Brian O’Driscoll on punditry and why he doesn't miss playing rugby
'It's impossible to compete without deep pockets'
As someone who won the European Cup three times in four years during a golden period for Irish club rugby, naturally it pains Brian O'Driscoll that not one of Ireland's four provinces made it through to this year's quarter-finals, which take place this weekend. But it is more than just sadness.
"It's a worry," O'Driscoll says of the make-up of the final eight, which features five English and three French teams.
"I just think: 'How can you compete with the quality of the squads that are now being built in England and France?' The depth of player, the loaded benches that are being used by the Sarries, by the Toulons… even when they're not functioning brilliantly they're still winning.
"You talk about a 23-man game and it absolutely is in terms of starters and finishers. But now it is actually about having a 35-40-man squad. And I mean of real quality - not just delving into your academy when you've an injury crisis. And the only way you can do that is by having deep pockets."
O'Driscoll fears it is not an issue that is going to go away in a hurry. The manner in which Leinster were thrashed home and away by Wasps earlier this season was, he says, unpleasant to watch.
As for Munster: "They simply haven't been able to survive a really huge turnover of very, very high quality players.
And that, coupled with not getting the same calibre of overseas players as they have in the past … plus, of course, there's the new format which means more competitive teams, harder to get out of your pool…
"But, then, that makes it all the more worth winning."
O'Driscoll knows all about that, of course. After 16 years, four Celtic league titles, three Heineken Cup triumphs, one Challenge Cup, not to mention 133 Tests and 46 tries for his country, Ireland's warrior prince finally hung up his boots in 2014.
He says he has not missed it for a second, possessing no hankering to return to the dressing room.
"I really enjoy doing this because my mood isn't affected by the outcome of the weekend," he explains of his role as a BT pundit. "As a coach it would be."
Surely, though, that is exactly what such a famously competitive individual misses?
The adrenalin, the smell of deep heat, the banter, the highs and lows of winning and losing?
"I had 15 years of it, you know. So I'm all right," he shrugs, sipping a Nespresso in a green room at BT Sport studios in Stratford having jetted in for some broadcast training.
"I get my thrills differently. I have a young family and I have other interests as well.
"I don't think if I did get into coaching it would be like for like; the playing high v the coaching high. I don't know for sure, but I don't anticipate it would be. Because the coaches haven't gone out there and done it. They weren't out there on the pitch with you."
Time will tell whether he is tempted back. What is clear is that O'Driscoll is still patently obsessed by the game.
He has a view on everything - from the recent Six Nations ("It wasn't one for the history books - there is still a big skill differential between the big Rugby Championship teams and the northern hemisphere"), to who he would play in the Lions midfield if the first Test was tomorrow ("Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Davies… I will get absolutely lambasted in Wales for not picking Roberts but I think you have to have Manu in there and I don't think you play him and Jamie together"), to who he would have coaching the Lions in New Zealand next year.
For the record, and after a bit of prodding, he plumps for the man who controversially dropped him for the third Test in Australia three years ago.
"You have to think it's between Gats (Warren Gatland) and Joe Schmidt. I think having been under Gats in 2013 - and he was a coach in 2009 as well - his style is probably something that lends itself to the short lead-in time."
Most of all, he says, he just enjoys watching rugby "with a fresh pair of eyes".
Whereas as a player he would have "very specific videos" cut so that he knew what his opponents would be doing, now it is all about the bigger picture - systems and structures.
"Any time a try is scored there is a reason for it," he says. "We have to go back and find that mismatch - Stuart Hogg identifying the two front-rowers in the middle of the park, someone holding a jersey, a decoy runner … that is what the viewer wants you to identify."
And despite the absence of Irish teams, O'Driscoll cannot deny that he is looking forward to the weekend, from Exeter giving it a blast up at the Ricoh Arena, which he rates as the tie of the round, to Dan Carter "pulling the strings" for Racing Metro, whom he fancies to beat holders Toulon.
"It's the same old Dan Carter," he enthuses of his old adversary.
"Everyone always talks a bit about him having had an 'armchair ride in an All Black jersey'. And he did get good service. But he is not working any quicker in a Racing jersey.
"It is still that kind of semi-laboured technique in passing and having a quick look and seeing if there's a break, and there's not, and just nudging the corner. But he still has the time."
So, who is he backing to go all the way?
"I think you never want one team to dominate," he replies after careful consideration.
"I didn't want Toulon to win three in a row because we (Leinster) won three in four years ourselves and then they came along and won three in a row and eclipsed it. You want other teams to emerge.
"You'd love to see Exeter get through to a semi-final, particularly the way they got through… I think it's a toss-up between Saracens and Racing."
(© Daily Telegraph, London)