Brian O’Driscoll can’t wait for his hibernation to end. With the way the behind closed doors season has gone, the legendary Ireland midfielder has been left kicking his heels as the Irish expert in the gang of pundits assiduously covering rugby for BT Sport. 

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It hasn’t been easy to work around the juiced-up Irish travel restrictions in these pandemic times, especially with the 42-year-old becoming a third-time dad just after Christmas. With spring definitely in the air, though, O’Driscoll is finally on the move again. 

Nine hours he got out of his house in Dublin last Saturday, scooting down to Limerick and back to take in the Thomond Park thriller that was Munster versus Toulouse in the Heineken Champions Cup round of 16. “We were treated to a great game. It was just so exciting, it has a bit of everything,” he enthused over Zoom to RugbyPass while sitting in a spare room surrounded by a variety of knick-knacks.

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Chris Robshaw joins Jamie Roberts on the latest RugbyPass Offload

Now, though, comes an even longer adventure. “I have to make my maiden voyage of 2021 over to the UK, so I’m doing Challenge Cup and two Champions Cup Saturday, Sunday,” O’Driscoll continued, relieved that he can continue to dust off the winter cobwebs and get travelling again.  

The rugby landscape he is returning to is one pockmarked in recent months by a deluge of red cards and it’s the topic he raises when quizzed on what he feels has been the most negative thing about rugby in the past while. “We’re seeing many teams being mismatched between 15 and 14 and we have to suffer this initial pain to get to where we want to go, but it is not easy seeing teams reduced by a number or two when they are in the ascendancy and the game flips on its head. 

“That is a frustration for everyone but it is a means to an end of protecting and fashioning the game for the next generation at a grassroots level and changing habits and behaviours. I understand it but it doesn’t mean that you don’t get frustrated when someone is removed for what might be a couple of years ago have been perceived as just a penalty or accidental. All of a sudden it is a red card and you are suspended for three to six weeks, but it’s the times that we live in and it is ultimately a good thing – but it doesn’t mean you can’t get frustrated about it.”

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If O’Driscoll sounds like he has it in for referees, he doesn’t. Last Friday night’s BT Sport viewing while sat on the couch in Dublin provided evidence of that and he now revisits what unfolded when Gloucester’s George Barton came under the microscope for his unfortunate collision with La Rochelle’s Dillyn Leyds.

“At times it feels like some referees are using real common sense. Andrew Brace did a really brilliant job at that on Friday with the young 10, and it was interesting listening to Ugo Monye saying that he could have been sold a red card or a penalty.

“In the end, it was ‘play on’ because the player slipped right down into the collision. There was nothing wrong with the body position of the defender. It was just his head came right down into him and when you’re committed to a tackle and someone reduces their body height like that, there is no getting out of it.

“It was refreshing to see a referee still use common sense in that regard. Sometimes in other circumstances, we are going to the TMO an awful lot to try and find some form of foul play. If it is not clear and obvious, let’s get on with the game. You are going to be frustrated with different circumstances. People will talk about Bundee Aki and Billy Vunipola (in the Ireland-England match) – I personally thought it was a red card on the letter of the law in this day and age. I don’t think it was as upsetting as some of the ones you might have seen over the last year or two.”

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The downside of all this current pain, though, is that it is rare you will see a team that is reduced to 14 men early on in a match hold on for the win. There were exceptions regarding red cards issues in the final quarter of games – Ireland already had England beaten when Aki was sent to the line, while the wind was irrefutably in the Scottish sails when Finn Russell was discarded in Paris and nothing was going to deny them eventually getting the score to clinch that particular win.

For the most part, however, playing a man down to a red card rather than being ten minutes short due to a yellow is a hardship that is so difficult to overcome. “There is an expectation on everyone to raise their game a little bit and that is why teams survive when they are reduced to 14 because everyone picks up the slack,” reckoned O’Driscoll.

“If you have seven or eight guys pick up the slack and the others don’t it’s not enough and also then you need the opposition to get a little complacent or not to be properly hitting their straps. It needs a lot of different aspects and the stars to align for you to be competitive.

“Such is the magnitude of 14 versus 15, eventually it becomes tiring and it’s small things like making decisions to get up off the ground a second earlier than you might have to get into the defensive line and to push someone out a yard further to cover the extremities because it’s where you get stretched.

“It’s not on the first five or six phases, it’s on 13, 14 when bodies are tired and you are a number down and you get mismatches. That is where it really shows. There is no hard, fast way to go about trying to make up for a loss in number, I just think everybody needs to up their game a little.”

The curiosity about our discussion over 14 players versus 15 is that O’Driscoll recently tweeted about a famous red card match that is now over 20 years old. Leinster were getting roughed up by Munster in the inaugural Celtic League final played in December 2000. However, instead of being disadvantaged, momentum disbelievingly shifted their way at the old Lansdowne Road after their back row Eric Miller was sent off for giving the late Anthony Foley a shunt in the privates.

