Fired-up Leinster intent on keeping hold of euro crown
As reigning Heineken Cup champions Leinster count down the days to their crunch pool date with London Irish next week, Brian O'Driscoll this week delivered a stirring reminder to the rest of Europe just how much last season's success meant to him.
"It was pretty special winning the Heineken Cup," O'Driscoll told the English Rugby Writers banquet, after receiving the Pat Marshall Memorial Award. "It was my 10th season of the Heineken Cup but it's your bread and butter.
"These are the guys you train with day in, day out, these are the guys you have the closest friendships with. To finally see all the hard work rewarded with a win is fantastic and they are memories that will stay with you for a long time.
"I think there was definitely an element of relief from Ireland finally winning the Grand Slam and, knowing you'd won silverware, you could play with a more relaxed attitude.
"When we got to the knockout stages, we just gave it a crack. Getting into the semis and that big match against Munster, it would have been a shame not to finish the job having beaten them."
Anyone who witnessed the determination on O'Driscoll's face this week would understand that Michael Cheika's men are not content to wallow in their achievements; desire courses through this squad as they attempt to emulate the great Leicester side (champions in 2000-'01 and 2001-'02) and win back-to-back titles.
And, even though they won the competition last year, despite a faux pas against French opposition which catapulted them into an away quarter-final, their sights will be set on avoiding such a scenic route this time around.
Cheika's men, narrowly top of Pool 6 before the penultimate round of matches, will be intent on stealing a march on their chief rivals, London Irish, who face the Scarlets tomorrow afternoon.
Historically, predicting with any accuracy the quarter-final line-ups is fraught with danger -- even on the eve of the final day's combat -- and Leinster will not allow themselves to be suckered into the imperceptibly emergent theory that two teams will emerge from this pool.
Their focus will be on annexing all the points available today and ensuring they remain primed for a home quarter-final -- a private anguish that they may have missed a five-point opportunity in the reverse fixture will further arm them with motivation.
Leinster's approach will be professional, of that there is no doubt. Whether Brive are as interested is another story (their indifference to team selection may offer a clue). However, although Leinster's slip-up against Castres last December was on French soil, that defeat still retains its unique capacity to send shudders down their collective spine.
"I dunno," said Cheika, when asked if the Brive team-sheet would offer damning evidence of apathy.
"It depends. I don't think that will interest them. Sometimes the performance, even though it won't mean anything to the European campaign, is important to the rest of a season, in terms of confidence in what you can do.
"If we remember back to the Castres match we played down in France last year, they defeated us and it was a bit of a catalyst for their climb up the table when they were running second last.
"They had nothing really to play for in that match in relation to the European Cup either. I think we've been in the business a bit too long to fall into that trap. There is a job there we have to do.
"We've put ourselves in a situation where every match is a cup final by losing the first game. We're still right in the middle of that. Even though we've had a few wins since then, it changes nothing about the fact that we have to win this game."
Brive have undergone a transformation since coughing up a facile win in the reverse fixture, changing their coaches and their whole approach to the game -- a response accompanied by a surge from Top 14 relegation territory to within a sniff of the play-offs.
However, with Riki Flutey, Alexis Palisson, Fabrice Estebanez, Gerhard Vosloo marked absent -- some might say the fact that Andy Goode joining them on the sidelines is a plus point for the French -- and Fijian flyer Viliame Waqaseduadua starting from the bench, this has the hallmarks of a team who will throw in the towel unless they can develop an early momentum.
"The one thing I would say is the team we're playing now is a very different team to the one we played in October," said Cheika. "In their last four games they've beaten Toulouse and Perpignan and they've had an away win in the snow down in Albi.
"They've got a much more engaging philosophy now. They are much more forward-orientated: a lot of aggression and very hard on the ground. The two new coaches down there have obviously put their own stamp on it, because they are much more competitive in the combat area. That's something we are very mindful of."
Cheika's one headache this week was, perhaps, the inevitable requirement to allow Shane Jennings an instant return from suspension ahead of the luckless Sean O'Brien, especially as the Dubliner will need to be at his optimum in the return ground battle with Steffon Armitage next week.
With Jonathan Sexton also in harness, Leinster could struggle to shrug off the cobwebs of inactivity but, at this level, such excuses should be peremptorily dismissed. All the better if that is accompanied by the type of physical intensity Leinster will hope to match against London Irish next week.
Leinster -- R Kearney; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, J Fogarty, S Wright; L Cullen (capt), N Hines; K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements: B Jackman, M Ross, C Van Der Linde, M O'Kelly, S O'Brien, P O'Donohoe, S Berne, G Dempsey.
Brive -- S Spedding; N Jeanjean, J Noon, L Mackay, H Agulla; L Orquera, J Pejoine; P Henn, S Thompson, P Idieder; R Uys, D Browne; A Popham, F Domingo, A Claassen (capt). Replacements: G Ribes, P Toderasc, C Short, S Azoulai, S Perry, V Waqaseduadua, R Bianco, P Barnard.
Ref -- A Small (England).
Leinster v Brive,
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