The golden boy of the class of '99
March 13, 2014
A young Brian O'Driscoll attempts an offload on his first Ireland tour © Getty Images
"It is an indication of the state of Irish rugby that the great white hope of the game is a 20-year-old who has yet to win his first provincial cap or play a premier league game. Brian O'Driscoll was the only player in a green shirt that stood comparison with his opponents in the art of passing, running and evasion." - Irish Independent
June 12, 1999, was a day when history was made. Australia recorded their biggest ever win over Ireland as they trounced Warren Gatland's men 46-10 in Brisbane. The positives were few and far between for the Irish journalists reporting on the match. But of those who were there, perhaps unbeknown at the time, they had just seen the start of a career that was to last 140 more caps.
When O'Driscoll ran out at Lang Park in front of the 24177 supporters, he was yet to play for Leinster. But there was a buzz in Ireland surrounding this promising outside centre. In Ireland's two warm-up matches prior to their first Test against the Wallabies, they beat New South Wales County XV and then lost 39-24 against the full-fat version, New South Wales, seven days later. O'Driscoll was named Man of the Match by his team-mates for both games.
When his name was read out by Gatland alongside the 14 others who would start against Australia on June 12, O'Driscoll was one of three debutants alongside scrum-half Tom Tierney and wing Matt Mostyn. Three nervous, fresh-faced, expectant players who had come to the point of their Irish debut with vastly different backgrounds.
When their 1999 jaunt to Australia came about, Tierney was one of four scrum-halves - alongside Conor McGuinness, Ciaran Scally and Brian O'Meara - with eyes on the No.9 shirt. Tierney was originally on standby for the tour but O'Meara got injured and he was named in the squad.
Tom Tierney in action on his Ireland debut © Getty Images
Impressive performances in training where he did not shirk the sometimes daunting task of bossing around experienced forwards and a good performance against the NSW Country XV in the wonderfully named Woy Woy saw him get the nod.
It had been a rollercoaster year for the Garryowen half-back. In March 1998, he was running out for the Ireland U-21s against France in La Rochelle. In the aftermath of the game, a routine drugs test came back positive for Ephedrine. He had to wait eight months to be cleared by an Independent Drugs Tribunal, which considered it an "unintentional offence". Seven months later he was playing for Ireland.
"It was a very unsure and dark time alright when the adverse finding in the drugs test showed up," Tierney told ESPN. "For such a young guy and to have that cloud come over me, it was very distressing at the time. Thankfully the one thing that kept me going was that I had done nothing wrong and once they confirmed that was the case, it was a weight of my shoulders.
"It was one emotional extreme to another when I was, less than a year later, playing for my country. I was focused for that week and a half before the first Test and when we sat down for the announcement of the team, I felt I had a good chance. When you hear your name being called out you wonder if it really happened but then it sinks in and it was the best moment of my career to hear my name being read out. We then had to get ready for an international."
Alongside Tierney in the team was Australia-born winger Mostyn. He was a Bordeaux-Begles player when he was first called into the Ireland frame for their A game against Italy in Donnybrook earlier in 1999 but after impressing there, he teed up a move to Connacht prior the 1999-2000 season. Like Tierney, his performances in the two warm-up games against the two versions of NSW, complete with tries in each, saw him fast-tracked into the Test side.
"It was a pretty emotional one for me, I left Australia 12 months earlier so to come and play in a Test like that was fantastic. There was a fair amount of media focused around me and I didn't really handle it too well, it was strange," Mostyn said. "But it was a fantastic period in my life and I enjoyed the first couple of warm-up games prior to the Wallabies and leading up to the Test match it was just excitement. I thought I'd be more nervous. The minutes leading up to before we left the changing rooms I teared up a little bit. It hits you in the face and you think 'shit, this is what it's all about'."
Matt Mostyn impressed against NSW © Getty Images
And named at 13 in the team was O'Driscoll. Having seen O'Driscoll in the first two warm-up games, the rest of the squad knew what he was capable of and he made a profound impression on Mostyn.
"He backs himself, he knows what he's good at and he gets himself ready for the game every week. Even at that young age, he took it in his stride. To be honest I was three or so years older than him and I was looking at him thinking 'jees I wish I was cool in these conditions as he is'. Some people have it from day one and Brian did."
Tierney too was struck by the young O'Driscoll. "We all knew there was something special about the guy and he was going to kick on. We all knew he had the X-Factor as they say now and to have played with him was a great thing to have for me personally. We knew he was something special alright."
The Test did not go to plan for Ireland. They were beaten six tries to one but each were pleased with their respective performance. Mostyn played a key role in Kevin Maggs' try while Tierney had the unenviable task of playing against George Gregan.
"To test myself against Gregan was a huge thing and it was something I am very proud of. While things didn't go well on the scoreboard, I think I acquitted myself well."
Post-match, Gregan came into the changing room and handed Tierney his Test jersey. The same process happened for Mostyn and O'Driscoll with each receiving their opponent's shirt. Tierney remembers O'Driscoll received Daniel Herbert's and it was his partner in the centres Tim Horan who said of O'Driscoll afterwards: "When you've no reputation to uphold you can go out with a fearless, have-a-go attitude. That's what I expected of him."
Fifteen years on and it is fair to say O'Driscoll has garnered a reputation as one of the finest players of his generation. For Tierney and Mostyn, their careers took on different paths. Tierney, who is now head coach of Garryowen, played alongside Mostyn and O'Driscoll in the 1999 World Cup and finished his Test career with eight caps.
O'Driscoll is left in Ben Tune's wake © Getty Images
"With injuries and everything else, the opportunity to have more caps was curtailed," Tierney said. "Over the course of the years, I was upset at being unlucky with injuries and perhaps not getting my opportunities. But now I have to come to accept that and I have been retired for a few years now so there's nothing to be down about in relation to that anymore. What I remember and what I have is my caps and I played for my country. I am very proud of that, it was something I wanted to do as a youngster and I realised my dream."
For Mostyn, his Ireland career would last another five caps though he stayed in the country until 2008 with Connacht. Now back in Sydney working for Sherrington Project Management, the memories of O'Driscoll and team-mates Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara still flit through his mind.
"The more I go on in my rugby career, you look at those guys and they definitely have something upstairs, which not a lot of other guys have alongside the consistency and the hunger. People like ROG and Paul as well. They are a step ahead of the rest of the pack."
As O'Driscoll prepares to call time on his Test career this weekend, reams of plaudits will be written. Each individual who has seen O'Driscoll play will inevitably be struck by a pang of nostalgia as they see him leave the field for the final time. For Mostyn, he may remember his debut or the times he played with and against O'Driscoll. For Tierney, O'Driscoll set the benchmark for Irish rugby.
"The only thing I'd say is that the talent I saw back in 1999 and all the hope that surrounded him and the promise, it is a huge credit to him that he delivered in every way possible. Not a lot of guys achieve that, there are young players who are talented but few go on and realise that talent. He became a world-class player. He deserves whatever accolades he gets. He's always done it on the pitch and he's done it off the pitch. He's a consummate professional."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.