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'We won't fall into same trap again'

THE NERVES. The anticipation. The expectation. And the determination. In the semi-final stage of any competition, it’s as much about the team who can hold their nerves when the pressure mounts who often have the winning of tight games.

On days like these, it is about focus and application. Brian O’Driscoll has been here before. He has shared in the joys and the disappointment in Leinster colours and he carries the kind of experience which others can only dream about.

With the traditional pre-game captain’s run negotiated earlier this morning in the Aviva Stadium, the squad will have dispersed seeking a kind of temporary refuge before the battle begins.

And in reigning champions Toulouse, the Ireland captain maintains, Leinster will face their biggest test of their campaign.

“Toulouse are probably like the Real Madrid or Barcelona of European rugby,” he says.

“They have incredibly talented individuals and a strong team collective and they have the wherewithal to attract some of the biggest names in word rugby.

PEDIGREE

“But like Real and Barça, they also have a really strong pedigree in terms of winning trophies which separates them from most other clubs in Europe.

“They have won the Heineken Cup four times, which tells you all you need to know about them. Year in and year out they seem to always be in the hunt for silverware and they’re a side who always need to be rated.

“We know them well having played Toulouse in a number of group games in recent years, while the memories of last year’s Heineken Cup semi-final defeat don’t go away too easily. “Most good teams have three or four good players. Toulouse are collectively very impressive. It will certainly be a big test for us.”

O’Driscoll believes that the competitive nature of knockout ties generate their own distinct nerves, as opposed to a league encounter where teams can jump back on the figurative horse – so to speak – after a disappointing result and hope to regain the deficit over the course of a series of matches. For a few short hours the other night he escaped the apprehension.

“Although it can be nervous in the build up to big matches, it was great to switch off from the analysis and preparations for a few hours by going to see Peter Kay in the O2 with friends. A couple of hours laughing can work wonders for the mind when you’re looking for an escape!”

Knockout rugby is terminal with the consequences either black or white. It’s an environment, he attests, which can also inspire. “I was actually very nervous before the quarter-final because we came into the game as favourites but I really rate Leicester and we knew how strong they were going to be.

“The quarters is that bit far away from the final and all of the players understand the ramifications of not winning.

FAVOURITE

“We have played in semi-finals when we were favourites, like in 2003, but we have lost and then there was the 2009 semi-final when nobody gave us a shout against Munster and we overcame the odds to win.

“You’re owed nothing just because you’re playing at home and irrespective of who’s the favourite or the underdog, you have to approach the game in a positive frame of mind.

“Right across all of Leinster’s games there this season the atmosphere has been incredible and I hope that the supporters understand their value to the team.

“The flags, colour and the singing really add a lot and what I have noticed about our supporters is that they have always shown their faith in the past when opposition teams have enjoyed a purple patch, which happens in games.

“The Aviva has become a successful venue for Leinster so far this season and the supporters have helped us no end in helping to turn things around in key situations. We are determined to give them something to cheer about on Saturday.”

Twenty years ago, 12-year-old O’Driscoll watched his beloved Manchester United overcome the odds against Barcelona in the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final in Rotterdam. Mark Hughes' brace that rainy evening cemented the high regard which O’Driscoll still holds for him. Though not quite echoing David’s triumph over Goliath, it shook up the football establishment nonetheless.

“They were finishing around 10th or 11th place in the league yet each year my cousins, who lived in Manchester would send me over videos. Not many other clubs produce video compilations when they finish that low down in the league! “But the support was always there and they were still considered a big team. The recent success has been incredible, but it wasn’t always like that.

“I suppose you could say that good things do come to those who wait”, he grinned.

The past is a distant dream, but the Dubliner – now 32 – believes that players can draw on the effects of defeat, such as in last year’s corresponding fixture. Though reluctant to dwell on historical matches which bear scant similarity in terms of personnel in both the coaching and playing ends of things, there are lessons to be learned.

OFFENSIVE

“I’m sure that both teams would like to play a fast, offensive game but a good amount of Saturday’s game will inevitably come down to the conditions.

“There’s always a natural kind of fear factor when you get to the knockout stage of any tournament, but we can see the areas where we fell down last year and try to ensure we don’t fall into that trap again.

“Sometimes when you remember a poor result it can help sharpen your focus. There’s no worse feeling than being involved in a team which doesn’t reach the standards that they set for themselves. “There are no great theories when it comes to rugby. “It’s a pretty simple game when you break it down and you get nothing for free in sport. You have to work hard for everything.

“We will have to be physical from the off. You have to try and use the negative (experience) to fuel the desire.”


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