DUBLIN (Reuters) - March 19, 2000: the day everything changed for Irish rugby. The day every fan remembers exactly where they were.
Before travelling to France on that sunny spring afternoon seeking a first win in Paris in 28 years, Ireland had become near-perennial northern hemisphere whipping boys, finishing off a miserable decade with a humiliating early World Cup exit.
Then Brian O‘Driscoll scored one of the most famous hat-tricks in world rugby, and 14 years on, despite failing to record another win in France, Ireland are near-perennial Six Nations contenders with provinces that dominate the club game.
On Saturday, O‘Driscoll will look to end his Irish career with a Six Nations title in the same Paris arena where he exploded on to the global stage before becoming the game’s most capped international and one of its greatest ever players.
“I remember just thinking anything is possible now,” former Ireland captain Keith Wood said when he interviewed O‘Driscoll on stage at his old team mate’s testimonial dinner last year, recalling how he watched O‘Driscoll’s superb third try in awe.
“That was the change for me, and it was a change for the team because suddenly there was a belief that if things weren’t actually going so well, we could still have somebody who could score three tries. An awful lot changed from that time.”
O‘Driscoll had made his Irish debut as a 20-year-old nine months earlier. Expecting to make up the numbers on a tour to Australia, he instead found himself lining up against his hero, Tim Horan.
A handful of games followed, including the beginning of a first Six Nations campaign that also heralded the emergence of players such as Ronan O‘Gara, Peter Stringer and Shane Horgan, before Ireland headed for Paris.
For Malcolm O‘Kelly, who lined up in the second row that day, what happened next came as little surprise.
“His light was already shining. The 1999 World Cup was all about Drico, how we had unearthed this kid. It certainly wasn’t out of the blue,” the former Ireland international told Reuters in an interview.
“There were holes appearing everywhere but to actually go and do it and put Ireland on the map, it was down to his brilliance.”
The masterclass began in the first half when O‘Driscoll, who had already made his presence known with a crunching hit on Philippe Bernat-Salles and fired off a warning shot with a couple of blistering breaks, was put through by O‘Kelly for a relatively simple first try.
Trailing by nine points after the break, the skinny, baby-faced O‘Driscoll, wearing a jersey that on old YouTube clips appears two sizes too big, then combined brilliantly with centre partner Rob Henderson to sprint through for his second.
But the best was saved for last. With six minutes to go, the ball came loose from an Irish ruck for O‘Driscoll to scoop up with such remarkable ease that Emile Ntamack could only watch as the 21-year old darted through for his hat-trick.
While it was replacement David Humphries’ often forgotten late penalty that actually handed Ireland the 27-25 win, it was all about O‘Driscoll.
The young Dubliner topped news bulletins all evening. Newspapers obsessed about the meaning of the hand gesture he made when celebrating his tries. He has retained his box-office appeal since.
“People work as hard as him, people are faster, are taller, are stronger, but he just has that little something, that bit of magic, the extra belief to try things others wouldn’t dare,” O‘Kelly said of his Leinster and Ireland team mate of 10 years.
“He was just one of those incredibly competitive guys and what really sets him apart is his mentality. It’s very hard to put that in a bottle and replicate it.”
O‘Driscoll, Ireland’s record try scorer, who has also led his country a record 83 times - more than twice as often as anyone else - bid an emotional farewell to home fans last week when he contributed another man-of-the-match performance to put his side one win away from only their second title in 29 years.
A first victory in Paris since the four-time British and Irish Lion’s heroics 14 years ago is the requirement, the kind of final act that could not be more appropriate.
“It’d be a fitting tribute to a legend of the game,” said O‘Kelly. “Knowing Brian, it’ll be him that gets over the line.”
Editing by Stephen Wood