Sunday 25 August 2019

Brian O'Driscoll: Michael Cheika cut out the 'cancer' to change mentality at Leinster

Brian O’Driscoll with then Leinster coach Michael Cheika at training in 2008. Photo: Sportsfile
Brian O’Driscoll with then Leinster coach Michael Cheika at training in 2008. Photo: Sportsfile

Gavin Mairs

Leinster's evolution from glamorous underachievers to serial winners has had several significant staging posts, but for Brian O'Driscoll the journey began with a Heineken Cup semi-final defeat by Munster.

It was April 2006 and the Reds were in their pomp, advancing on their own emotional march to the first of two European titles.

O'Driscoll's Leinster side were crushed 30-6 at Lansdowne Road, but the former Ireland and Lions captain remembers it as a watershed.

For the first half of the 2000s, O'Driscoll had been the poster boy for a Leinster side who had flattered to deceive.

Yet when Michael Cheika was signed as the province's head coach from Randwick in 2005, in what Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson later described as a "calculated punt", O'Driscoll says the foundations for today's success were laid.

Leinster would score 32 tries in their previous seven Heineken Cup games before their defeat by Munster, including a famous win over Toulouse in the quarter-finals, but the pain of their exit was at least countered by the sense that Leinster finally knew what it took to win.

"The semi-final in 2006 was big for us," says O'Driscoll.

"We weren't as nearly as talented a Leinster team as previous years, but yet we managed to get there and it gave us hope.

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"We undoubtedly had the talent in the early 2000s and just didn't understand the work-ethic side of things, the sacrifice part. And then it was the flip of that in 2006.

"We weren't as talented, but we worked hard and Michael Cheika was absolutely enormous to the shaping of the province.

"He was the one who brought in the change in mentality and cut out the cancer."

What does he mean by cancer?

"There were individuals that just were on easy-street and just happy to be professional rugby players, rather than professional players who wanted to win," he says.

"The senior players rule the roost and I don't want to talk negatively about them because there were some great players, but I don't think we had the mentality of that team that came through from 2006 through to now.

"When you come into an environment it takes a while for you to shape yourself, too, and understand what real professionalism is. The penny dropped against Munster."

If Joe Schmidt raised the bar again with Leinster, O'Driscoll believes current head coach Leo Cullen also must take credit for transforming the current group of players who have the potential to dominate European rugby.

Despite a tough first season in charge in 2015, Cullen revealed a visionary four-year blueprint for success to O'Driscoll. Leinster are now in touching distance of making history by becoming the first side to win five Champions Cup titles if they can defeat Saracens in the final in Newcastle on Saturday.

"Leo took some flak during that year, but he rode out the storm and selected wisely with Stuart (Lancaster) coming in," O'Driscoll adds.

"I met Leo before the start of his second year and he had a very clear vision of how he wanted to play and we are seeing that now.

"I thought to myself, 'This is a ballsy call', considering the year he had and because Leinster had gone back a step or two in the two previous years.

"It was three years ago and just the start of the '15-man game'. The All Blacks were playing it, but no one else really was. Leo wanted to do it.

"It was about everyone being a ball-player and no numbers on backs after first phase.

"It was about everyone being comfortable in their role and a possession-based game and only kicking on their own terms."

O'Driscoll is equally admiring of Saracens, and believes the two will be fearsome rivals in battle for European supremacy.

"I hope the final lives up to its potential because they are far and away the two best teams in Europe, consistently for the last five years.

"Who knows where this group of Leinster players can go? There are no limitations. You feel as though this group will be in the mix for the next couple of years. The same as Saracens." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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