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'It was a No1 bucket list experience - mind-blowing and insane'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Juan Gasparin/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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Ask Brian O’Driscoll for a bit of positivity and the legendary Lions, Ireland and Leinster midfielder nails the request with aplomb, deliciously telling RugbyPass about how last week he ticked off the number one on his bucket list. A golf aficionado since his youth, the 43-year-old finally got to play at Augusta. His golf might have been a bit patchy – that’s the cost the pandemic can have on your swing – but he couldn’t pack in enough holes over the course of his two days marvelling at the venue that this week hosts the Masters.   

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“I got to play Augusta last Wednesday and Thursday. It was a phenomenal experience. I got to play 69 holes in 48 hours, played the par three, played the front nine four times, played the back nine three times, got a tour of the place – the whole thing was mind-blowing,” he enthused like a kid on Christmas morning. 

A pity then about his own golf. “Patchy, some good moments, some good stuff, some pretty lousy stuff. I would have liked to have played a little bit better than I did but listen, I hadn’t played a huge amount of golf in the lead-up to it. But it was everything I thought it was going to be and probably more. No, definitely more!

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“It was a bucket list experience, No1 on the bucket list. Cool. I would have liked to have shot better golf but the history of the place and walking around Amen Corner, walking up 13 and playing twelve, it was just… I can’t wait to watch it this weekend and think about it because I played off the back tees as well, played 27 holes off the back tees and it was insane. The difference is just so huge.

“I played with two members and a friend of one of the members. That was the deal the week before the tournament that they could only bring one person, so I somehow managed to sneak in on their ticket and played with John Carr, who is one of two Irish members, and John Key, the ex-New Zealand prime minister, who is a member about three or four years now. They were great company.”

Away from that jolt of golfing positivity, O’Driscoll will be keeping some excellent rugby company across the next two weekends with BT Sport all over the new two-legged round of 16 format for the Heineken Champions Cup. He will be in Galway this Friday night, Connacht versus Leinster kicking off his activity, before a Saturday afternoon in the studio in London follows for Toulouse against Ulster. Then it is another dose of Connacht-Leinster over the Easter weekend, this time in Dublin, followed by Exeter’s visit to Munster. He can’t wait. 

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“They love to put an old Leinster voice on the Leinster games would you believe,” he quipped. “It suits me, down the road and I only have to travel to the UK once in the next two weeks although I love an old Sunday studio. I love to round up the weekend, get a couple of games on a Sunday and then do that highlights show because European rugby is great.”

O’Driscoll is intrigued by the upcoming head-to-heads that will be decided on aggregate scores across 160 minutes. It’s a fresh home-and-away concept and while there might be some anxiety that a couple of games could become a one-sided mismatch, he is expecting some royal entertainment to unfold now that European rugby is back centre stage over five of the next eight weekends.

It was March 26 when Leinster walloped Connacht 45-8 in Galway in the URC and it is the all-Irish  European clash that some fans fear might be a non-event. “That’s the only fixture that you might have any nervousness around,” reckoned O’Driscoll when asked if some games might not deliver the desired evenly fought contests. “I fancy Connacht to deliver a better performance than they did a couple of weeks ago.

“Over two legs, the scoreline might be a bit bigger than you would hope for but I can’t see that in any of the other fixtures. Stade-Racing maybe, but Stade at home are difficult to beat and then all the others, they will all be relatively close games over two legs so that is what makes it very exciting. 

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“I am looking forward to this new feature in the tournament. We have looked on admiringly and lovingly at the Champions League (football) for a number of years so to get a version of that ourselves will throw up different types of games in that some teams will feel they are out of it and then ultimately play with this huge freedom that will bring them back into the second leg. Some teams will get tight because they will probably be trying to sit on a lead built up in the first game which is not the way to go about trying to win a two-legged affair, so I am interested to see the mentality of certain teams depending on what comes of the first leg.”

He reels off his list of round of 16 winners with the sort of pace that had him nicknamed ‘Waltzing O’Driscoll’ when he led the Wallabies that merry dance at The Gabba with the Lions 21 years ago. “Leinster, La Rochelle, Sale, Toulouse, Racing, Munster, Quins, Leicester,” he said, a prediction that would generate a quarter-final list of Racing-Sale, Harlequins-La Rochelle, Munster-Toulouse and Leicester-Leinster. 

Who is lifting the trophy from there in the Marseille final on May 28? “I’m going to say Leinster. On the basis of what we have seen so far, you are looking at Leinster, Toulouse, Leicester standing above everybody else, with maybe La Rochelle and Quins and Racing just the tier below,” he reckoned, putting his neck on the line.

A winner of three Heineken Cups with Leinster as a player, O’Driscoll had plenty to say about his alma mater and its trophy-winning credentials. He loves what they have done with their front row, getting Andrew Porter to seamlessly shift across the propping roles, but retains a nagging doubt over the height of their second row when the going gets tough against more physical opposition. 

“Leicester in Welford Road is what you are looking at,” he said about the huge last-eight assignment potentially awaiting Leinster on the first weekend of May should his round of 16 predictions unfold as expected. “It will be a tough assignment to go over there, it’s a different Leicester team we are dealing with now, so it would feel as if it would be a pretty close run thing between those two sides with both teams playing well. 

