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O'Driscoll: The real test for South African sides in Europe

By Josh Raisey
(Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images)

Facing Leinster at the RDS Arena in the Heineken Champions Cup is possibly the greatest challenge club rugby has to offer currently anywhere in the world.

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Though the four-time European champions ironically do not actually hold any silverware currently after a 2021/22 campaign where they were runners-up in the Champions Cup and losing semi-finalists in the United Rugby Championship, their unblemished record in the URC this season speaks for itself. But it was their 42-10 win over Racing 92 in France on Saturday, with barely any preparation following delays in travel, that was the most resounding warning signal they could have sent to the rest of the field.

So it is perhaps no surprise that Brian O’Driscoll sees his former side as one of the front runners to be crowned European champions come the end of the season. Speaking to RugbyPass ahead of the second round of European action this weekend, the Ireland great discussed who impressed him most after round one. While noting it is hard to draw any conclusions from one match, certain teams impressed him nevertheless.

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“I think Leinster were the bookies’ favourites in the beginning and had a massive performance against Racing over in Le Havre at the weekend,” the 141-cap legend said.

“Putting 40 points on the finalists three times in the last eight years is good going by any stretch of the imagination. I do think Exeter away [versus Castres] was a great performance, but for me, Toulouse away at Thomond Park and Sale beating Ulster 39-0 was a real statement performance. Sale have got a tough draw, they’ve to go and play Toulouse this weekend, and if they can get something I just feel they look as though they’ve got the best chances of the English teams. Maybe them and Saracens to come in to get into the quarter-finals.

“There’s good competition, the Sharks and the Stormers will be very competitive teams. What can they do this weekend now that they’re away from home? Because that’ll be very interesting to see- it’s one thing playing at home on fast tracks at this time of year but it’s a very different thing to to be coming up and playing European opposition in a different climate. So we’re going to learn a lot about those South African teams in Europe this season and we’ll know more for next year.”

Leinster kick off round two this Friday against Gloucester, who face the daunting trip to Dublin. Though the Cherry and Whites also picked up a bonus point win against Bordeaux-Begles at Kingsholm, they had to rely on a late resurgence to get them over the line. As tough as the task ahead of them seems, O’Driscoll highlighted what a team must do to beat his former side, using La Rochelle’s game plan in the Champions Cup final last season as the blueprint.

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“Shut down Leinster’s space,” O’Driscoll said. “You can’t let them have 60, 65 percent possession because they’re multi-phase. It’s just is so potent that they will cut you apart at some stage. So deny them possession.

“I think the big thing about what we saw with La Rochelle and the final last year was shutting down of Leinster’s space and sometimes by doing that, if you’re playing very aggressively, you’re going make yourself vulnerable at some spot. But you’ve got to back your scramble to be able to deal with whatever- if that opportunity is picked, be it a cross-field kick, if they have a couple of numbers left over, you have to feel as though you’re able to react to it. Whereas if you play passively against Leinster, they’ll cut you apart. So big line speed, bodies on feet and become collision winners and then you’ve got a chance.

“I think it’s going to be one of the more challenging games of the season for Gloucester, Leinster are really on high at the moment- very, very consistent in their performance. So if they get something out of the game, I think they’ll be doing well.”

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Leinster’s victory was that it was done without Ireland captain Johnny Sexton, with Leo Cullen opting to start Ross Byrne with Harry Byrne on the bench. A Sexton-less Leinster is not uncommon in the URC, but the No10 seldom misses big European matches. This comes just a few weeks after the combination of Jack Crowley and Ross Byrne guided Ireland to a win over Australia in the 37-year-old’s absence. Though Ireland and Leinster have coped without their captain on occasion, O’Driscoll said how hard it will be to replace him.

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“He’s a once-in-a-generation type player and you could argue in many generations type player,” he said. “And so I think any team, either Leinster or Ireland, are going be worse off without him.

“Even the players coming through are showing great prospect, but they’re not quite Johnny Sexton and I don’t know if they will ever get to that level. But yet, that’s what happens internationally and and provincially, you’ve got to be able to move on and no player will go, even Johnny won’t go forever.

“In fairness to Ross Byrne, in his last 37 games for Leinster in Europe he’s lost three, so he’s got a pretty good win rate. Leinster are able to manage without Johnny, it’s just in a couple of those bigger games – quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals – it just hasn’t quite happened. That hasn’t been because Johnny Sexton was missing, I think there’s other aspects- you don’t have the same quality of possession to be able to work off, because we’ve seen what Ross Byrne is capable of doing.

“So I think we’ve got to get used to life without Johnny Sexton. But while he’s still here, let’s not rush him away.”

Ross Byrne
Ross Byrne proved an unlikely hero against the Wallabies on Saturday night (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

O’Driscoll also offered a response to those that may not yet have warmed to the idea of South African teams in the Champions Cup, saying their involvement has ultimately improved the standard of the competition, which should be the goal.

“I think the quality rises,” the Irishman said. “We’ve seen in the URC the quality of the the Sharks and the Stormers in particular, but the Bulls are very good at home. The purist will say there’s no Italian team in the Champions Cup, there’s only one Scottish and one Welsh region in there. That’s true, but we’ve also got higher standards and I think ultimately that’s what you’re chasing. So the eventual winners, when they do lift that trophy, they’ll look back and I think ‘wow, that was a good competition. That was worth winning.’ Anytime you’re bringing more teams into a competition, you don’t want to lessen the quality, and I think this format and the inclusion of South African teams does bring higher standards.”

As a result of the Champions Cup now being multi-continental, it also straddles two different seasons, and with that comes new challenges. The URC teams got a taste of those challenges last season, but they await English and French teams this year. O’Driscoll said that the onus is on the Gallagher Premiership and Top 14 teams to adjust to what could be starkly different conditions in the space of two weeks.

“It’s going to be more on the English and French teams to go and play down in warm conditions, very different from what you would normally associate with European rugby- you’re playing on a Saturday night at 8 o’clock in Castres one week and you could be playing at 3 o’clock in Durban the following week at 85, 90 percent humidity,” he said.

“So things are very, very different from a playing point of view, but then likewise the South Africans have to deal with that. The Sharks got a good win against Quins at the weekend, but they have to come back up to Europe this week and play Bordeaux- maybe not quite like going to Glasgow or Belfast but still have to go to different conditions.

“It does have a different feel to Europe as a result of that, usually you have to wait until April to get those those lovely conditions – fast, free flowing rugby – and it’s sometimes a bit more of an arm wrestle in Europe in the early parts. But that’s what’s going to make it all the more worthwhile because you had to play lots of different ways from a European point of view, which I think will add value to the overall competition in the long term.”

BT Sport is the Home of the Heineken Champions Cup. Tune in Friday 16th December for Leinster v Gloucester at 7:15pm exclusively live on BT Sport 1 bt.com/sport/rugby-union

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