of how Irish rugby managed to overcome this fractious divide long before there was ever any formal political agreement.
(Continue reading below…)
His acclaimed Shoulder to Shoulder TV documentary was a throwback in time, a collection of vibrant stories about a divided island that somehow continued to be represented by just one rugby team.
That all-important Irish unity on the rugby pitch won’t ever change but less than 12 months on from that BT Sport film premiere, the unchecked movement of people from one Ireland jurisdiction to the other is now under threat, a development that leaves the iconic rugby figure fearful about an uncertain political future.
“Who knows what is coming down the line with all of that,” he said to RugbyPass about the October 31 Brexit deadline date that falls two days before the World Cup final in Japan, a showpiece fixture he hopes will feature Ireland despite the struggles they have been having with their form in 2019.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) August 9, 2019
“Your guess is as good as anyone’s (about what might happen with Brexit) but the one thing it hopefully will show is the power of rugby and the ability of sport to unify.
“Even when people have such massively differing opinions politically they are able to park them for an afternoon and support the same team. That is quite amazing and it shows you the strength of what sport can deliver,” said the now 40-year-old O’Driscoll, an age that is old enough for him to faintly remember how inconvenient it used to be going from one place to the other.
“I remember as a kid going up (to Northern Ireland) and having vague recollections of police checks and border controls, so the thought of going back there does feel as though it is such a step back in time.
You wouldn't believe it but I'm standing between two countries here. No borders, no checks – people passing between Northern Ireland & the Republic would barely notice any difference. Brexit means hard borders and the return of The Troubles. It's reckless, dangerous and unfair. pic.twitter.com/Dv3X9hcwrH
— Chris Davies MEP (@ChrisDaviesLD) August 27, 2019
“I hope that the politicians in Westminster fully understand the magnitude of what impact that will have and the knock-on effect that can have from a negative perspective with the Troubles that have happened over the last 40, 50 years and how it could invite that to restart. So I hope they understand and my fear is they don’t.
“It [Ireland north and south] is hard to get your head around if you’re a foreigner, but there are certain politicians in the UK over the course of time who have understood it.
“I realise that a civil war necessitates a 1,000 people to be killed in a calendar year for it to be called a civil war, which was never the case up north. So it has not ever been a case of a civil war, but you know it can bring that bloodshed at a whim.
One of the all-time greats doing what he does best.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) August 1, 2019
“How they seem to be playing down the importance of the backstop [an agreement to prevent a hard border] is just incredulous. The lack of understanding of circumstances and the ability of history to repeat itself is a scary thought.”
Scary in a very different way is the gradual downgrading of Ireland’s World Cup credentials. Last November, Steve Hansen claimed they were the world’s best after seeing off the All Blacks in Dublin.
Now, following a 2019 schedule where their play has become riddled by inconsistency, there is a concern that underachievement will again be Ireland’s lot at the finals. Eight times they have tried to reach a first semi-final, eight times they have failed. O’Driscoll knows only too well from memory, having featured at four finals from 1999 through to 2011.
Ask him if there is one grievous body blow he would love to take back and the response is immediate – 2011, Wellington, Mike Phillips raiding down the blindside off a ruck to score in an Ireland versus Wales quarter-final that the Irish were tipped to win following a seismic pool win over Australia in Auckland.
“That Mike Phillips try, that was such a body blow and it just fed them with positivity. We really struggled to change the momentum of that game the whole time, so I’m not saying that try was the difference, but it gave them some leeway to go on and relax a little bit.
“If you could change that, you stay within one score and anything can happen, so probably that moment. I suppose alternatively you could pick Australia in 2003. There was a question over Paddy O’Brien and a questionable scrum penalty he gave against us when it could have been for us.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) July 31, 2019
“We kick that goal we beat Australia and you potentially have an easier quarter-final against Scotland. Ifs, buts, maybes, we didn’t deliver, didn’t manage to do it on the big stage. You can’t point fingers anywhere else. You have got to look at yourself.”
It won’t be until October 15 when O’Driscoll, a Land Rover ambassador who is also doing some TV punditry, lands in Japan to take in the knockout stages of an eagerly awaited tournament. He can’t wait.
The previous tournaments he was at all passed by in a blur. Such is the existence as a player at these events, you can’t really take many moments to genuinely appreciate where you are and enjoy the country you are visiting.
— Brian O'Driscoll (@BrianODriscoll) August 29, 2019
Japan 2019 will be different, however. “There will be lots of guys who will have never been to Japan before so understanding a different culture, understanding a different climate, it’s going to be humid… I’m certainly looking forward to experiencing it from a very different level of going before.
“Any time I have travelled to World Cups I have never really got to see the country whereas to go as a broadcaster is a real treat because I will have lots of downtime and I will get to see the country properly.
“It’s a great opportunity to get into a new market and to showcase the game as a hugely positive thing and all the attributes that we associate with rugby and broadcast them on a world stage and hopefully deliver a really good spectacle.
View this post on Instagram
“It probably would go a long way if the host nation were able to manage to get themselves to a quarter-final, albeit not at the expense of Ireland who are one of five or six teams who are capable of winning it.
“People at home in Ireland will laugh at that but the reality is they can still win the group. Can they beat New Zealand or South Africa in a quarter-final? Of course, they can and if you are in a semi-final, can you win the World Cup? Of course, you can. We just need a lot to go right for us.
“We need a limited injury profile. We need Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray and all our best players absolutely humming. We do need lots to go right for us but can that happen? Of course, it can. As Irish people, we are either top of the tree or bottom of the barrel and we need to find some middle ground at the moment where I think the team lies.”
Having watched Ireland get torn asunder by England, the legendary Brian O'Driscoll has stated his preferred midfield partnership for the World Cup
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 27, 2019
In general, O’Driscoll, the scorer of seven tries in his 17 World Cup appearances, expects a feast of creative rugby to materialise, entertainment that will get fans up off their seats around the world and cheering an avalanche of scores rather than people having to endure multiple defence-dominated spectacles that won’t do much for rugby’s global appeal.
“That [defence] still exists but particularly with the tackle laws and the concerns around high shots now receiving red cards, it definitely opens more opportunities for players of all shapes and sizes,” he reckoned.
“In particular that is the great thing about rugby, that it has always been one for the masses and when you see players like Cheslin Kolbe excelling at 5ft 8 and 13 and a half stone, that is brilliant to see.
“The focus will hopefully be an attack-minded World Cup rather than a defence-fest. Certainly, everybody wants the game to be able to showcase itself as the game that it is on the biggest stage because there will be a lot of people watching that never watched rugby before and you want it to be the best version of itself.”
WATCH: Brian O’Driscoll suggests that England on current form are his pick to win the 2019 World Cup
Land Rover is an official worldwide partner of Rugby World Cup 2019. With over 20 years of heritage supporting rugby at all levels, Land Rover is celebrating what makes rugby, rugby. #LandRoverRugby
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.