“But with the way Leinster are playing at the moment it doesn’t feel as important as in years gone by as to where the game is on – provided they can get a platform they have struggled with in the past. The important thing there is they need Porter back, Porter more than anyone else. (Ronan) Kelleher obviously to then have Dan Sheehan to come on (off the bench) but Porter, Dan Sheehan and Tadhg Furlong will be very important.

“And then they need to get either Ryan Baird or James Ryan back in the second row. Ross Molony has gone very well, Dev (Toner) does a job for Leinster still but when it gets to the quarter-final knockout stage against Leicester you have got to have your meat in your pack and they might look a little light there at the moment.”

It was last year’s semi-final loss at La Rochelle, following on from back-to-back defeats in the 2019 final and the 2020 quarter-final to Saracens, that has left the jury out on Leinster, whose most recent European title came in 2018. What did O’Driscoll make of that setback in France eleven months ago? “You have to remember that Leinster got the better of La Rochelle in the first ten or 15 minutes and powered their way.

“You can over scrutinise what it was. Sometimes a team just then changes the momentum in their favour and they [La Rochelle] did manage to out-power them but it doesn’t mean that Leinster if they were able to do it for ten or 15 minutes, they should have been able to do it for longer than that. It just didn’t go for them and the momentum that switched in La Rochelle’s favour, they just used that to their benefit.

“They were a hard press defence, maybe the lack of cohesion at half-back, so there were a few different factors, not just the power game upfront. But I do feel as though Leinster in the second row, James Ryan is not the biggest guy in the world, Ryan Baird is not the biggest guy in the world, so until they manage to go and win that next Champions Cup there will be continued questions marks in the more physical games as to whether Leinster are going to be able to match it with the more physical teams.”

Elsewhere, O’Driscoll went on to explain why he is such a fan of loosehead Porter, who quit shadowing Furlong at tighthead to become a more regular club and country starter this term. “He has been class, has been absolutely class. His work rate, his energy, his overall game, ball handling, he scrums well.

“He has been a real find moving him across and it’s a really smart decision be it from him or Andy Farrell, whoever was the catalyst for it. It was brave but it was very, very clever because it’s a bit of getting your best players on the park and he has played there previously, moved across to tight and is now gone back again.

“Particularly with Cian (Healy) in the winter of his career and likewise Dave Kilcoyne, to have a guy like him coming on who at 26 has lots of good years ahead of him but doing the job that he has done, that has been one of the real positive finds and part of the reason why Ireland and Leinster have gone so well, particularly in the last year, is that front row. We knew we had Tadhg Furlong but the emergence of Kelleher and the changeover of Porter has been really significant.”

Leinster head into European action in a far more positive frame of mind than Munster as they comfortably won last weekend’s latest URC derby between the teams. It’s become a regular occurrence and the mood in Limerick hasn’t been helped by the confirmation that tighthead John Ryan will quit at the end of the season for a switch to Wasps. His departure is another indication of the different roads these provinces are currently travelling.   

“It becomes a very individual thing, the players have to weigh up the best opportunity for themselves be it from a monetary point of view, a life experience point of view, whether they are in their international fold or not,” explained O’Driscoll. “John Ryan has decided that the package at Wasps looks more attractive to his future in the next two or three years. 

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“You have got to look at everything on a case by case basis but it’s more challenging to leave a winning environment and Munster haven’t been winning silverware whereas Leinster have continuously over the last decade. Almost year-on-year they are competing in finals, semi-finals and winning silverware and if you have felt that and tasted that it’s very hard to leave that environment, particularly if you feel as though you are learning as a player from the coaching ticket every single day.

“Everything is working well in Leinster’s favour, Munster just need to try and get into a cycle of that and the development off some of those talented young players coming through, it’s not like there isn’t the potential to come through – it just hasn’t quite happened at the speed of Leinster.”

A prime reason why Leinster accelerated so far ahead in the last decade has been the presence of Mick Dawson as their chief executive. He will call it quits as CEO at the end of this season following 20 or so years at the helm. O’Driscoll laughed when RugbyPass asked him if he would like to put his golf outings on hold and be the next man up to take charge of the province.

What he did admit, though, was there should be plenty of takers for the role given the related Leinster success following an initial period of trial and numerous errors. “The CEO of any environment is the heartbeat of how you move the team forward, less so on the field but off it and that is as important these days around future-proofing the financial side of things and making the most out of the success that a team has had,” said the ex-midfielder who is now eight years retired from playing.

“Credit to Mick, over the last 20 years he has seen significant change. Mick helped Leinster but Leinster very much helped Mick as well. It wasn’t without pitfalls along the way and errors and mistakes, we all make them as players and as staff, there was definitely some early year sloppy mistakes and we were lucky we were able to survive and carry forward.

“If you don’t learn from your mistakes you don’t stay in a gig for that long, aren’t as successful as Mick has subsequently been with the Leinster teams he has been involved with. It will be difficult to replace anyone who has had that success but I’m sure there will be someone who will come and show the credentials needed to pick up where Mick has left it off.”

  • BT Sport is the home of the European Rugby Champions Cup. The 2021/22 season continues with a weekend full of games, including Connacht vs Leinster live on BT Sport 1 at 7.15pm on Friday, April 8. Find out more information on how to watch at BT Sport bt.com/sport

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