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Brian O'Driscoll: The verdict on the Jacques Nienaber Leinster blitz

By Liam Heagney
Leinster senior coach Jacques Nienaber speaks to his players (Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Brian O’Driscoll has never been busier as a rugby pundit. With Stuart Hogg currently off-screen, the Ireland legend has taken up the slack on TNT Sports and Gallagher Premiership duty, something that was once a rarity, is now a common occurrence.

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Hours after being at Ashton Gate on May 11 for the Bears’ loss to Saracens, RugbyPass bumped into O’Driscoll at Bristol airport after he had taken a fast car up the road from Exeter with Craig Doyle to catch his Ryanair flight back to Dublin following coverage of Chiefs beating Harlequins.

Paths crossed again last Saturday at Saracens where Sale caused an upset to shake up the semi-final pairings, and it will be the same this Saturday at Tottenham when Leinster and Toulouse rendezvous for the 2024 Investec Champions Cup final.

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O’Driscoll sweetly set the scene for this appetising blockbuster when popping up on a Zoom call last Wednesday, briskly waltzing his way through 10 exclusively allotted minutes of questioning as deftly as he famously left those Wallabies defenders trailing in his wake all those years ago at The Gabba when touring Australia with the British and Irish Lions.

However, before we got stuck into blitz defence, Jacques Nienaber, the Leinster team he wanted to see picked, and the wonder that has been the Jamison Gibson-Park flourish, there was a touchline query to tackle.

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When Owen Farrell received a guard of honour heading onto the StoneX Stadium pitch last Saturday for what was his last home appearance ahead of his switch to Racing 92, O’Driscoll, who was on the running track and stationed just metres away, kept his arms firmly folded. Why?

“I was in my own world clearly because if ever there was someone that I would applaud onto a pitch it would be Owen Farrell,” he insisted. “I’m a huge Owen Farrell fan, I respect a lot of what he is doing and I all the more respect him for what he is doing now for taking a break from things (in England). He warrants it, that’s for sure.”

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O’Driscoll is enjoying his Premiership work. “That a pretty impressive thing for Sale to do,” he enthused about Alex Sanderson’s side winning away at Saracens for the first time in 19 years.

He will resume this beat next weekend with that competition down to its final four, but this weekend’s trip to England is for Champions League duty even though the competing FA Cup final football fixture at Wembley does have its allure for the long-time Manchester United fan.

Tottenham is the rugby marking – his 10th European final as a TV pundit since his 2014 player retirement – and O’Driscoll will arrive concerned for the Leinster blitz defence off the scrum.

His fear, something he initially alluded to when doing punditry for Irish radio station Newstalk, is that some opportunities Northampton couldn’t take in the semi-final might now be snapped up by Toulouse.

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“What I said was I would not like to defend in a blitz defence like that off set-play and, in particular, scrum. Lineout you would manage fine because there are more bodies, you are getting some tail gunners, you are probably getting a little bit of assistance. But I think it is a really, really tough ask for any 13.

“It’s funny, I was looking back on the semi-final and there is one scrum that Northampton will be kicking themselves because (Tommy) Freeman ended knocking the ball on but if they go out the back to Fin Smith, he is miles around the corner. James Lowe is not connected. There are two more players in attack – that should be try time. It does feel as though there is vulnerability or frailty at scrum time in a blitz defence.

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“In fairness to (Robbie) Henshaw, he has the capacity to read those situations but that’s not what the role is. It’s meant to be first for fire it shut. He is as good as there is out there. Him and Garry (Ringrose) read very well. It’s just a matter of whether the animation in attack will be as good as it was from Northampton Saints but then you pick the right options.

“So, the hustle, the scramble coming from Gibson-Park and from other players diving under the defensive line will have significance in being able if you get busted to track people back. But I think with really good teams, if they show accuracy and commit defenders inside, they definitely can create space and try-scoring opportunities off first phase.”

It’s a potential weakness of the new rearguard approach under Nienaber, the ex-Springboks head coach who has succeeded former England boss Stuart Lancaster as Leo Cullen’s senior Leinster coach. With his old club heading into its third successive final appearance after losses to La Rochelle in 2022 and 2023, how does O’Driscoll compare the respective Nienaber/Lancaster eras?

“The role remit is very different,” he suggested. “The evolution of Stuart from year one through to year seven or eight would have been significant. He took defence and attack, and Jacques has come in and redefined what defence looks like from a Leinster perspective as so much time, effort, and energy will have to have gone into it.

“It’s very hard to then give that same focus towards your attack game when you are kind of reinventing a defensive system. So as a result, the defence and the physicality looks much better this year. Perhaps Leinster’s achilles heel was where it felt teams could physically dominate them.

“Now that is their modus operandi; it’s big, physical teams that they go and dominate but I don’t think that the attack game has quite been as sharp as it has the last two years. They were overwhelming favourites going into both finals (against La Rochelle) and came off second-best because they didn’t manage to deliver on the big stage.

