Stop Brian O'Driscoll and Munster can stop Leinster
If Munster want to walk away from the Aviva Stadium celebrating a victory, they must stop Leinster and Ireland legend Brian O’Driscoll – it’s that simple
THE rugby landscape has changed utterly in the 14 seasons since Brian O'Driscoll first faced Munster on his provincial debut, but one thing has remained constant -- stop O'Driscoll and you can stop Leinster.
The 20-year-old whippet in the loose-fitting blue jersey was identified as the class act on view by the crowd of around 3,000 at Temple Hill for that early August inter-provincial in 1999, despite coming out on the wrong side of the result as the men of Munster beat a callow Leinster side.
Already an Ireland international based on his form for UCD in the AIL, it was the beginning of a journey that has seen the province grow exponentially, partly on the back of the talent and drive of that young man wearing No 13.
Fast-forward to tomorrow night and he will again face the men in red, only this time the attendance will be more than 15 times what it was when he first took them on.
The Blues have never lost a game when their talismanic centre has scored against Munster, but during an otherwise prolific career, the 33-year-old has been held scoreless by his opposite number on 14 occasions in the derby.
The jerseys fit better, the lights are brighter, a large television audience will tune in and he is approaching his mid-30s, but O'Driscoll remains the centre of attention and is likely to have been the focus of much discussion as Rob Penney and Co plotted their route to victory this week.
Munster must decide how they will curb his influence. Will they pick Keith Earls as part of their wide game, despite the fears over the Moyross man's defence or will former All Black Casey Laulala start outside James Downey in what would be a physically imposing partnership?
Whoever is selected, Barry Murphy can empathise with their workload this week. Forced to retire prematurely last year after a string of unfortunate injuries, the UL Bohemian coach started opposite O'Driscoll twice. Indeed, he gets a reminder of the experience every day.
"I still can't close my mouth properly because of him," Murphy laughs. "He broke my jaw during a loop play, he caught my face with his elbow and I never got it fixed."
He played in plenty of big games against top quality opposition during his 73 games for Munster and four for Ireland, but the experience of taking on O'Driscoll and Leinster was different.
"The whole team would go up a notch if you were playing Leinster because of the history and rivalry that is there," Murphy explains. "On a more technical side of things, you would have to go up a bit because 13 is a difficult position to defend, especially when you are up against the best outside centre in the world. But I always felt I went well against him.
"People say Brian may have got a little older and has lost a yard of pace, but I don't know. He is such a wise player, he gets most of his breaks off loose play. He has so much to his game in terms of defence and robbing ball. He has so much experience. He definitely knows how to create space. You saw in the Heineken Cup final, the damage they were able to do."
O'Driscoll's career has scaled such heights that it could never be simply defined by his clashes against Munster, but a glance at the results he has both endured and enjoyed against them can be mapped against Leinster's overall upturn in fortunes against their rivals in red.
After his debut, he had to wait more than two years to face them again. It is easy to forget that the powers-that-be did what they could to keep Munster and Leinster from meeting during the early years of the last decade, especially given the cash-cow they have become in recent years. In 13 years, O'Driscoll has met Munster only 18 times. He has won half of those clashes, drawn one and lost eight. In that time he played with six different partners and lined up against nine different outside centres in red.
Up until 2007, the Ireland captain won just three of his nine games as Leinster struggled to match the intensity of their rivals, whose European exploits became a source for great envy on the east coast.
He went seven games without scoring against Munster before breaking his duck on that watershed night at Lansdowne Road in 2006, when the branch were forced to open the East Stand to accommodate the large walk-up crowd in a 27,000 turnout.
O'Driscoll crossed twice as Leinster won 27-20 to get some redemption after their Heineken Cup humiliation at the same venue the previous April.
The arrival of Michael Cheika and the increased frequency of the meetings as a result of their becoming staples of the Celtic League schedule, have seen him celebrate victory six times in the last nine times he has played Munster.
The most important of those wins was, of course, the Croke Park Heineken Cup semi-final, in which the centre picked off Ronan O'Gara's pass and gleefully raced home to touch down for an intercept try in the closing stages.
He has enjoyed the latter day meetings far more and Murphy recalls an extra level of preparation being needed ahead of his meetings with the three-times Lion. "In my first year playing against him in the RDS, the defence coach we had that year really took a lot of time with me going through what he and Gordon D'Arcy do," he says.
"We went through how effective they are at 10, 12, 13 and getting space out wide. They are always the one team that you really had to focus on that. They do that play where (Jonny) Sexton hits D'Arcy, D'Arcy gives it to O'Driscoll and Sexton is coming around on the wrap-around.
"It is so simple, but they do it so well. Every club team out there, if they are doing that move, call it a 'Leinster' because they do it so well and it is very hard to defend against.
"We put a lot of time into defending that. With their backs, they could rip you apart if you didn't defend them well.
"I always just focused on my job. We beat them once and they beat us once and I had so much respect for him that I never felt I had to go out and prove anything. I just tried to learn off him when I was watching him and when I played against him I was mad to get stuck in and have a crack off him."
Between taking charge of UL Bohs against Cork Con in the AIL Division 1A and gigging with his band Hermitage Green, Murphy won't make it to Lansdowne tomorrow night, but he reckons O'Driscoll and Co will have something different to deal with in Penney and Simon Mannix's expanded style.
"It's exciting," Murphy added. "It is a clear change in the game plan, getting that width on it, getting that structure. It's early days yet and a lot of lads will have to get used to it, but it makes us a lot more dangerous. It is a way I would have loved to play the game -- a bit of free role in an expansive game, stretching teams and looking for mismatches, for quick backs."
It is a new challenge for the old campaigner and, whether he faces an old or a new opponent, it is clear that O'Driscoll's influence or otherwise will be key to how the first big game of the season plays out.
Keeping him quiet is the first step to gaining a first Munster win at the Aviva Stadium.