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Leinster focus on putting province before country

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Leinster coach Matt O'Connor and captain Jamie Heaslip

Leinster coach Matt O'Connor and captain Jamie Heaslip

SPORTSFILE

Leinster coach Matt O'Connor and captain Jamie Heaslip

Matt O'Connor could be forgiven for taking a sharp intake of breath.

Once more, he is being asked to assess a seismic European task for his province within the context of a national question which, at its most deeply fundamental level, has pretty much little relevance this week.

To say he is slightly tired of the persistent patriotic diversions from his parochial concerns would not be a wild exaggeration; rather a shortcut to his deepest feelings on the matter.

For O'Connor, it has become a running joke at this stage, an out-of-season pantomime jibe whereby he is asked about the consequences of his decisions for Ireland when all he is worried about are the consequences for Leinster.

In good time, these aims may coalesce. In good time, though.

For now, O'Connor continues to fly the flag for Leinster; nobody else.

Disarmingly

"I didn't know we were," he smiles disarmingly, when asked what it felt like to be the last man carrying the flag for Ireland in the Champions Cup.

Carrying the blue flag of Leinster has proved a significant burden itself, at times, during some fiendishly awkward periods this season.

Ironically, most of those have coincided with the unavailability of many of those self-same Irish players.

Their absence, and Leinster's inability to deal with them, increased the pressure on the coach but he refutes any suggestion of personal conceit.

"We are only interested in our environment, we are only interested in the immediate focus, which is Saturday against Wasps, making sure we show up and put out a quality performance," he adds.

"We have worked incredibly hard to put ourselves in this position. It's not about personal objectives or anything else. It is about the team delivering a performance.

"If we can do that, and we have fought very hard to do it, we give ourselves the ability to control what happens to us, which is important."

Even when someone suggests how incorporating Irish players may fit into his game-plan - later we alight on the thorny subject of Mike Ross - O'Connor narrows the focus, as he must.

"The first part of planning to beat someone is to find out who's available and then you put it together around the opposition plans and what weaknesses you think you can expose," he says, deftly avoiding understandable exasperation.

"And then you take it from there. It's always about the individual skill-sets and what they can bring to the occasion."

After the turkey shoot against headless poultry last week, Leinster may seek to make a similar statement from the off in Coventry, albeit O'Connor concedes little.

"There's no game inside the game," O'Connor says epigrammatically.

"It's all about winning and making sure we're in front after 80 minutes. That's the only thing that we focus on, to do whatever it takes to make sure we're in front at the end of it.

"The intensity of what we delivered last week was important. We certainly went out to put as much pressure on them, to make it as high-tempo as possible and to keep the ball in play as often as we could.

"We need to nullify their back-row and make sure they don't create space for their half-backs and their outside backs to hurt us.

"If we can manage those opportunities and keep space to a minimum we will give ourselves every chance.

"It's about having the same intent that we showed last week, and that's what we've been seeking all season.

"There's a bit of merit in that moving forward for us because that's probably one of our strengths.

"If there are opportunities to do that with momentum, we will try to exert that pressure as well."

The value of having as near to full-strength a squad as can be possible in modern-day rugby is inestimable; there were times earlier in the season, when over 20 bodies were missing, when Leinster simply couldn't attempt to mimic what they wanted to do on match-day.

Like actors in rehearsal without a prepared script, it was little wonder they fluffed their lines during those difficult times.

"The ripple effect of 20 blokes injured, most of them long-term, in relation to the bodies you have at your disposal, and the ability to train at a high level, then put out a team with a game plan capable of playing good teams, it all changes. . ." says O'Connor.

Repay

"That was the reality of it. Those are the facts. The guys who played in Europe against Wasps and Castres earlier on in the competition put us in this position. We need to repay that and deliver on our end."

As he speaks these words, his captain, Jamie Heaslip, is nodding furiously; he knows that a quarter-final - wherever it may be - will feature even more returnees, Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien.

The prize is almost tangible; as it stands, Heaslip admits he cares not a whit for how he may feel when he meets up with Ireland. Tomorrow is all that counts.

"I was talking to one of the physios on the sideline today and I was like 'These are the games you play for'," he relates. "This is what European rugby is about. It's winner takes all.

"If you had said to us 'would we like this position when the groups were named?' I would have said yeah.

"We have paid them the respect that they are due. Then we have focused on us. Hopefully we'll get the outcome we deserve."

Irish Independent