“They will have to use that as huge motivation and I just don’t think the time and energy and effort has probably gone into scrutinising the quality of passing, the lines of running, all of that because the defence has taken such a focus. It’s still good. It’s just not quite as sharp as it was in previous years.”

Leinster were beaten by three points in Marseille two seasons ago, and the margin was a single point a year ago in Dublin before Lancaster headed off to take charge at Racing. How much credit will Nienaber get if Leinster finish this latest final crowned champions?

“Listen, one thing about this Leinster team with Leo at the helm, they have always been happy to share the success. It’s not always been about an individual but if the defence has a major impact on the game, of course Jacques will deserve huge credit because he has come in and changed what was a strong Leinster defence anyway, albeit a totally different system, and stamped his own mark on it.

“He said that it was going to take a period of time, that it was going to time to succeed, and it looks as though they are really getting a sense of it. You would imagine they are going to be a team that are going to get better year-on-year the more they do it with this defensive system.

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“When you are learning something new like that, there are going to be teething problems, you are going to leak tries. But if you can limit the amount the amount of times you are busted then the upside to that ferocity of line speed will have significant impact and actually turn your defence into an attacking weapon as well, which is a real focus of any blitz defence.”

O’Driscoll suggested Cullen would confirm a starting XV showing three changes from the 20-17 semi-final win over Northampton, with Hugo Keenan, James Ryan, and Will Connors included at the expense of Ciaran Frawley, Ross Molony, and Josh van der Flier.

One player whose selection should ignite no debate whatsoever is Gibson-Park. The Kiwi carried little clout when he first arrived at Leinster in 2016 have exited a Super Rugby stint at the Hurricanes where most of his appearances were as a sub.

That bit-part role remained the same in Dublin for an age, as there were just five Champions Cup starts in 29 appearances before he finally got ahead of Luke McGrath in 2021/22.

He has also become Andy Farrell’s first-choice Ireland scrum-half, sparking claims he is now one of the world’s best in a position where he will go head-to-head versus Antoine Dupont this Saturday.

The energetic talent he is showing at the age of 32 is something few, if any, believed possible when he landed in Dublin eight years ago as an underwhelming 24-year-old. Explain the transformation.

“Listen, sometimes it’s about game plan, it’s about style, it’s about confidence levels, about being a student of the game and focusing and understanding how you can add to your skill set,” reckoned O’Driscoll.

“Andy Farrell was someone who identified Jamison Gibson-Park as a huge asset before he was even the first choice for Leinster.

“He talked about him, about the tempo, the speed, the quality and I think confidence is a huge component of any player, and being first choice and getting a run of games and playing really well inspires you to keep working hard at your game and the realisation that you are doing the right things.

“There are a number of different factors but ultimately he is a very, very good rugby player that just kind of started developing and bringing his best game a little bit later in life than some others do. Some people hit it at 20, 21. Others build the IP and produce their best in their late 20s, early 30s.”

Time’s now up and O’Driscoll is gone. As we said at the top, he’s never been busier as a pundit.

  • Watch Leinster vs Toulouse in the Investec Champions Cup final, exclusively live on TNT Sports 1 and discovery+ from 1:30pm on Saturday. For more info visit tntsports.com
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Comments

4 Comments
b
bob 17 days ago

Dannie Gerber - that name brings back memories. He was the maestro of the mid field.

C
Chris 27 days ago

Most overrated center of all time. Jacques Fourie dominated when he came on. I’ll never forget that try in the corner.

J
J P 27 days ago

It's his first season and we're missing the key cog in it - Ringrose. Way too early to be calling a verdict on it's success

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Flankly 17 hours ago
Resilient Irish will test Springboks despite provincial setbacks

The Bok kryptonite is complacency. How did they lose to Japan in 2015, or to Italy in 2016? There are plenty of less dramatic examples. They often boil down to the Boks dialing back their focus and intensity, presuming they can win with less than 100% commitment. This can be true of most teams, but there is a reason that the Boks are prone to it. It boils down to the Bok game plan being predicated on intensity. The game plan works because of the relentless and suffocating pressure that they apply. They don’t allow the opponent to control the game, and they pounce on any mistake. It works fantastically, but it is extremely demanding on the Bok players to pull it off. And the problem is that it stops working if you execute at anything less than full throttle. Complacency kills the Boks because it can lead to them playing at 97% and getting embarrassed. So the Bulls/Leinster result is dangerous. It’s exactly what is needed to introduce that hint of over-confidence. Rassie needs to remind the team of the RWC pool game, and of the fact that Ireland have won 8 of the 12 games between the teams in the last 20 years. And of course the Leinster result also means that Ireland have a point to prove. Comments like “a club team beating a test team” will be pasted on the changing room walls. They will be out to prove that the result of the RWC game truly reflects the pecking order between the teams. The Boks can win these games, but, as always, they need to avoid the kryptonite.

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