O’Brien: We won’t fall into Exeter trap again
Complacency almost cost Blues when sides last met and flanker insists it will not be repeated
Published 17/01/2013 | 05:00
It is only a few years ago since a handful of Exeter Chiefs supporters would have to collect the dog dirt from the pitch before kick-off at their Spartan home ground in Solihull.
In two days' time, however, the club are seeking to frank their remarkable rise by dumping the back-to-back Heineken Cup champions out of the competition at the heaving cauldron that is Sandy Park.
"It is going to be some atmosphere, the place will be packed because people want to see their team beat the European champions," warned former Irish international Ian Whitten, who left Ulster to join the Chiefs at the start of the season.
From pooper scoopers to party poopers, should Exeter confirm the dethroning of Europe's top dogs, few will ever take Rob Baxter's side lightly again.
Certainly not Sean O'Brien, Leinster's rampaging back-row, who admitted to a sense of complacency when the previously unheralded Devon outfit pitched up in the RDS in October to begin the process of puncturing the champions' hat-trick title tilt.
"Well, we can take it that they're a very physical bunch of lads," he sighed ruefully, recalling the grim 9-6 opening-day victory, which would have resulted in Saturday's clash being a dead rubber for both sides had Ignacio Mieres slotted a late penalty.
Although Joe Schmidt had done his utmost to forearm his side against complacency, Leinster failed to heed the warning and they almost paid the price for failing to acknowledge the physical strengths of their proud opponents.
"To be honest, going into that game we didn't think they were like that, but we were soon woken up very quickly," admitted O'Brien.
"Their work rate is outstanding and I think that that's what they pride themselves on. They're a very fit team, they have very strong set-pieces.
"They are just very good and they're very dangerous. We know all that about them now and we know how they can play when they have the ball.
"Their strength lay in the very agile back-row, first and foremost, with all three of them very smart. So, we're going to have to keep an eye on them.
"They caused us a bit of hassle that day in the ruck and in their counter-rucking. Causing a nuisance really, so we have to tighten up that area and, hopefully, it won't be a problem."
Schmidt, whose praise for the opposition was central to his regular exhortation to the Leinster supporters club yesterday, will reiterate the point when he meets the media later today.
"I have been genuinely impressed, but not at all surprised, by Exeter's fine form thus far," said the coach, who may follow two Heineken Cup final wins as a coach with a premature pool exit.
"They are a close-knit, physical and talented group, who are well coached and I know that they will continue to be competitive, both in the Premiership as well as in the Heineken Cup.
"To defeat them in Sandy Park will be a major challenge, but I know that the squad are determined to do so and finish the pool stages off on a high."
Awaiting them will be a side brimming with regret after another heavy defeat to Clermont last weekend – Leinster are arguably the only side outside of France who could have managed to eke out two losing bonus points against Les Jaunards.
And crucially, Exeter's final Heineken Cup game precedes a fortnight of LV Cup action when they will finally get some opportunity to rest their leading players, before launching a final Premiership assault to ensure they re-qualify for world rugby's greatest club competition.
"It is a going to be a huge occasion for us," said Munster man Tom Hayes, club captain and brother of erstwhile Irish prop.
"They have won the Heineken Cup for the last two seasons and they are not in as strong a position in the group as I think they would have liked to have been.
"They have obviously got a lot of quality about them, so they are not going to come to Sandy Park just to make up the numbers.
"They are going to be scrapping for what they can and it is up to us to stand up to that really and try and end our European season on a high.
"As an Irishman, there is maybe a little bit of added spice to the fixture for me, but it is all about the club and the squad really and we want to try and get as much out of the game as we possibly can."
The influential Hayes is one of the key men Leinster must seek to derail, particularly as the Irish province's aim will be to physically overpower them from the off, disrupting their set-piece so that they can get their tight game well-oiled.
"For a second-row he's very mobile," asserted an admiring O'Brien, who saw enough from the RDS stand last October to appreciate that Exeter's forward game must be dismantled before Leinster can contemplate winning, never mind accumulating bonus points.
"He gets around the place, he's a good organiser, he's calm as well. That shone through the last day when they were under pressure. You could see him talking away to them, keeping things cool. So, he's another man we'll have to be aware of."
O'Brien's message applies to the entire Exeter team – Leinster won't get fooled again.