How the heck did Leinster go on to win despite being a man down? “We just clicked. We got into our groove. We were behind, we were struggling up to the point of losing Eric Miller in that game and they [Munster] were in the ascendency. Then all of a sudden, we played into a breeze in the second half and had to keep it in hand and that was our game.

“We knew we had threatening backs and if we could get any platform we could cause trouble out wide, which we managed to do, and we just shocked them. It was really the kind of the building of the battles between Munster and Leinster, that was the start of it, and they have gone through peaks and troughs over the last 20 years, some more heightened than others, but it’s such a great rivalry between the two teams.”

What O’Driscoll tweeted about Leinster winning that trophy was intriguing. “Worst thing that could have happened us, I reckon. We won it on pure ability, not an understanding of all the components it takes to win consistently. Set us back years, I’d suggest. Decent night, however, if memory serves me correctly including a vanishing cup.”

Tell us more… about the ‘set us back years’, not the missing cup that got handed into a police station some days later. “We were still very amateur in our thinking,” he explained. “It’s difficult and it’s not pointing fingers but some of the guys we played with during that period had worked and been amateurs and all of a sudden it’s very hard to change overnight and so maybe the behaviours weren’t quite where they needed to be from a professionalism point of view.

“We won the game on rugby ability rather than understanding all the different aspects it takes to be consistent winners – like the sacrifice, the extra training, all the extras on your day off, looking after diet, looking after your alcohol intake, all of these aspects. That win came to us a bit too easy and we thought, ‘Oh, we can continue carrying on as we are and you can’t because everyone else is improving and if you don’t improve with them then the talent alone isn’t going to win it for you and it did set us back.”

Twenty years later, Leinster are unrecognisable, a magnetic trophy-collecting machine with a rich conveyor belt of academy talent that is the envy of many. Fresh from hoisting aloft their fourth successive PRO14 title, the big question heading into this weekend is whether they can now dethrone reigning Champions Cup champions Exeter in a blockbuster quarter-final pairing that is the prime reason why O’Driscoll is taking to the skies this weekend and working for BT Sport.

“It’s very hard to pick an outright winner. I thought Munster were going to get it done a couple of weeks ago in the PRO14 final) because they really needed to but then you look at the way this Leinster team is drilled and how they create chances…

“They just have a very low error count, good discipline, great scramble defence, all the attributes which make it very difficult to beat them. But then you look at the firepower of what Exeter have, they match the bludgeon upfront with some key international players and a couple of big South Africans in their back row, great club players along with the ball-playing capabilities of (Ollie) Devoto and Henry Slade and the X-factor of Stuart Hogg and their wingers.

“They have got a lovely combination of being able to play with a huge amount of variety to their game. It will be close but I don’t know – the fact that I bet against Leinster a couple of weeks ago and they produced that performance (against Munster), I just can’t do it two times on the bounce.”

It was October 2012 when the name of Exeter first innocently crossed paths with O’Driscoll, the then unfashionable Chiefs, who had only been promoted to the Premiership for the first time two years earlier, drawn in the same European pool with Leinster, the then two-in-a-row European champions. He never imagined the English club going on to enjoy the glorious period they are now savouring, yet he admired the tenacity they showed back in those early days.

“The game in the RDS, you could tell that they had something, they had some bottle. We had just won the European Cup, we had them in our pool, unknown team, first game in the RDS and we thought this could be a five-pointer and we scrapped it by three points (9-6).

“You could just tell they had a fight in them before they even had anything like the players they have now. There was a uniqueness and it grabbed our attention. They were tough to beat and they were tough also to beat over at Sandy Park, we just managed to get it done.

“You didn’t expect them to get to here [becoming reigning European champions] but I can understand now looking back why they have because they built on that foundation with a great coaching ticket and they have plugged in some real X-factor.

“The quality of the Scottish internationals, the development of some of their academy players coming through that are now regular English players, and then there are guys that aren’t like the Simmonds brothers who are brilliant club players and can’t quite make that step for some reason or other into the international fray but yet are producing it week on week.

“It’s just a lovely balance to what you need to defend a crown. They are a no-frills team but they score some great tries, which is a nice way to kind of look at any side. You don’t have to always grind out every single score, you can score some flamboyant tries because of the quality of the individual players that you have so it means you can score from set-piece, from turnover, from a kick return. That is what you need and that is what Leinster have also managed to do. That is why these two teams are really evenly matched.”

  • BT Sport is the home of the Heineken Champions Cup with every single match live. Watch all the action from the quarter-finals – including Exeter Chiefs v Leinster – next Saturday and Sunday, April 10 and 11, on BT Sport 2

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